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As Burmese chef MiMi Aye writes, “the curries are a little like Malaysian curries, the salads remind one of Thai salads and the noodles are similar to what you’d find in China. Then we have curveballs like tofu made out of chickpeas, curries made with mangoes and salads made from lemons…”
Every dish will have at least three of the five principal tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. And texture is just as important as flavour, MiMi reminds us. A bowl of Mandalay Meeshay will have tender rice noodles, crunchy-sour pickles, beansprouts that snap to the bite and meltingly rich morsels of pork.
As the cuisine of Myanmar is little known outside of the country, it can take longer for travellers to locate the best of what is on offer. Our advice is to dive in head-first. Sampan’s introduction below should whet the appetite.
The greatest pleasure of a traditional Burmese meal is the variety of dishes at each 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 ngapi 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 transferred to another town.
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 counterbalance 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.
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.
More palatable noodle dishes for foreigners are shwe taung noodles – noodles in a thick chicken broth with chili sauce, pea flour and onion – or ohn-no noodles, similar to shwe taung but with more coconut flavouring. Nan gyi thoke is a spicey, noodle salad served cold. Nan pya thoke is similar but with flat instead of round noodles.
Pla-dà is a popular breakfast dish. It is like a flakey pastry filled with egg (ceq-u pla-dà) or sour and spicy with chillies and mushrooms (pla-dà chin-seq).
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.
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 dumplings 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-pay-ye bi-leh (‘British Tea’) comes with extra milk, extra sugar and is extra strong. (The tea-shop mix master is Myanmar’s answer to the Western world’s skilled, hip barista. Learn more about their art here.)
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.
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.
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 to tuck into grilled fresh fish, lobster and soft-shell crab.
The more adventurous travellers may wish to try the fried and spiced mice in Dala, or the 100 year old preserved duck egg in any roadside beer station.
Speaking to the ladies who set up Yangon’s first Wa Restaurant & Cocktail Bar.
A social enterprise helping Myanmar youth into the catering and hospitality sector.