Saturday, 21 June 2014

A Tale of Mohinga

“A dish which is much loved by the Burmese not only at breakfast time but at any time of the day is mohinga. This is a peppery fish broth, which some have eulogistically termed Burmese bouillabaisse, eaten with rice vermicelli. A steaming bowl of mohinga adorned with vegetable fritters, slices of fish cake and hard-boiled eggs and enhanced with the flavour of chopped coriander leaves, morsels of crispy fried garlic, fish sauce, a squeeze of lime and chilies is a wonderful way of stoking up for the day ahead.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters From Burma

“This fish broth is fragrant with lemongrass and pepper, and Myanmar people can hardly go a week without it—I know I can’t.” Ma Thenegi, Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy


If Myanmar has a national dish, it is certainly mohinga soup. It is eaten as a meal or snack, ordered at a restaurant or market stall, served at a home or monastery. Garnishes commonly added to the soup include boiled egg, gourd fritters, fried peas, shredded garlic, roasted chili powder, shredded leeks, coriander leaves, turmeric, lemon grass, lime, and banana plant. As Ba Than writes in Myanmar Attractions and Delights, “each region, each town, even each reputable shop has its own secret recipe to make it distinct and attractive.” Coastal regions tend to have more fish while the Mandalay area appreciates more of a thick broth with a dahl taste. The Dawei have a local leaf called lankaung that they place in it and the Rakhines like it so spicy there is even a proverb given to the dish, ah pu shar pu, meaning “hot palate, hot tongue concoction.” It is most often cooked in aluminum or steel so that it can be served while still piping hot. Myaungmya style is with fish caviar from the nga tha lout fish. But overall, Yangon is considered to make the best in the country.

Unfortunately for the many vegetarian foreign yogis, mohinga is almost always prepared with a fish broth. Thankfully, there are exceptions that substitute bean powder. Some monasteries will prepare a vegetarian version if they know many foreign yogis are staying, and there are various stalls throughout the country that also make a non-fish version. One of the most locally famous mohinga restaurants in Yangon also has a vegetarian option (which will be included in the upcoming Shwe Lan Ga Lay meditator's guide). On the other hand, when enjoying mohinga, non-vegetarians are wise to heed the Burmese proverb Nga thain mya hin hon, which can be translated as “Too much fish makes the broth unsavory.” This Buddhist-inspired saying points to the notion that having too much of sensual pleasures leads to excess glut.

Similar to mohinga is ohno khaukswe, often called Coconut Noodles. It is easier to find vegetarian versions of this, although it can be oilier than mohinga. A fun fact is that ohno khaukswe doesn’t actually use coconut water as many people think, but rather the milky liquid squeezed from fresh coconut meat until it is entirely dry. Some make it with evaporated milk, as it affects cholesterol levels less than coconut milk. Generally speaking, the lowland southern regions use more coconut milk in their dishes than elsewhere in the country.

One type of noodles used in mohinga that has been popular since 1970 is shwe taung khauk swe, named after its town Shwetaung just south of Pyay on the Ayeyarwaddy. It is an egg noodle dish in a small quantity of clear broth, with a dash of coconut cream and spices. The original shop that made these noodles received a loyal customer in the form of the nation’s president, who arranged for Myanmar’s stall to serve it at an Osaka Trade Fair in Japan.