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Eating well in Myanmar

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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.

Noodles

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.

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Mohinga – rice vermicelli in fish broth spiced with lemongrass, turmeric and lime juice

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Mee shay – spicy noodles with a choice of chicken or pork

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Shan khao swè / Shan noodles in Nyaung Shwe, Shan State

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Shan noodles with pork in Yangon

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Ohn no khao swè – wheat noodles in a chicken and coconut milk broth

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.

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Nan gyi thoke / Nan gyi salad – thick rice noodles slathered in fish sauce and chickpea flour

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Avocado salad – one of the best I’ve ever had

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‘Seaweed salad’ made from snow fungus

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Laphet thoke / Pickled tea leaf salad

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Se pe oo thoke / Century egg salad

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Tofu thoke / Shan-style fresh tofu salad in a vinegary sauce

Other dishes

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.

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Fried snacks made from sticky rice, samosas and chilli flakes with dried fish

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Onion and bean fritters with a tamarind dipping sauce

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Fish and mutton curry, served with rice, soup, fish paste, dried fish and fresh vegetables

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Shan thamin chin / Shan tomato rice with beef and coriander stalks

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Cabbage-wrapped lake fish grilled in banana leaf

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Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) butter fish curry

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Beh-oo (purple yam) ice cream and Faluda

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Molimiya being cooked over firewood at a Mandalay street stall

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The molimiya vendors, presumably a husband and wife team, at work

77 Comments Post a comment
  1. Food looks all delicious! Great photos 🙂

    November 12, 2015
    • Thanks! Myanmar was quite the culinary adventure. 🙂

      November 13, 2015
  2. You must have had a food blast 😀 everything seems super tasty. What lense did you use for the pictures? They are great!

    November 12, 2015
    • I second that! I had also wondered what lens was used for the food pics?

      November 12, 2015
      • I use an AF-S Nikkor 16-85mm lens – and not just for food photos but also landscapes and architecture. It works well for most situations.

        November 13, 2015
  3. This made me extremely hungry! Great shots!

    November 12, 2015
    • Thanks! I guess I should have put a disclaimer somewhere about that.

      November 13, 2015
  4. Just a little bit hungry now 😉 and wonder if I will ever go to Myanmar to taste some of this!

    November 12, 2015
    • You never know, Bente – Myanmar is becoming ever more accessible these days. So many of our fellow visitors were from Northern Europe! 😉

      November 13, 2015
  5. This is one of the places I’d like to visit. The only time I had Burmese food was years ago at a restaurant in Cambridge, MA called Mandalay. It was so good I remember it 30 years later. Would you recommend Myanmar for a woman traveling alone?

    November 12, 2015
    • I would definitely recommend it. Myanmar is very safe for female solo travellers and I saw quite a few in the main sightseeing areas. From what I know, local men do not hassle women and are more respectful than in other countries.

      November 13, 2015
  6. Mmmm delicious looking food. Great post. It’s amazing how much culture you can get out of the food that others eat. Thank you for the post.

    November 12, 2015
    • You’re welcome! I completely agree with your point. Food is such an integral part of any culture, and delving into it is one of my favourite aspects of travelling.

      November 13, 2015
  7. Lael #

    What an astonishing array of food! Thank you so much for this post. It’s beautiful. I think I’ll have one of each 🙂
    I liked reading your story about Thaku and the faluda. What a neat experience.

    November 12, 2015
    • I was completely stuffed in Myanmar… and am pretty sure I gained weight in those two weeks! 🙂 The encounter with Thaku really warranted an entire post on its own, but I didn’t have the foresight to take a picture with him.

      November 13, 2015
      • Lael #

        That’s the sign of a good travel adventure:weight gain!
        🙂 Thaku’s spirit shone through in your writing and in his actions.

        November 14, 2015
  8. Okay, James kamu berhasil membuat saya lapar di saat nasi dan lauk belum matang pagi hari hahaha. Nice share banget… Jadi ada referensi kuliner saat saya akan berkunjung ke Myanmar 😉

    November 12, 2015
    • Haha… makasih Halim! Untung ada Bama di sini untuk nerjemahin. 😉

      November 13, 2015
  9. Seems that they have soooo many delicious dishes. And their appearance similar to Indonesian dishes. They often use coriander leaves as well like Thai ,,, I like coriander leaves! Sedap! 🙂

    November 12, 2015
    • I guess you’re right, but then gain there was only one dish we tried that had santan. The curries were interesting because they were nothing like the ones I had in Java and Sumatra. 🙂

      November 13, 2015
      • Interesting. So, Indonesians will have no problem to adapt with their foods 🙂

        November 13, 2015
  10. Nice! Great photos… makes me appetized! I’m going to Myanmar in a little over a month, and I’ll definitely be seeking some of these dishes out. 🙂

    November 12, 2015
    • Thanks Leah! There are so many you should try. If you’re a noodle fan, Mohinga, Nan gyi salad and Shan noodles are a definite must! 🙂

      November 13, 2015
      • I am a noodle fan! I’ve got these on my list – thanks! 🙂

        November 14, 2015
      • You’re welcome! Myanmar is a noodle lover’s paradise. 🙂

        November 20, 2015
  11. Hmmm, this was fascinating. You obviously asked a lot more questions, and delved a lot deeper into Myanmar food then we did. We’re such wusses when it comes to food. Not adventurous at all.
    Alison

    November 12, 2015
    • Well Alison, the adventurousness can come at a price. On our last day in Myanmar I developed gut problems that lasted for the next 10 days. I still don’t know what the cause was – if it was a salad, or ice cream, or the molimiya we ate from that street stall. It’s strange because I was completely fine up until that morning.

      November 13, 2015
      • So sorry to hear that James. Hope you’re on the mend. It’s the main reason we’re so cautious.
        A.

        November 13, 2015
      • Thank you Alison. We are in India and it has cleared up completely – going for days on vegetarian food certainly helped!

        November 13, 2015
  12. I am super impressed. The food looked fantastic! I guess I never gave much thought to how many kinds of noodles there was out there.

    November 12, 2015
    • We had even more noodles in Myanmar but there were times when I didn’t have my camera with me! I had a lot of fun trying all the salads as well – the taste of pickled tea leaf is pretty unique.

      November 13, 2015
  13. I enjoyed the trip, thanks for sharing 🙂

    November 12, 2015
    • You’re welcome, Arlene. Thanks in turn for the comment. 🙂

      November 13, 2015
  14. That looks lovely! xx

    November 12, 2015
    • Yes, it was all delicious!

      November 13, 2015
  15. All looks yum! She writes with tummy rumbling…

    November 12, 2015
    • Carissa! Bama and I are now in Kerala and we wished we had more time in India. Just ten days ago we flew from Chennai to Goa on Jet Airways. We supposed to go through Bangalore but they put us on an earlier flight via Mumbai! So we were at the airport for a quick transit – it got me thinking how great it would be to meet you in the city. And the funniest thing is, both of us are beginning to do the Indian headshake!

      November 13, 2015
      • Oh wow!!!!! How fabulous (being in India) and amusing (headshake)!! Would love to meet up… are coming back via Mumbai?? Any chance to nip out even for a short bit while transiting? I could pop by the airport…. let me know!

        November 14, 2015
      • Sorry for replying so late – we haven’t had much luck with connecting to the internet since Kerala! Sadly we’re not going back the same way… with our final week in India, we’re gradually heading towards Chennai and then Kolkata for a short stopover before Nepal! But I am sure both of us would enjoy a few days in Mumbai the next time we visit. 🙂

        November 20, 2015
      • Sigh.. what a pity… and hope Chennai recovers soon after all the terrible flooding. Kolkata will be interesting too! Sounds like a great trip and simply try to keep a “Mumbai connect” in mind on another trip! Enjoy!!

        November 21, 2015
      • Thanks Carissa!! Mumbai is definitely on the wish list!

        November 21, 2015
  16. Great! This is very timely, I will be going to Myanmar in January 🙂

    November 12, 2015
    • I’m glad this is helpful – it’s always nice to read an introduction to the food before you go. 🙂

      November 13, 2015
  17. wow, fresh, colorful, and all delicious looking, right down to the purple yam ice cream!

    November 12, 2015
    • The purple yam ice cream was a lovely surprise – I’d had it before in other places but I didn’t expect to find it in Myanmar!

      November 13, 2015
  18. All of that looks so great. I haven’t heard great things about food in Myanmar, but you and Bama and showing a different side of it. I really like that photo on the bottom – great capture.

    November 12, 2015
    • Thank you, Jeff. It is one of my favourite photos from Myanmar – the bright light in the darkness and the concentration on the vendor’s face make it special. I think you and Kristi would especially enjoy the noodles.

      November 13, 2015
  19. RA #

    Faluda kind of looks like Philippines’ halo-halo. I wonder if they’re also similar when it comes to taste.

    Great photos!

    November 13, 2015
    • Maybe the main difference is that faluda doesn’t have chunks of fresh jackfruit or ube ice cream, which happens to be one of my favourite flavours!

      November 13, 2015
  20. Amazing pictures, James! : D From memory, I loved the Kachin Fish from Myanmar, and the coconut oiled chicken Ohn Htamin was also amazing.

    November 13, 2015
    • Lee, it sounds like you tried even more dishes than I did! I’ll have to look out for Ohn Htamin and Kachin Fish the next time I visit. Thanks for those recommendations. 😀

      November 13, 2015
  21. Absolutely loved your picture! I got so terribly hungry reading through this, you’ve taken great effort into putting together all the culinary experiences you had. Great job! I cannot wait to get to Myanmar and try these things myself, especially the noodle dish with fish sauce. I love a hearty breakfast, sounds like an awesome option :)!

    November 14, 2015
    • Oh, the mohinga was fabulous! I was tempted to order another bowl, but it was already our second round of breakfast. When you visit Mandalay make sure you stop by an informal tea house called Shwe Pyi Moe – that’s where we had it. 🙂

      November 20, 2015
      • Great, thank you so much for the tip! I’ll be happy to check it out…

        November 20, 2015
  22. Great post, and a great addition to the small set of resources about food in Myanmar. Molimiya sounds wonderful. The faluda too.

    November 15, 2015
    • I’d been eyeing molimiya ever since I first saw it being cooked on the streets of Yangon – it is a great snack, especially when served piping hot, and my favourite variety is the one with quail egg. I absolutely loved the faluda… a couple weeks later I got to try the “original” in India and it wasn’t quite as good. Indian faluda is far too sweet for my liking!

      November 20, 2015
  23. What a delicious post, James. I’ve never photographed my food during travels, but it really makes a nice post (now that we have blogs) doesn’t it? I like the last two street food photos. Is that cilantro on the avocado salad (which makes my mouth water). I believe I will be in Myanmar sometime in March or April. I hope the weather is good then?

    November 17, 2015
    • Thank you, Badfish. That is indeed cilantro and the people of Myanmar seem to use it pretty frequently (at least as a garnish) in their food! March or April should be the later stages of dry season so rain won’t be a problem… though I’ve been told it tends to get a little dusty.

      November 20, 2015
      • Cilantro…one of my favorites. So I’m going to like the food there, maybe. Dust…I’d rather it be dust than rain, I think. thanks…

        November 21, 2015
  24. Nothing quite like getting to know a new place than through the food the locals eat ~ and I’d agree that Myanmar benefits from geography – great cuisine all around its borders so they have a lot to borrow/learn from. The last two shots are fantastic, as I love night food markets and the spirit in your last photo put me there.

    November 18, 2015
    • Thank you so much for the compliment, Randall – it means a lot coming from a seasoned photographer like you. I got very lucky in Mandalay with those two shots. The vendors were not at all perturbed by our presence and we found them at just the right time. In Yangon I made the mistake of not taking my camera out the night we arrived and missed so many wonderful photo ops.

      November 20, 2015
      • Nothing quite like a great atmosphere, although it can be a bit frustrating when without a camera when a rare photo-moment arrives. Cheers!

        November 21, 2015
  25. Oh my! That’s a veritable feast of Burmese delicacies James! I’ll be happy if I manage to taste even half of these. The banana leaf fish looks amazing and I have heard so much about Laphet Thoke. I know I am not going to be in any hurry to taste the purple yam ice cream 🙂

    November 19, 2015
    • Don’t be put off by the colour, Madhu – the purple yam ice cream was divine! 😉 Laphet Thoke was unlike anything I’d ever tried before. We enjoyed its tangy, distinctive flavour though both Bama and I would have preferred more pickled tea leaf and less raw onions and garlic in the salad!

      November 20, 2015
  26. Wow beautiful food photography!

    November 21, 2015
    • Thanks! For most of those shots, natural lighting was the key.

      November 21, 2015
  27. James you may have to start a food blog! Great photography and what an array of diverse dishes. The snow fungus salad is intriguing and all the salads for that matter. So interesting that raw veggies are not necessarily part of salads.

    November 21, 2015
    • I don’t know about that, Sue – taking care of one blog already keeps me occupied! The idea of salad in Myanmar is so different and so much broader than what I’m used to. There was one place we ate at where 90% of salads on the menu were primarily made of meat.

      November 21, 2015
      • Oh that would not be the spot for me James. I rarely eat meat so I’m not sure what I would be looking for on the menu. 🙂

        November 21, 2015
  28. Salads look very different and interesting Asian-wise. Thx for this cuisine post -educational for me.

    Fish wrapped in leaves looks delicious too.

    November 22, 2015
    • You’re welcome, Jean. I wouldn’t be surprised if Vancouver and Toronto each have one or two Burmese restaurants!

      November 23, 2015
  29. I am so hungry now… thank you very much for the article 🙂 !

    November 25, 2015
    • Thanks in turn for the comment! I hope you get to visit and try at least some of these delights. 🙂

      December 3, 2015
  30. Your coverage of the food in Myanmar is so extensive it’s impressive! We were just there for two weeks and did not come close to discovering so many local dishes even though we love food and we always ear street food. Myanmar was though the first place I have ever gotten sicjpk from eating street food 😦 not that it’s stopping me!

    January 24, 2016
    • Thank you, Peta! We got a lot of help from the front desk at each guesthouse/hotel and asked around whenever we could. Unfortunately I also had the same experience with the street food – I left Myanmar with an upset stomach which was pretty worrying since our next stop was India!

      January 28, 2016
  31. YUM! I had faluda in Sri Lanka… sooo delicious! How interesting is the food in Burma? I haven’t been yet but when I get there one day I’ll be using this post as a guide on what to eat.

    January 25, 2016
    • I didn’t get to try faluda in Sri Lanka, but I do prefer the Burmese version to the Indian one! Myanmar food tends to get a bad rap – which is a shame because I enjoyed it and loved certain dishes. It never got boring!

      January 28, 2016

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