Myanmar is not often thought of as the culinary capital of South East Asia.
Thailand has become globally famous for its pad thai, tom yum gung soup and massaman curries which can be found on the menus of restaurants all over the world, whilst Vietnam is praised worldwide for its healthy and delicate cuisine. But what of mysterious Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma – what do we know about the food there?
Visitors to this fascinating land will not only discover that Myanmar is perhaps the most picture perfect location in the whole of Asia, but the food is delicious too! Backpackers will fall in love with the country and the generous, kind people who cook up some of the most amazing, unique and tasty dishes that you have ever tasted.
Food in Myanmar is delicious and very healthy, with a big variety of curries, soups, snacks and salads. The cooking is strongly influenced by its neighbouring countries; Laos, Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India. One of the most potent ingredients (like in many South East Asian countries) is fish sauce and ‘ngapi’ (fermented seafood) – giving dishes a very distinct and strong flavour.
The most interesting thing about Burmese cuisine is that it varies greatly depending where you travel. The great variety of different ethnic groups in the country makes the cooking diverse too! As you travel from Yangon, to Bagan to Mandalay you will experience a range of unique and creative dishes…
Here are the top 10 Must Try Foods in Myanmar…
This is Myanmar’s national dish. It is a fish noodle soup typically consumed for breakfast, although you can buy it from street stalls and teahouses at any time of the day. It is made differently in different parts of the country, but is typically made with fresh fish. (In landlocked countries this can be exchanged for meat). The soup consists of garlic, onions, rice, lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, cat fish, chickpea flour and served with rice vermicelli noodles. It is garnished with toasted garlic, coriander, chopped spring onions and lime.
Mohinga – the most popular breakfast dish in Myanmar!
2. Pig organs hot pot:
This seems to be the most popular street food amongst the locals, very prevalent in night markets in Mandalay and Yangon. There are sticks around the hot pot with every cut of pork you can think of including liver, intestines, ear, tongue, heart, skin, brain and more… You seem to pick your organ and then dip it into the steaming hot pot to heat it up. You then take it our and dip it generously in chili sauce before eating. The whole decadent meat dish will set you back about 0.75 USD! And if you’re feeling that there’s a little too much meat on your plate, for around 0.25 USD you can get noodles to go with it.
Barbecue is always better with friends!
I feel offal – why don’t you choose first!
3. Tea leaf salad (Lahpet Thoke)
In Burma, tea is eaten as well as drunk! This salad is tasty and different to all the salads you could have ever tried before. It’s a mixture of pickled tea leaves, cabbage, onion, tomatoes, garlic, oil, salt, lime, and a mix of beans and roasted peanuts. To flavour, you can also add dried shrimp, toasted sesame seeds and chopped tomato. The dish is an important part of Burmese culture and was believed to be an ancient symbol of peace during times when the kingdoms of Burma would disagree. It was eaten (and shared nicely) in company after a dispute had been settled. If everyone ate the salad, then it was seen that the resolution of the argument had been accepted.
Tea Leaf Salad – the dish to settle disputes!
4. Shan noodles:
Originating from the eastern Shan region of Burma, which borders China, Shan noodles can be prepared in a salad or a soup. The soup is made with sticky and flat rice noodles and the salad version uses thicker rice noodles. The dish is quite simple, but delicious! It is made with chicken, tomatoes, chickpea flour, peanuts, spring onions, garlic, chili and soy sauce. Usually serve with pickled vegetables and fried pork scratchings.
Prepared in many different ways – but always with love!
5. Tiger prawn curry:
The tomato-based curry sauce is rich and delicious and pairs exceptionally with any fish or other seafood. This is a great dish usually found in coastal areas like Ngapali Beach. Fresh local ingredients such as turmeric, fish sauce, shallots, garlic, chilli and ginger really give this dish a kick and a powerful taste. In many places it is cooked with the head of the prawns still attached as this adds more flavour.
Tell us your secret ingredient – go on!
It is very local and very social experience when you travel to Burma to visit the barbecue stalls for your evening meal. You’ll see barbecue stalls lining the street in many towns, in particular 19th street in Yangon is perfect for this! You’ll sit amidst the smoky atmosphere (the mingling of car fumes adds to it – trust us!) and choose the different meaty sticks that you want to be barbecued. You can also pick a whole fish to be barbecued that tastes much better if you share it with friends… this is a must do experience for backpackers to Myanmar!
The lively barbecue night market on 19th street, Myanmar
Pick your stick!
7. Sticky rice:
These sticky rice dishes are very popular in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, located in the Karen Hills area. Unlike in Thailand, where sticky rice is often made into pancakes or roasted on a stick, the Burmese version are sticky rice balls… which can be mixed with fish, pork or both. Delicious!
Preparing the sticky rice in a local street food restaurant
Many delicious varieties!
8. Tropical fruits:
In this tropical climate, there is an abundance of exotic and colouful fruit. Durian, jackfruit, mangosteen, yellow watermelon, rambutan, lychees, papaya, mangoes… all extremely cheap and readily available to buy from the street vendors in any town or village. A healthy and tasty snack!
Which colour would you like?
Ladies with thanaka bark on their cheeks preparing jackfruit in Yangon
9. And to drink? A Cuppa Tea Please!
Drinking tea is a custom in Burma, which some believe has its origins in British colonial times. Wherever it came from, it’s clearly an institution today in Myanmar! Tea houses are all over the cities and towns, known as “lapae yeah zein” and are crowded with people (mostly men) at any time of day watching sports on TV, soap operas or chatting. Taking time out to sip a hot black tea in a market or at the side of the street is not just a refreshing break (that costs just 0.50 USD a pot!) but a cultural experience too! You can choose the more milky Indian ‘chai’ type tea or the traditional black tea.
Stop for a tea break? Don’t mind if I do!
Saving the best for last, Falooda is definitely, a winner dessert in Myanmar. It’s an icy cold, sweet and aesthetically pleasing beverage-cum-dessert that is made with rose syrup, vermicelli, basil seeds, jelly pieces, tapioca pearls – mixed with water, milk and ice cream. It can be a very popular drink in the heat of the summer, especially in beach areas.
Falooda – a colourful crazy dessert!
About the author: Juan is a born adventurer who in 2012 headed for Myanmar. After a few months travelling all over the country he was inspired to start a blog where he shares his experiences of Myanmar and he recently self-published ‘Delicious Myanmar’, a guide to discover Myanmar through its People and Food. You can follow Juan on Facebook and order a copy of his new book via Amazon.