Food stalls in Yangon offer a profusion of fresh and deep-fried snacks. Photo: iStock
Every January, an abandoned gymnasium in Kankurgachi, Kolkata, comes alive with a gathering of some 200 Bengalis. Doctors, retired public servants, professors and businessmen congregate to celebrate their shared history of a foreign country that generations in their families had considered home: Myanmar—or Burma as most still call it. Over typical Burmese dishes like mohinga, ong no khow suey and laphet thoke, slipping effortlessly between Bengali and Burmese, they recall people, places and flavours of the “land of golden pagodas”. Their host is Monotosh Chowdhury, whose family had a flourishing hardware business in Myanmar up to the 1960s. This annual gathering is his initiative: a way of staying connected to a homeland no longer theirs.
Although Kolkata’s cosmopolitan table has been extensively chronicled, one strand remains overlooked: the story of thousands of Bengali families who went to Myanmar during colonial times, starting from the end of the 19th century, and settled there for two or three generations.
Many went as part of the government service—as doctors, professors, officials in the post and telegraph department and railways—while others established lucrative businesses there. This community of migrant Bengalis flourished, maintaining their social and cultural identity in their new homeland without difficulty. Cooking Bengali food was easy: the mighty Irrawaddy river and its tributaries were teeming with their favourite fish—hilsa, carp and catfish. And like Bengal, Myanmar is also largely a rice-eating country.
But gradually, the distinctive cooking styles of their surroundings started nudging their way into homes. The families became familiar with the basics of the Myanmar pantry—shallot oil and fried shallots, dried red chillies, fried garlic and onion, turmeric, roasted chickpea flour, powdered dried shrimp, fermented shrimp paste (ngapi), fish sauce and chopped roasted peanuts. They appreciated how vegetables used in chorchori and ghonto could be turned into spectacular thokes (salads) with a light mixing of those pantry staples, lemon juice and verdant herbs. They learnt the secrets of slow cooking hilsa so that the bones would melt away but the fish remain firm; succumbed to the pleasures of several noodle (khow suey) preparations and developed a taste for umami-laden balachaung, a spicy shrimp condiment.
Japanese Occupation in the early 1940s and, later, imposition of military rule in the early 1960s compelled most Bengali immigrants to relocate to Kolkata. These families carried back with them memories of homes built and lives imprinted with the flavours and textures of local foods—a culinary identity evolved over generations.
Tea snacks at a stall. Photo: iStock
Ranjit Dutta, a retired executive, lived in Myanmar till he was 17 years old. His paternal grandfather migrated from Chittagong (then part of undivided Bengal) at the start of the 20th century, to join the administration wing of the police. Ranjit’s father became a surgeon and entered the country’s health services, travelling all over Burma, often with family in tow. Burmese dishes soon started creating a space for themselves in the Dutta kitchen where, as boys, Ranjit and his brother Tarit would often help their mother. They learnt to cook dishes first sampled seated on plastic stools at roadside stalls or at friends’ homes. Preparations like the iconic breakfast food mohinga, a delicate catfish broth, fragrant with a complex symphony of spices, redolent with ngapi, the outer leaves of the banana stalk adding crunchy healthfulness and eaten with rice noodles and toppings like bottle-gourd fritters, deep-fried fish cake and condiments, became a regular affair. As did the laphet thoke, a salad of fermented tea leaves, dried seeds and beans, chilli, fried garlic and onion, crushed peanuts, tomato wedges and shrimp powder, and the soupy noodle broth, ong no khow suey.
When they relocated to Kolkata in 1966, the brothers did not lose this culinary heritage and kept those flavours alive in their own households. In their circle, Ranjit’s ong no khow suey and home-made balachaung are hot favourites, while his brother’s laphet thoke and noodle thoke are much-awaited treats.
My childhood friend Ayesha Mallik comes from a home rich in textured history, where culinary and cultural traditions have been passed down and preserved. She has a strong Myanmar connection and through her I have come to understand that when generations of a family have lived in a certain geography, the landscape becomes part of their DNA, getting passed down to those who may never have visited that region. Ayesha’s mother, Supriya Mallik, has never been to Myanmar, but three generations of her family considered the country home and she grew up listening to stories about the family house in Insein, just north of Yangon (built by her grandfather who went to Myanmar as a government doctor), hearing the language, and learning to eat and cook the Burmese way.
On special occasions, she invites us for Burmese classics like mohinga and panthey khow suey—where coconut milk is replaced with a slow-cooked flavoursome stock—and hinjo, a refreshing broth with water spinach and a punch of sourness.
But even everyday Bengali fare at the Mallik home is permeated with Burmese accents, making any meal we eat there unique. A standard shutki chingri chorchori features the familiar combination of dried shrimp with vegetables like eggplant, pumpkin, potatoes and okra but is redolent of garlic and a refreshing tartness that tones down the spices and beautifully counterpoints the pungency of the dried shutki. The distinctive sour hit is from chukor, a berry that grows in profusion in Myanmar; and which Supriya substitutes with tamarind when it’s not available.
‘Mohinga’ with accompaniments. Photo: Getty Images
Dinner is often a delicious one-pot meal combining fish or meat with vegetables, another echo of the Burmese kitchen, a favourite being chicken and okra cooked with quantities of pounded garlic and chilli, a splash of vinegar lending edginess. The humble salad is brightened up with the infusion of crunch and tartness from roasted chickpea powder, crushed peanuts, a sprinkling of sheem (broad beans) seeds, fistfuls of cilantro, mint and garden lime.
At the centre of the beautiful old dining table where we sit down to eat, there are jars of pickles, typical to a Bengali home. But here the array includes precious treats of balachaung, ngapi and a bottle of red tomato and garlic condiment shot through with pounded dried shrimp.
“My family moved to India in the early 1940s, and I was born some years later. But the Burmese approach to food was ingrained in us,” explains Supriya.
As I dip into a jar guaranteed to deliver an umami punch, Supriya recalls childhood days when balachaung would arrive regularly at their Kolkata home, sent by family members who continued to live in and around Yangon. She remembers the excitement accompanying the arrival and unpacking of the five-tiered lacquer tiffin carrier, each over-sized compartment brimful with balachaung, and one packed tight with fried roe of the Irrawady hilsa. Today, family and friends (including a Burmese monk who makes regular pilgrimages to the famous Mahabodhi monastery in north Kolkata) travelling between the two countries keep her store cupboard stocked with ingredients.
Burmese food has undoubtedly carved its own niche on Kolkata’s table but being confined to private residences, this remarkable cuisine and its strong ties to the city remained largely unknown. However, one woman has made it her mission to uncover the secrets of the Burmese kitchen for all: Chanda Dutt organizes regular pop-ups where she helps diners navigate a small but well-curated menu.
‘Khow suey’ at Burma Burma restaurant. Photo: Instagram@burmaburmaindia
You couldn’t find a more qualified guide for a Burmese culinary journey. A third-generation Bengali Burmese, Dutt lived in Myanmar till 1977, when she was in her teens. Her paternal grandfather went to Myanmar in the 1920s with a job in the post and telegraph department and settled in Taungyee, in Shan State. His sons took up professions in Myanmar (her father joined the treasury, two uncles became doctors, one a professor). Her maternal grandfather was with the railways in Myanmar.
Dutt’s mother, an adventurous cook, mastered the finer points of Burmese cuisine from locals, adding to her extensive Bengali ranna. In particular, the family became familiar with the local practice of chargrilling vegetables, fish and meat over open fires. When they moved to Kolkata, Burmese dishes continued to be part of their regular fare, and Dutt carried over this tradition to her own household after marriage. Family and friends loved the food, encouraging her to organize pop-ups.
Dutt’s wide repertoire includes the more well-known coconut milk-based noodles, ong no khow suey, as also the less familiar si chet khow suey—garlic-fried noodles eaten with a choice of pork, chicken or vegetables. Her mohinga is deeply satisfying with its layers of flavours and slippery rice noodles. The popular Burmese deep-fried snacks eaten with spicy sauces appear in starters like shrimp cakes (pazun gyaw), and gourd fritters (boo thi gyaw). Diners get to sample various thokes, the stand-out one for me being hto boo thoke, a salad using Shan tofu made of chickpea flour—not soy-based, delicate in texture, requiring considerable skill and time to prepare—that Dutt makes herself. In the thoke, the tofu is combined with dried seeds, fried garlic, peanuts and lightly brushed with sweet-chilli oil. Diners get a taste of Myanmar’s chicken and pork curries fragrant with garlic, shallots, onions and turmeric. And of course, one is expected to take dollops of balachaung and ngapi. A typical Shan dessert of red sticky rice and palm jaggery, khao pyin, provides a sweet (if slightly heavy) ending.
Dutt maintains robust ties with family and friends in Myanmar, travelling there frequently. And thanks to her initiative, Kolkata is rediscovering an important chapter in the city’s culinary chronicles.