Making Mohinga: A Staple of Burmese Culture
Updated: Oct 18
A reflection on food and its ability to bridge the divides across religious and cultural traditions.
The role of food in culture and religion is certainly an interesting relationship to explore. As the world becomes more globalized, it is easier than ever to access cuisines from different cultures. What many people don’t consider, however, is how food serves as a crucial tether to people’s cultural heritage. Cooking a dish integral to another’s culture is even more poignant. When given the chance to create traditional Burmese Mohinga with my friends, I allowed myself to be open to the transfer and translation of differing cultural norms and beliefs. Mohinga is a fish and noodle soup and is considered one of the national dishes of Burma by its people. The dish is characterized by its hot rice noodles paired with a fish-based broth. As it is poured into bowls, it can be topped with cilantro, pieces of hard-boiled egg, and chili powder. In my experience, it was the first time I have ever cooked with ingredients like lemongrass and ginger, so I was incredibly grateful for the guidance of the more skilled cooks in my friend group. They knew well enough to monitor me closely around sharp objects.
Making this meal and sharing it with all of my friends reminded me of Alex Wagner’s recollections from her book, Futureface, in which she dissects her past and heritage originating, in part, from Myanmar. After this meal, I decided to reread the common reading book that I nonchalantly perused my first semester at Elon. Food serves as a connection point for Wagner between her American culture with “soggy grilled cheese sandwiches and limp tater tots” during lunch as compared to “small aluminum containers of piping hot vindaloos and dals” (77 Futureface). Wagner even mentions the importance of good mohinga when she visits the home of the American ambassador to Myanmar (Burma) and his wife who are working to improve international relations between the U.S. and Myanmar.
The most prevalent thing that I’ve learned from this experience is that food is a source of comfort, self-expression, and a harborer of tradition among cultures from all over the globe. When immigrants bring food and recipes to new places, it is a method of preserving their culture and their faith wherever they happen to go. Food serves as a connection point across differences, which make the novelty of a Jew, a catholic, a non-denominational Christian, and an atheist a little less jarring. In continuing to make traditional food of any culture, people are opening themselves up to develop a better understanding of each other and what their background is. Additionally, new variations of culturally significant dishes can happen when the cook takes into account the range of distinct tastes and flavor preferences that people in different places might have. Overall, it is a way to share one’s culture with another without losing the cultural integrity of the dish.
This experience has shown me a piece of Myanmar’s (Burma) unique history passed down through generations, the lifestyles of people living there today, and the values, beliefs, or religion of the people. Food and cooking are among the easiest ways to increase a person’s appreciation and understanding of different cultures and acceptance of differences. This is why I am so happy I decided to both share a meal with the people I care most about and revisit a novel that I didn’t fully appreciate the first time around.
Myanmar (Burmese) Mohinga
Burmese Fish Vermicelli Soup
Recipe Source: Notes from A Messy Kitchen
12 oz tilapia
1 medium yellow onion
8 cups of water
3 cloves of garlic
1 2 oz piece ginger (unpeeled), thickly sliced crosswise into slabs
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
6 Tbsp fish sauce
2 stalks lemongrass
2 tsp (1 packet) dashi powder
6 Tbsp rice flour
1 package rice vermicelli
2 large eggs
1 small bunch of cilantro
Cut out the bottom 2-inch of your lemongrass stalks, and slice the cut stems as thin as possible. Pound the rest of the lemongrass stalks vigorously and cut them into about 3-inch lengths. We will use the slivered lemongrass rings for sautéing and the larger pieces in the stock.
Make the stock by bringing 8 cups water to a boil and adding dashi powder, ginger, and 1 Tbsp fish sauce. Drop-in your pounded lemongrass stalks and fish fillet. Simmer for about 10 minutes until the fish is thoroughly cooked.
a. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add chopped onions, garlic, and slivered lemongrass. Turn down the heat to medium-low, add in turmeric, paprika, 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, and a dash of salt. Cook under medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
b. Once the fish is cooked, remove from the stock and gently flake into pieces. Add the fish pieces into the sauté pan. Sauté the fish together with the onions for about 10 minutes, stirring to ensure it doesn't burn.
c. Drop in the fish mixture into the stockpot and bring the stock to a boil. Put in 4 more tablespoons of fish sauce. Add in rice flour while stirring. Bring it to a boil, and let the stock simmer for about 15 minutes or until the broth has drastically thickened.
a. Split vermicelli into four bowls. Top with fish broth. Garnish each with 1/2 boiled egg, cilantro, and green onions.