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My grandmother loved to reminisce about her life in Palakkad, Kerala. She would talk about many local characters: some bums, some quirky and a few fascinating outliers. When we moved to Coimbatore, we got to meet one such outlier, Mani Kuttan. He was dressed “tip- top and clean-cut,” as she would describe it. A high school dropout, he had managed to find work in faraway Calcutta, and from there moved on to Burma. The rumor was that he had married a Burmese woman and had a family there. He would come down South to spend time with his aging mother. On his way home, he would stop at our place with a small tin of Burmese tea. I distinctly remember the Burma that he would describe with so much love, saying “the sizzling, hot Burmese road-side food will make you forget that you are a vegetarian!” This is an ode to Mani Kuttan, who had introduced Burma to me.

Burma has been the favorite of many a poet. As Kipling says in “Mandalay:”

“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”

No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

There is a lot of poetry in Burmese cuisine, as we are discovering right here in SoCal, through restaurants such as Daw Yee Myanmar Cafe and Yoma Myanmar. The cuisine is a distinct blend of its neighbors, from Indian (lentils and spices) to Thai (chilies, lime and peanuts), Chinese (noodles and soy) and Bangladeshi (seafood). It has the subtlety of Chinese, the spiciness of Thai, and the depth of Indian spices. Yet Burmese food has a distinct and unique flavor that is all its own.

The rich fertile land has enabled the abundant supply of  fruits, vegetables and crops throughout the year. Rice is the main staple and constitutes 70% of the meal. A Burmese meal starts with a spicy soup, opening one’s palate to the complex flavors of dishes to follow. Then an array of fresh salads (thoke) with fresh, raw, fermented, crunchy, and crispy textures add as accompaniments. The main dishes are fish, meat and vegetables simmered in curries. The rice in the center is surrounded by all the dishes. People sit on the floor and eat with their right hand. The desserts resemble many familiar Indian desserts like jamuns, sweet parathas, halwa and more. Here are some famous Burmese dishes for you to try at hom.

Praba Iyer is a Chef Instructor who teaches team- building through cooking classes and custom cooking classes in the bay area. She is a consulting Chef at Kitchit ( You can reach her at

Sizzling Spicy Samosa Soup

This is a great soup to make with leftover samosas and falafels.  I used black and white chole (garbanzo beans) instead of falafels in this recipe.

1 cup toor dal (split pigeon peas)
(cooked in 4 cups of water)
½ cup cooked black garbanzo beans
½ cup cooked white garbanzo beans
1 tablespoon ghee
3 large shallots chopped fine
1 tablespoon ginger/garlic paste
1 vine ripe tomato chopped fine
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
1½  teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon coriander powder
1 tablespoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate
1 cup Napa cabbage torn into pieces
6 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 cup sprouts
½ cup scallions chopped

Salt to taste
¼ cup cilantro chopped
5-6 mint leaves chopped
Squeeze of lime at the table
6-8 hot samosas
6-8 falafels (optional)
Heat ghee in a saucepan and add the shallots and saute for a few minutes until slightly brown,
Now add the ginger garlic paste, tomato, turmeric, cayenne, black pepper, coriander and cumin powders and mix well for a minute. Add the napa cabbage and tamarind concentrate and mix well. Season with salt. Now add the cooked toor dal with water, cooked black and white garbanzo beans along with the vegetable broth. Let it simmer on medium heat till all the flavors are mixed. Now add the garam masala, sprouts and scallions. Check seasonings and adjust. Place the hot samosa into each soup bowl. Cut it in the center to open and then pour the hot soup on top. Then garnish it with cilantro, mint and squeeze of lime if needed.

Fermented Tea Leaf Salad (Lahpet Thoke)

This is a show stopper salad. It takes a little time and four meticulous steps, but guaranteed to win you accolades. I used a combination of all unused tea leaves like jasmine, green, white, oolong to make the salad.

Step 1: Preparing the Tea Leaves
1 cup tea leaves
Steep the tea in hot water for 15 minutes, strain and repeat the process a few times. This removes the bitterness of the tea. Now steep it in cold water overnight. Drain and squeeze out the liquid next morning.

Step 2: Fermenting Tea Leaves
1 cup kale leaves
3 cloves of garlic
1 inch piece fresh ginger
½ cup cilantro
3 scallions
2-3 green chilies
salt to taste
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon salt

Place all the above ingredients in a food processor and chop it up into tiny pieces along with the tea leaves. Place this mixture  in a glass bowl. Cover it tightly and place it in a dark place for two days. Remove and place it in the refrigerator. The fermented tea is ready to be served.

Step 3: Garnishes
2 cups shredded napa cabbage
½ cup roasted green peas, coarsely chopped
½ cup roasted pumpkin seeds, coarsely chopped
½ cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seed
1 Tablespoon garlic chopped and fried in oil (save the oil a handful cherry tomatoes halved
Lime slices

Step 4 : Assemble and Serve
Place the shredded Napa cabbage in a large bowl Assemble all the garnishes in small bowls around this large bowl. Tightly pack a greased bowl with the fermented tea leaves. Flip the tea leaves on to the center of the shredded Napa cabbage.

When ready to serve, add all the garnishes green peas, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, sesame seeds, fried garlic with oil and cherry tomatoes and to the big bowl and mix the tea leaf salad. Squeeze a little lime and serve.

This was first published in April of 2015.