Burma Calling: What in Gourd's Name is That?!

Burma Calling: What in Gourd's Name is That?!

There’s no Waitrose in Burma. Or Tesco, or Sainsbury’s, or Co-Op, or Asda. There is something called CityMart, where people fight over the 3 packets of salt and vinegar crisps, but very limited cold storage means the fresh food is far from fresh. The Wet Market is therefore your best bet. Peak shopping time is dawn. Take your least special shoes, a nose clip (fermented food v. popular) and your elbows: it’s hectic.

And when you get there, it’s not a case of a pound of potatoes please. It’s a whole new edible world.

Here’s our pick of the most peculiar produce:

Bitter Gourd

It’s a Snozcumber, surely? Roald Dahl must have been to Southeast Asia. The ugliest vegetable that ever there was. And it has obviously snubbed the rest of the veggie community to have been named the BITTER GOURD; the grumbling great-uncle of the Cucurbits who hasn’t cracked a smile since 1945.  Despite appearances, it’s very popular in Burma, is widely available, voraciously consumed, and believed to be very good for digestion, high blood pressure, cholesterol and kidney stones. It also works wonders on your skin. A secret super food.

Serving Suggestion: slice like a cucumber, and fry with garlic, onion and spices. Or stuff it like a courgette.

Sticky Rice Cake

I always approach anything jellied with caution. The Pork Pie is to blame. But I’m told this is delicious: it’s a steamed STICKY RICE CAKE, made of sticky rice flour, sugar and coconut milk. For a long time, there really wasn’t much choice when it came to sweet treats in Burma, so this is an old favourite, particularly amongst the older generation.

Serving Suggestion: slice and pop in mouth.

Roselle Bud

Well this wins the prize for looks: the ROSELLE BUD. However the use totally flummoxed me, so I called upon my Burmese friends. Turns out Roselle is the queen of cool – everyone LOVES her. She goes in soups, is put in boiling water and drunk as tea, is pounded, spread with peanut oil and eaten with rice, is made into jam and juice, or mixed with honey and jarred for later.

Serving Suggestion: add to pretty much anything! I also think quite pretty as earrings.

Banana Heart

This is a BANANA HEART. So sweet! Who knew they had hearts? They’re also technically the main attraction: it turns out bananas grow on plants, not trees, and this is the flower. One crowning flower per plant. Inside is the pink leaves is the blossom, which looks like fat beansprouts, and is treated a bit like them too.

Serving Suggestion: add to stir fries or salads for a bitter kick.

Dragon Fruit

As you can tell from its majestic wings and roaring flames, this is The Mighty DRAGON FRUIT. Like most scary things it’s a softy on the inside – milky white with black seeds, and tastes of…. well nothing really. All smoke and no flame. 

Serving Suggestion: cut into wedges and serve with other tastier fruit.

Century Egg

Now this one is a frightening concept. The CENTURY EGG, preserved for 100 years in a vat of tea, lime, salt and ashes.  This turns the egg white black, and the yolk a swampy green. Thank god the “century” is actually somewhere between seven weeks and five months. The best way to understand this confusingly adored snack, is that it’s a bit like blue cheese: hideous smell, horrendous format, but creamy, velvety and delicious. Jury’s still out over here…

Serving Suggestion: quarter and add to your salad or noodle soup, or just peel and enjoy the surprise, like a Kinder Egg.


This is a humble MUSHROOM. Not a pebble. Looks different, does all the same tricks.

Serving Suggestion: use totally normally, and be quite smug that you’re being adventurous and exploring Asian cuisine, whilst remaining firmly in your comfort zone.

Dried Fish

Well it’s a humungous DRIED FISH isn’t it. Type unknown, but probably the number one Burmese snack. It is chopped up into small pieces, and goes into EVERYTHING. Curries, soups, salads, or even chewed as it comes. A bit like beef jerky I suppose!

Serving Suggestion: it’s super salty, so use sparingly and balance with mild flavours, and something starchy to soak it up.

Sesbania Blossom

This is seriously on trend: the edible SESBANIA BLOSSOM. It’s so pretty, and will give you straight tens on Come Dine With Me.  

Serving Suggestion: blanche and fry with king prawns, pork, shallots, coriander, and chili and dress with lime juice and fish sauce.

Thai Eggplant

THAI EGGPLANT, or little purple Aubergines. What a joy! So pretty, and so easy to use.

Serving Suggestion: use in curries, or if you have LOTS of time, stuff them like you would a normal aubergine.


And to conclude, a non-edible one. This is THANAKA. If you’re a Burmese child or woman, you grind it on a stone with a little bit of water, and wear it like make-up. It is believed to work like suncream, clear up skin problems, give you an even skin tone, and fend off ageing. I’m waiting for the day the cosmetic industry catches onto this, bottles it, and sells it for £80.

Serving Suggestion: do not eat.

Lady wearing Thanaka

According the the Evening Standard, Burmese Food is the next big thing on the international food scene.  Go and try it, and let us know what you think!

Then have a go at cooking some at home. You can probably pick up what you need at an Asian Supermarket.

Final Serving Suggestion: our range of Latha Tableware, to complete the Burmese feel.

Have fun! 

Latha Tableware

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