Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Gaw-bi-thoke - classic burmese cabbage cole slaw


Ok, back in January, Huffington post released an article, casting a long-over due spotlight on Burmese salads. My face brimmed up, as if I am Amy Shumer with a class of Chardonnay.  Yes, the world domination is here – Burmese food goes mainstream now.

Back in Myanmar, our family eat salads as a part of our daily meals along with curries, rice and soup, rather than as a bowl of self-deprived and monotonous leafage as a promise to achieve a better health. In fact, the salad culture is quite popular in Yangon, a bustling city of Myanmar where I grew up in. My fondest memory of Burmese salads was eating with my second eldest aunt at a roadside salad bar, draped in sun-bleached vinyl blue sheets to get shelter from the unforgiving tropical urban heat. (I used the word “bar” specifically because the experience actually felt like I was at a crowded bar at a club, where I have to use sign languages and yell to get some attention. There were usually one or two “salad masters” at the salad bar, with ten people shouting simultaneously on their orders.)  

Classic burmese cabbage cole slaw

We would sit on the flimsy little plastic stools, so stained beyond the point of recognition for the original color. Being a plump kid, I should have known that the scenario of these chairs breaking under my gluteus, while I was munching, was imminent. After the day did finally happen, I practically adopted a ritual to test out the supportability of these chairs by sitting-halfway as if I were a master of levitation in Chinese martial arts movies. My aunt, despite a lot heavier than me, trust the luck and sit whenever she lays her eyes on, yet nothing happened to her. Well, life has taught me a different lesson to me than my aunt – luck fails – paranoia ensues.

I know Burmese salads are good eats, but my love for them gets amplified only after I moved to the United States. It has less to do with nostalgia, and more to do with the fact that I honestly think Burmese salads are just…well...better.  Ok, before I defend myself from making this statement, allow me to explain what a Burmese salad is. A typical bowl of Burmese salad minimally has to have one main vegetable, broken peanuts, shallot-infused oil with bronzed fried shallot pieces, powdery chickpea flour, grainy dried shrimp powder, pungent fish sauce and lime. Then, you toss together with hands briskly enough to give vegetables to go from tensed to massaged, yet patiently enough to coat each shred with the dressing (In fact, in Burmese, salads are also called lat-thoke, which literally means “mixed with hands”).

The addition of chick pea flour and dried shrimp powder to the salad is the probably the best kept secret for Burmese salads. They serve as umami-packed glue that literally brings all the components together, giving you intense savoriness every bite. Furthermore, they add a layer of textural complexity to the dish. You have crispness from the vegetables, crunch from the broken nuts, contrasted by almost pasty dressing.  Burmese salads are quintessential examples of the clichĂ© – how everything jives together to create something larger than themselves. Finally, I enjoy the free-spirit of Burmese salads – you can add, substract or substitute almost anything. The world is your oyster.

I have been making this salad at least one a week, and order it religiously whenever I happen to be at a Burmese restaurant in the United States, where the chairs are stronger, and the roof is metal. A boy can finally savor his bowl of happiness without any fear of falling. That’s quite a blessing!

Serves: 3-4 people
  • 0.75 lbs. of shredded cabbage (organic preferable)
  • 2 tbsps. of toasted chickpea flour (see the notes below)
  • 2 tbsps. of fish sauce
  • 2 tbsps. of dried shrimp powder (see the notes below)
  • 2 tbsps. of shallot-infused oil (with shallot pieces and all)
  • 6 tbsps. of peanuts 
  • 1 cup of chopped cilantro
  • 1 lime (or more if you like more sour)
  • 1 teaspoon of brown sugar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions for shallot-infused oil

This is the quickest way to make shallot-infused oil. Although this is definitely not authentic, it indeed tastes like home to me.

Heat up one cup of olive oil (NOT extra virgin) under medium heat. When the oil becomes hot-ish (Not smoking), pour in one cup of fried onions (I used Trader Joe’s brand). Reduce heat to low, and let the fried pieces bubble away in the hot oil for about 10 min. Let it cool in a separate bowl, and store in an airtight jar. It should last for a month.

Directions for the salad

This recipe is the most basic Burmese salad. You can add or substitute with anything you desire or your fridge has. I try to get the best green or red cabbage I can find, since I am eating it raw. Shred the cabbage finely with a sharp knife, making sure that the shreds are about 2 inches long.

Using mortal and pestle, break down the peanut into smaller pieces. You don’t have to grind them to the ground. What you want is an uneven mess of varying sizes for a maximal textural contrast. In away, we are ordered to be messy, and let’s savor that.

In a largest bowl you can find, combine everything and toss with hands until everything is thoroughly combined. Taste, and add more salt or lime according to your taste. The dish can be made up to one day in advance, and in fact, the flavor develops even better that way.


Almost all asian supermarkets should have dried shrimp. They usually come in package, and I grind myself with food processor. 

Chickpea flour can be found in any specialty food stores, such as Wholesfood. Toast gently under medium heat for 5 min before using to accentuate the nuttiness.


  1. Hahaha loved this story! And I'm just fascinated with the fact that you're from Myanmar...I mean, there are plenty of people from there but I've never known one outside of Myanmar, and it's sweet getting to know little bits about your culture! All we ate during our mission trip there was rice, noodles, soupy dishes. ;))

    1. Hi Ellie, thank you :D
      I am very excited that you get to visit Myanmar. I really miss the noodle dishes there.

  2. Yum! :-) But...I just made this for supper (along with three others of your recipes) and could find no mention of peanuts in the ingredient list. NBD, I just gambled, but I am curious if I gambled right!

    1. Omg Lynn..thank you for letting me know. Peanuts are essential to this recipe. And this particular recipe calls for 6 tbsps of peanuts. I hope you get to try it again with peanuts this time.

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