When in Myanmar, Traditional Food is an absolute must
When the topic of Asian cuisine comes up in passing conversation, most people will go on and on about the excellent noodle dishes from Thailand, the incredible curries of India or rice dishes galore from China. Savvy travelers may even invoke dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea or even Vietnam. One country that is consistently missing from these conversations is the formerly closed-to-the-world Union of Myanmar. Southeast Asia’s second-largest country barely comes up not because of its dearth of delectable dishes but rather because its traditional food it is simply unknown!
Myanmar is comprised of seven states, seven more regions, five self-administered zones, one union territory and even a self-administered division. In these relatively remote areas there are more than 135 ethnic groups and that means a variety of exotic dishes than vary greatly from region to region. Two things that remain constant in Myanmar cuisine are rice and rice-based noodles (Myanmar’s huge land mass makes it a world leader in rice consumption and export) and seafood. Myanmar is considered the world leader in seafood consumption.
Visit a Myanmar Tea House!
To get a real taste of Myanmar cuisine, head to a local teahouse. Far from a place where you sit and sip on little cups of sweet, milky tea, they are rather social and culinary hubs that give travelers and expats a real feel of Myanmar. Ethnic and local food is abundant and in ordering a meal ‘set’ or ‘style,’ you’ll receive generally three or four courses of said type of food. For those who have dietary restrictions, whether that be Halal/Kosher or allergies to certain food, make sure you tell your waiter. Myanmar food is incredibly diverse and you’ll receive heaping plates of seafood/prawns/shrimps, pork, dairy and more.
Here are some of the must-try dishes for that are sure to make you stand out from your culinary cohorts in discussion of Southeast Asian cuisine.
Usually served at breakfast, this is a dish that tends to be the first that travelers indulge in in the Golden Land. Mohinga is a famous dish that comes in a bowl of rice noodles covered in a fish-based soup and sprinkling with deep fried fritters.
Shan Noodles & Rice
Shan State is a region steeped in lore and legend as it is as remote as it is unique. Shan cuisine reflects the land of which it comes and a culture of aquaculture on the famous Inle Lake makes its dishes as tasty as they are uncommon. The most famous of all Shan dishes are Shan Noodles served either as a salad or soup. The thick and round rice noodles are prepared with juicy tomatoes, sugar, oil, paprika and sometimes bean powder known as “Dah.”
Shan Rice is usually severed as a rice cake with potatoes and crushed fish mixed in. A popular dish available in most food houses around the country, Shan fish rice cakes have a slightly sour but usually smooth and sweet taste. You might need to order two dishes to comprise a full main course as servings of this dish are a bit on the smaller side.
Green Tea Leaf Salad
Salad aficionados rejoice! One of the most popular dishes amongst locals and travelers alike is the famous fermented Green Tea Leaf Salad. Served everywhere from local teahouses to the posh-est of restaurants, the Tea Leaf Salad is a staple of any many and is made in many types of varieties. Commonly it is made with white rice, fried peanuts, fish oil, crushed and dried shrimp, shredded ginger or coconut, and more. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, go ahead and ask for beetle larvae on top!
Burmese Naan Flatbread
Myanmar has many outside influences from the region due to its relatively porous borders and years and years of migration of populations from Indian, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. A large Indian-Burmese population brought with it the indigenous Indian clay pots and the Myanmar version of Naan is not to be missed. Served with beans or other vegetables, it makes a great snack if you’re in the mood for some street food.
Myanmar Curries with Rice
Rice is a staple of the traditional Myanmar diet and influence from neighboring India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (albeit over the large Bay of Bengal) has brought with it a variety of curries which, over time, have developed their own unique tastes. Chicken and cauliflower curry is a favorite along with a curry mix of okra, bean sprouts and cauliflower and many, many more are around. Each vendor, restaurant and teahouse have their own version and recommended are the coconut curries and vegetable curries.
Kachin State Chicken Curry is another popular curry dish commonly made with praew leaves and bamboo shoots. It has a nice blend of sour and spice and topped with garlic and ginger give it a distinct flavor from its Myanmar-curry cousins.
Shan Yellow Rice Cake with Tomato Sauce, Spicy Tomato Salad
There is something about the spicy Inle Lake tomatoes that make them extra juicy and a bit spicy. Grown on the water, the old-school hydroponic agriculture system gives them a flavor all on their own and with each Shan dish, you’ll fall more and more in love with them. Spicy Shan salads are a definite must for would-be travelers as are the sauces made from them. Tomato sauce on top of an almost-pita like rice-based yellow cake makes for an amazing treat and provides energy during a full day of traveling and trekking through the mountainous regions.
Steamed Pork Dumplings
Myanmar street food isn’t quite as sophisticated and varied as its eastern neighbor Thailand, however there are some gems you’ll have to try before you head out on a day of sightseeing. Myanmar’s version of Dim Sum (known locally as “bouq si”) is a steamed dumpling usually filled with pork but sometimes with chicken and beans and makes for a delightful and tasty start to the day.
Deep-Fried Tofu and Samosas
Another street-food favorite, deep-fried tofu comes with any topping you’d like and is served in the style of a taco. Popular combinations include cabbage, chilies, fish sauce, prawn and/or boiled tofu.
Fried Samosas are a staple of street-food vendors in Mandalay and Yangon. You can order vegetarian, potato-, pork-, or chicken-filled varieties.
Malan Hin (Mala Hin) Vegetable Dish
Vegetarians need not worry about eating in Myanmar. Beans, rice and vegetables are abundant in the Golden Land and there are many dishes for you to try. If you’re in the mood for something with a bit of kick, order the spicy Mala Hin and dig in. Fresh vegetables wok-fried or steamed depending on the restaurant, it’s made with a spicy bean paste and crushed peanuts.
Sticky Rice with Shredded Coconut
Thailand serves their sticky rice with mango but in Myanmar, shredded coconut is all the rage. Coconut curries are exceptionally delicious but fried corn, splash of lemon, sticky white rice, fresh (and usually uncooked or slightly cooked) garlic with a side of shredded coconut makes for a tasty treat.
Grilled Fish in China Town, Yangon
Head to China Town in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and largest city, for an afternoon of sightseeing and fantastic grilled fish. Local restaurants will serve any type of fish you desire, grill it with unbelievable local seasonings, salt and pepper, a dash of lemon and of course, a side of white rice. It doesn’t get much fresher than this and most places regularly cater to tourists so you won’t need to worry so much in regard to cleanliness.
All Sorts of Soups and Salads
Myanmar’s large size, lacking infrastructure, mostly rural population and remote regions have led to many different dishes made with all the same ingredients. Go for all types of soups and salads, like the aforementioned Green Tea Leaf salads and Shan Tomato Salad, but also try the lemon salad (lemon pulp and red onions), pickled ginger mixed salads, tofu salads (fried and baked), tomato and cabbage salads and more!
If you happen to have room left after gorging on rice, seafood and pork, then you’re in luck – desserts in Myanmar don’t disappoint. Try the “Mont Let Saung,” a dessert made from a ‘tear drop’ rice shake mixed with tapioca pudding, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. If you’d rather have a cake, try the “San Nwin Makhin” sweet cake or the “Kyauk Kyaw” sea weed jelly.
Fresh Fruits and Juices
With scorching hot temperatures almost year-round, fresh fruit juices and shakes are available to quench your thirst around most corners in Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. The most abundant options include bananas and plantains, avocados, durian, jackfruit, oranges, papaya, pineapple, watermelon and coconut. Pro-Tip: Most vendors and street stalls water down the shakes with tap water. Water quality is severely lacking in Myanmar so foreigners are advised to bring their own bottled water or request only juice and no water.
Beer and Spirits
If you’re in the Bagan area then you must try the palm wine. Sugary, sweet and packing a punch, palm wine is so tasty you can drink an entire bottle in one sitting! Beer aficionados will be pleasantly surprised in Myanmar. Dagon-brand beer is a favorite of the locals but Myanmar beer (Myanmar being the name of the beer) is a staple of many expat and traveler. Mandalay Red and Mandalay Blue also have their respective fans.
Pro-Tip: If you’ve been to Cambodia or around Southeast Asia, you’ve probably seen (and perhaps tried!) eating some of the local spiders and scorpions. While those carry certain risks, in Myanmar the adventurous might find a vendor selling bat skewers. Don’t do it! Bats carry a host of different diseases and horror stories are abundant. Stay away!