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Shan Recipes Introduction


By Sao Tern Moeng


There is a saying in Burma: The same kind of dish that is cooked by the house down the road and a house up the road do not taste the same. Evidently, the cuisine of different cultural backgrounds would be very diversified where there are so many different kinds of ethnic groups of people, and Burma is a very good example of that.

The Shan do not use very much oil in their cooking, nor do they use nam paa or fish sauce, which the Burmese called ngan pya yay, like the Burmese do. Two kinds of soy sauces are widely used by the Shan: the thin variety called kya chin, and the thick variety called kya nyo. These names derived from the Dai people, the Chinese Shan of Yunan in China. In the eastern Shan State, as in the Kengtung area, soy sauce is known as nam zang.

Shan people consume more vegetables than the ethnic Burmese people, either cooked or raw. Almost every house in the Shan States has a vegetable garden, and in addition to that any leaves from trees and plants that are edible are also found on Shan dining tables at meal time. However, it is a different story with fish. Since there are not many big streams and rivers in the Shan State, fish is not as plentiful as it is in the Burmese regions where there are big, wide rivers and coastal areas that boast of many varieties of fish. The fish that are available in the Shan State are fresh water fish and are very tasty. Shrimps and crabs, called called pu naa or paddy crabs, are very rare, and are usually found in streams and rice fields when they are inundated during rice planting season. They are very small and hardly have any meat. A fish dish is a rare treat for the Shan, especially for those who do not live near big streams and rivers. Shan seldom cook their fish like they do with meat dishes. Fish is usually mixed with condiments and is wrapped in banana leaves and baked above or in hot coals.

Meat dishes are mainly chicken, pork and beef. Occasionally, water buffalo meat is available in Shan markets, which also is the source of nang pong or buffalo rind. Pork rind is also available, but mostly in the southern and eastern Shan States. Rinds are eaten with certain dishes and soups. Make sure that the rinds are of original flavor because they also come with other flavors.

Shan markets are called kaat that take place every five days in each big town and village which enable the sellers to go and sell their wares from place to place. Duck is not sold in the market, but maybe bought privately from someone who raises ducks. Venison, pheasant and other source of food from wild life are often gotten from hunters, which are a form of livelihood for some of them, or a person will go and hunt for these games themselves. For some Shan, to name a few, the eggs of a certain kind of ant called mot som or sour ant, because of their sour taste, crickets, edible cicadas, frogs, larvae of wasps and certain insects, and the embryo of the scarab beetles, called ii kook, are rare delicacies and they are available only by seasons.

The most indispensable ingredient in Shan cooking is hto nao or dried fermented soybean, which are usually available in thin wafers, called hto nao hkep. Hto nao is used as a seasoning and flavor enhancement in almost all Shan soups and several dishes, but it reigns supreme on a Shan dining table when it is prepared as a spicy hot relish called nam hpit, composing of a mixture of tomato, chili pepper, onion, garlic, coriander, spring onion, and a few spoonfuls of pulverized hto nao. These ingredients are pounded and concocted together into a semi-paste and is eaten with several kinds of raw vegetables that surrounds the bowl of this condiment, served in a big platter. This relish is part of the main course of almost every Shan meal. The best hto nao comes from the Shan State, and they are very well preserved when stored airtight in a refrigerator.

If hto nao is not available, the best substitute would be to use the Chinese preserved light-brown soybean pickle that comes in a glass or plastic jar, or Korean pickled soybeans that often come in a wrapped package. They contained no spices or other condiment (such as oil, chili or garlic) except for the preserving liquid. They can be mixed with a little water and mashed into a liquid paste before using them.

Another flavoring agent, or herb, is hio hka or ho hka, known as ‘galanga.’ It belongs to the ginger family and also looks something like a gingerroot. It is available in most Chinese and Southeast Asian groceries and comes in plastic bags, usually frozen. Hio hka is used in certain soups. It gives a unique smell and gives a little bitterish taste to soups. This is optional, and if it is not available it may be omitted from the recipe because it will not spoil the taste, except for its aroma . Hkaa hom, or lemon grass, is also used in Shan cooking in certain soups.

The use of MSG (mono-sodium glutamate) is up to the person who is cooking. There are some people who are against using it and there are some who cannot do without it. Therefore, in all fairness, if MSG must be used, Ajinomoto brand is the best and safest of its kind, for it is extracted from vegetables. If it must be used, use just a pinch for each recipe and a little more for a larger servings or large quantity of cooking, especially in soups and noodle dishes that has a lot of liquid. To enhance the flavor of food, soup bullions, either chicken, beef or vegetable, may be used. However, try and get the ones that have as little spice and seasoning in them as much as possible. Although it may not be authentic Shan, the use of oyster sauce is recommended, but it is optional. It brings out the flavor of food, especially vegetables that have been in the groceries for some length of time. Oyster sauce is available in Asian groceries.

Banana leaves are used for wrapping food that is to be baked or steamed. Frozen banana leaves are often sold in Asian groceries. However, aluminum foil may be used if banana leaves are not available.

The Shan recipes are given with only the ingredients that would be easily available. It is intended for anyone living far away from the Shan State and who wishes to cook Shan food and needs recipes. Hence, some ingredients given may not be conventional and authentic Shan, such as substituting Chinese pickled soybeans for hto nao. However, this is the best improvisation, and it is likely to be available in Asian groceries in most parts of the world. Oyster sauce helps give flavor to vegetables that have been sitting in groceries for a long length of time and have lost their freshness and sweetness. Broth and soup bullions save time from having to make good stock and broth by boiling meat and bones for many hours. Hence, a blender substitutes for the wooden mortar and pestle that are commonly used by the Shan, a stovetop would be used in place of an iron tripod over burning firewood logs, and an oven in place of live coals and ember. The recipes given in this article are for the food cooked and consumed by the Shan mostly in the central Shan State. Certain food and ingredients used in cooking in the Northern Shan State are somewhat different from those that are used in the Southern and Eastern Shan State, and the same kind of food, vegetables, and fruits may also have different names.

The quantity of each recipe is adequate for servings about 4 to 6 persons. However, if more servings are required, one only has to increase the amount of all ingredients by equal ratios, but only note that it will take a little longer time to cook.

Measures of ingredients are conveniently given in pieces, sizes, cups, teaspoons and tablespoons, so that one will not have to use scales or measures which may not be readily available. Measure of salt given in the recipes is up to the taste of the person who is cooking. More or less salt may be used as preferred. Less salt is also called for when using pickled soybeans.

Always remember to cook some rice that is to be served with meat or fish dishes that are almost and always accompanied by a vegetable dish and soup, including the inevitable chili hot relish of hto nao and vegetable side.

Only a few recipes for soup are given, because the vegetables used for Shan soups are not available in many parts of the world. Noodle dishes can be eaten between meals as snacks or it may be served as a full meal course, especially when entertaining a lot of people to a light but substantial meal.

I hope you will find these recipes useful, and that they will be helpful to you in preparing some authentic Shan dishes.


Mai Soong Kha!- Progress and Prosperity to You!

Kin Waan Waan Kha! - Good Appetite! (Please enjoy your food!)

Sao Tern Moeng