The cuisine of one of Cayman’s smallest communities was enjoyed recently at Icoa when the restaurant held a Burmese dinner as part of its Colonial Dinner Series. Cayman residents from Burma (officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) number just nine, with seven (including a baby) living in Grand Cayman and two in Cayman Brac. Almost the entire Grand Cayman contingent turned out to enjoy Icoa’s interpretation of their cuisine, which included celebrated national dishes unique to this Southeast Asian state 9,576 miles from the Cayman Islands.
While Cayman’s Burmese population doesn’t even reach double digits, Burma itself is the world’s 24th most populous country, with more than 60 million people. It covers 261,227 square miles and is the world’s 40th largest country in land area and the second largest in Southeast Asia, bordered by Laos, Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India. One third of Burma’s total perimeter of 1,200 miles forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, a fact that heavily influences its cuisine, along with Burma’s three rivers, the Irrawaddy, Salween (Thanlwin) and the Sittaung.
After conquering Burma in the 19th century, the British declared it a colony and made it part of India until 1937, and then a separately administered colony. Burma became an independent state in 1948, initially as a democratic nation and then, following a coup in 1962, a military dictatorship which ended in 2011. Its cuisine is therefore a fascinating reflection of so many historical, cultural and geographical influences.
Shruty Garrison, owner and manager at Icoa, says the restaurant wanted to introduce an exciting concept for Cayman diners that would really have an impact in a bid to announce Icoa’s opening for dinner later this year, hence the idea for the Colonial Dinner series. The series has been such a success, Garrison says, that seats have often sold out almost as soon as they have been advertised, such is the appetite for this new concept of dining. Colonial cuisines under the spotlight have included those from Vietnam and Cambodia as well as Burma.
Understanding the cuisines, which are often an exciting blend of influences, takes a good deal of effort, she says.
“Icoa’s Chef Jurgen undertakes a tremendous amount of research to try and bring authenticity to the menu,” she says, adding that, quite apart from attempting authenticity in the actual cuisine, the style of presentation is also very important to the dinner.
Tradition of sharing
Dr. Kyaw Zaw Win, a Bumese national living in Cayman, is among those who attended Icoa’s Burmese dinner. He gives some background to traditional Burmese cuisine.
“In Western countries you are generally served food in separate courses, but in Burma we have all dishes served at the table at the same time and everyone helps themselves. There is usually a main dish of curry, served with a dish of rice and a couple of side dishes as well, which may include fried vegetables or a salad (thoke) or a sauce in which you can dip vegetables,” he explains.
True to form, Icoa’s dinner presented a mouth-watering array of small plates along with a selection of condiments that diners could enjoy simultaneously, in true Southeast Asian style.
Fish is a staple
Win explains some of the finer details of Burmese cuisine:
“In Burma we enjoy a lot of salt water and fresh water fish. We also use a great deal of fish sauce and shrimp paste (nga pi) in our cooking and these are made all along the coastline, varying from region to region in color and flavor,” he says. “Burma is made up of seven regions and seven states, each with a unique culinary identity.”
Win says Burmese people generally start their day with a national favorite dish, Mohinga, a combination of noodles and soup made from fish, a variety of which was served at the Icoa dinner.
“Mohinga varies depending on the region. For example, in the southwest of the country it’s a little sweeter. It’s often topped with fried beans, onion or gourd (bu thee gyaw) as well as chopped boiled egg, cilantro and it’s sometimes spicy with chilli powder,” he says.
At dinner, Burmese people traditionally serve one main dish, typically a curry, true to the influence from its neighbor India.
“This may be made from fish or poultry or sometimes pork, beef or mutton,” Win says. “We would begin the curry by frying off onions and garlic in oil in a wok until they release their fragrance, then we would typically add the meat or fish and seasonings such as paprika and cayenne pepper. We would then add the shrimp or fish paste to add a salty piquancy to the dish. We would also serve a large portion of rice with the main dish. Rice is a staple food in Burma and we love to pour the gravy from the main dish over the rice.”
In fact, Burma was once Asia’s largest exporter of rice, and it remains the country’s most crucial agricultural commodity.
Burmese cuisine traditionally includes stir fried vegetables on the side. The vegetables may consist of Burmese watercress called kazun ywek, which grows in abundance in the country, and a salad called thoke, which usually includes noodles or vermicelli mixed with fish sauce, fried onions and cilantro. Icoa served three salads for the dinner: a thayet chin thoke, which consisted of pickled mango, chili, peanut, sesame and scallions; a thinn raw thee thoke (green papaya salad) and ame-thar thoke (steak salad).
Burmese also enjoy some fish broth (ngapi yay) as a side dish in which fresh vegetables such as Asian eggplant, green mango or pickled vegetables can be dipped.
“While I would say the Burmese diet is quite healthy, we also love our salt!” Win says.
Tea (lahpet) also plays an important role in Burmese cuisine. It is cultivated mainly in the hilly state of Shan. The leaves can be brewed as in the West and made into a drink with milk and sweetened with sugar, or it can be drunk bitter and black, as in China. Burma is one of the few countries in the world where tea is also eaten, the leaves pickled and enjoyed after a meal, especially by Burmese elders.
“These can be mixed with fried beans and garlic and mixed with tomatoes and cabbage,” Win advises.
Icoa opted for a dessert that would perhaps appeal more to the Western palate, offering sanwin makin (semolina cake with a coconut cream) and dein gyin (homemade yogurt with jaggery syrup and mangoes).
Win concluded that the Icoa evening was enjoyable and produced food that was as near to Burmese cuisine that could be found outside Burma.
mohinga = rice noodle and fish soup
bu thee gyaw = gourd
nga = fish
nga tha lout = salt water fish, like herring
nga pi = fish/shrimp paste
thoke = salad
kazun ywek = Burmese watercress
ngapi yay = fish broth
lahpet = tea