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Penned in by Thailand, China and India, three nations providing arguably the most popular flavours of Asia, Myanmar traditional food has a bad rep. Not as spicy as Indian and not as diverse as Thai, a standard Burmese curry is often branded by the ungenerous as bland and oily.

We disagree however. There is much to savour in the Burmese cuisine, it can just take a little longer to adjust the palate and locate the best of what is on offer.

Burmese Curry andA Traditional Myanmar Smorgasbord

The greatest pleasure of settling down to sample the Myanmar cuisine is the variety of dishes that you are presented with at one sitting. A leaf-based broth is almost always served as a starter, as well as chilli-paste as a side, and a dish of raw garlic and chilli. It is also likely that you will be delivered with a complimentary plate of raw vegetables and salad. Condiments are quick to come, including the favoured ngapi fish paste. Many Westerners, especially those with sensitive noses, may find ngapi too strong, but it is a firm favourite in Myanmar and therefore should be tried at least once. Kipling described it as 'fish pickled when it ought to have been buried long ago.' Indeed, in 1880, the British Assistant Commissioner of Yandun attempted to put a halt to the manufacture of ngapi in public places. His proposal resulted in open rioting in the streets and he was forced to back down and be transfered to another town.

Traditional Burmese Meal, Myanmar | Marie Starr

Rice - thamin in Burmese - is the basis of any Burmese meal, generally taken alongside chicken or pork (ceq-tha and weq-tha). The curries are cooked for a prolonged period, allowing the oil to rise to the top of the pot and in doing so saturate the taste of the chilli, turmeric, tomato, ginger, garlic and onion.

Soup or broth is similarly a principal component of most Burmese meals as a lot of locals do not have a drink while they eat. The soups are often rather mild and predominantly vegetable based so to counter balance the flavours of the other dishes. At many local haunts such as the beer stations and street food stands, there will be a pot of weak, earthy green Myanmar tea which is surprisingly moorish.

Mohinga andBreakfast

In general, noodles are more commonly served for breakfast than rice, and in particular the dish mohinga. Mohingha is often referred to as the Burmese national dish. It is a rice noodle and fish soup dish mixed with garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem and ginger.

Mohinga, a Burmese rice noodle breakfast | Marie Starr

Pla-dà is also popular breakfast or brunch dish and perhaps more palatable for foreigners early in the morning. Some call it ‘Burmese Pizza’ however it is more like a flakey pastry filled with egg (ceq-u pla-dà) or sour and spicy with chillies and mushrooms (pla-dà chin seq). (One can try some particular good Burmese breakfasts on the Grasshoppers Foodies Tour in Mandalay.)

On the streets of Yangon and Mandalay you will pass a plethora of pastries and fried snacks being cooked up. A scotch-like pancake is very popular, embedded with whole chips of coconut. You will notice very soon into your trip to Burma, how food in the morning is often deep fried. The city streets at this time of day are imbued with the scent of samosa, spring, rolls, fritters, garlic falafel and tofu bubbling and spitting away in oily pots.

Snacks and Sweets

Pickled tea leaves with a dash of oil and served with sesame seed, roasted peanuts and fried garlic is a popular snack. So too are rice pancakes (bein mont), steamed rice cakes (mont sein paung), rice dumpling with a coconut filling (mont lone gyi), and very sweet coconut cream sherbet (shwe yin aye).

Deserts are not particularly common at traditional Burmese meals, but for special occasions you may see something like seaweed jelly (kyauk kyaw) with a coconut milk layer on top, or pickled tea leaves with roasted sesame seeds and peanuts, with fried beans, garlic and dried prawn. Besides peanuts, some restaurants and beer stations may offer a complimentary plate of twirly little crips called sagali kyi, which translates as ‘sparrow droppings’. Go for it. 

When in Myanmar we highly recommend you visit a Burmese tea house. The drinking of tea was one of the hangovers from the Colonial era that the Burmese have held onto with vim. The popular la-pai-ye bi-leh (‘British Tea’) comes with extra milk, extra sugar and is extra strong. In Indian or Muslim-run tea shops you are likely to be served a selection of deep-fried savory snacks and breads such as poori and nanbya (naan bread). In Chinese tea houses you will be able to try baked sweets and meaty steamed buns.

Shan Noodles and Other Ethnic food

One of the most popular dishes to eat in Myanmar are Shan noodles from Shan State. These are a combination of flat rice noodles in a clear broth with marinated pork or chicken. They are often garnished with toasted sesame seeds and a drizzle of garlic oil and sweet herbs. Though relatively simple, Shan noodles are consistently delicious.

Shan Noodles | Marie Starr

In Rakhine State one may recognise the Bengali 5-spice combo ‘panch phoron’ in the Arakan curries, while at Ngapali Beach, Ngwe Saung and down the Mergui Archipelago one will be able tuck into grilled fresh fish, lobster and soft-shell crab.

In all of the principal destinations that we take travellers to, as well as Myanmar food one can also find top-notch European cuisine, from the hors d'oeuvres of Yangon's Shwe Sabwe to the penne and cherry tomatoes Bagan’s Sanon.

The more adventurous may wish to try the fried and spiced mice in Dala, or the 100 year old preserved duck egg in any roadside beer station.

To further whet your appetite, have a look at our Cuisine in Myanmar board on Pinterest.