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. ◊
Food looks all delicious! Great photos 🙂
Thanks! Myanmar was quite the culinary adventure. 🙂
You must have had a food blast 😀 everything seems super tasty. What lense did you use for the pictures? They are great!
I second that! I had also wondered what lens was used for the food pics?
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.
This made me extremely hungry! Great shots!
Thanks! I guess I should have put a disclaimer somewhere about that.
Just a little bit hungry now 😉 and wonder if I will ever go to Myanmar to taste some of this!
You never know, Bente – Myanmar is becoming ever more accessible these days. So many of our fellow visitors were from Northern Europe! 😉
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That’s the sign of a good travel adventure:weight gain!
🙂 Thaku’s spirit shone through in your writing and in his actions.
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 😉
Haha… makasih Halim! Untung ada Bama di sini untuk nerjemahin. 😉
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! 🙂
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. 🙂
Interesting. So, Indonesians will have no problem to adapt with their foods 🙂
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. 🙂
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! 🙂
I am a noodle fan! I’ve got these on my list – thanks! 🙂
You’re welcome! Myanmar is a noodle lover’s paradise. 🙂
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.
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.
So sorry to hear that James. Hope you’re on the mend. It’s the main reason we’re so cautious.
Thank you Alison. We are in India and it has cleared up completely – going for days on vegetarian food certainly helped!
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.
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.
I enjoyed the trip, thanks for sharing 🙂
You’re welcome, Arlene. Thanks in turn for the comment. 🙂
That looks lovely! xx
Yes, it was all delicious!
All looks yum! She writes with tummy rumbling…
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!
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!
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. 🙂
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!!
Thanks Carissa!! Mumbai is definitely on the wish list!
Great! This is very timely, I will be going to Myanmar in January 🙂
I’m glad this is helpful – it’s always nice to read an introduction to the food before you go. 🙂
wow, fresh, colorful, and all delicious looking, right down to the purple yam ice cream!
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!
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.
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.
Faluda kind of looks like Philippines’ halo-halo. I wonder if they’re also similar when it comes to taste.
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!
Amazing pictures, James! : D From memory, I loved the Kachin Fish from Myanmar, and the coconut oiled chicken Ohn Htamin was also amazing.
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. 😀
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 :)!
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. 🙂
Great, thank you so much for the tip! I’ll be happy to check it out…
Great post, and a great addition to the small set of resources about food in Myanmar. Molimiya sounds wonderful. The faluda too.
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!
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.
Nothing quite like a great atmosphere, although it can be a bit frustrating when without a camera when a rare photo-moment arrives. Cheers!
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 🙂
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!
Wow beautiful food photography!
Thanks! For most of those shots, natural lighting was the key.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
Salads look very different and interesting Asian-wise. Thx for this cuisine post -educational for me.
Fish wrapped in leaves looks delicious too.
You’re welcome, Jean. I wouldn’t be surprised if Vancouver and Toronto each have one or two Burmese restaurants!
I am so hungry now… thank you very much for the article 🙂 !
Thanks in turn for the comment! I hope you get to visit and try at least some of these delights. 🙂
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!
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!
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.
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!