Eating well in Myanmar
Before embarking on a two-week jaunt around Myanmar last month, I knew virtually nothing about the food. It does not have the global standing of Thai or Vietnamese cuisine; the only anecdote I had heard was a negative review from my own father, who had once travelled there on business. What I found was in fact delicious (my father can be a fussy eater after all), and introduced me to some surprising flavours.
I would say that Myanmar benefits from its geographic position wedged between the culinary powerhouses of China, India and Thailand. For the local cuisine brings together diverse influences not just from those three neighbours but also the country’s indigenous ethnic groups.
The food in Myanmar may not have the visual presentation that appeals to high-end diners, but the same could be said of many traditional Asian cuisines. A lot of it boils down to simple comfort food – it is hearty and non-fussy, without the foam and molecular portions that inevitably put a dent in your wallet. Do be warned however that Myanmar food uses liberal amounts of cooking oil, far more than most Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian dishes.
A staple in Myanmar, available at street stalls, informal eating places, tea houses, upscale restaurants… noodles are on just about every menu. We spent several days trying different varieties for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The national dish of Mohinga consists of rice vermicelli in a thick, tasty fish broth, eaten for breakfast but also as a late-night snack. Another favourite of mine was Ohn no khao swè, wheat noodles with fritters in a chicken and coconut milk broth. A bowl of delicious Shan noodles (Shan khao swè) should also be on the list, particularly if you are going to Inle Lake or other places in Shan State. They are generally served alongside a small helping of pickles and a bowl of soup with scallion and a sprinkling of ground pepper.
Salads (A thoke)
In Myanmar, raw vegetables are not a prerequisite for salads. Collectively known as A thoke in Burmese, these dishes can be made from just about anything: pickled tea leaf, preserved egg, rectangular slices of fresh tofu, noodles or even pork. At Inle Lake, Bama and I perused a menu with ‘seaweed salad’, which was odd because the restaurant was hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline. The seaweed turned out to be a misnomer: it was the same kind of snow fungus my mother used for her Cantonese sweet pear soup.
For both of us, two particular standouts were the avocado salad in Bagan and a century egg salad we tried at a beer garden in Mandalay. Translucent preserved egg with a strange neon tint might not appeal to everyone, but I loved the bite of the egg whites, the runny consistency of the yolks, and how they were paired with sliced tomatoes, onion and garlic.
While in Yangon, Nyaung Shwe (the gateway to Inle Lake) and Mandalay, we noticed a certain snack being prepared at street stalls, with batter poured into a hot griddle to make little half domes. Some had toppings of quail egg, others chopped capsicum peppers and chilli, and a third variety had the simple addition of a few chickpeas. The staff at our hotel in Mandalay explained that this snack was called Molimiya, and it signified a couple (or husband and wife) as two halves were often served together. She added that molimiya only appeared at festivals. Our visit had inadvertently coincided with the full moon of Thadingyut, marking the end of Buddhist lent.
One of our most memorable experiences in Myanmar involved Faluda, a cold, sweet drink introduced from India. While taking photos from a pedestrian bridge, Bama and I were approached by a young man who wanted to practice his English. We were a bit suspicious at first. Was he trying to sell us a tour or some kind of souvenir?
The friendly young man looked about my age. He had spiky hair, one earring, a punk shirt emblazoned with a large skull, and instead of the ubiquitous men’s longyi (Burmese sarong), he wore a pair of skinny jeans. We learned that his name was Thaku, and he worked as a jeans salesman, earning 10,000 kyat per day (less than 8 US dollars) as the sole breadwinner of his family. When we told him we were looking for faluda, Thaku offered to take us to a place he knew. Sure enough, after navigating the crowded streets of the Indian quarter and Chinatown, we reached a casual, air-conditioned café called ‘Shake’.
Faluda is a wonderful antidote to Yangon’s heat and oppressive humidity: just imagine a large glass with rose syrup, milk, agar agar jelly in different colours and sizes, large tapioca pearls, generous portions of custard and ice cream all piled atop each other. We ended up treating Thaku to a large faluda, which left him genuinely surprised. But for someone who went out of his way to help us, it’s the least we could have done. ◊