Strong fishy scents and flavors. Curries and vegetables that swam in a pool of oil. My initial impression of Myanmar food was not good by any sense–look, smell or taste.
Food is an integral part of connecting to a culture, though, so I did my best to sample a variety of the offerings. And while I still cannot imagine I will ever be a serious devotee of Myanmar food, over time I came to appreciate many aspects of it, including the creativity in the ingredients and textures that are joined together and the variations on dishes that come from the multitude of ethnic groups represented in Myanmar. Add to that a vibrant and lively street food culture, and there is a lot to enjoy. Admittedly, there is much more to taste in Myanmar than what I got to in my six weeks, but some of the experiences and foods I had were interesting enough that I wanted to share them here, along with some recommendations for places to eat in the areas I visited.
Mohinga is considered a national dish in Myanmar. There are multiple variations on it and a long list of ingredients, including fish broth, thin rice noodles, egg, deep fried banana tree stem, onion and ginger. The soup is topped with parsley and comes with fresh lime and hot pepper flakes for you to season it as you wish. Mohinga was one of my favorite meals of Myanmar food. I ate it for breakfast many mornings in local teahouses, which was a great way to have a meal with local people and watch the morning life on the streets. See below for my top recommendations and here for a recipe.
Curry was on the menu of nearly every place I ate in Myanmar. You will find chicken, mutton, beef and fish curries. While they were not the most flavorful curries I have ever had, the meat was generally tender and slid easily off the bone. Each curry comes accompanied with several side dishes. Among them, you will always get a pot of rice, as well as a vegetable or lentil soup. Other sides dishes I tried were dried fish, tea leaf salad, mango, tomato sauce and a combination of fried onions and hot peppers. I liked the variety in the meal, and I never left hungry.
While most curries in Myanmar feature meat or fish, I did find some vegetarian options and some vegetarian restaurants in Myanmar. The sauces in the vegetarian options were often lighter and more flavorful than the meat or fish choices. Dhal (lentil) curry, tamarind leaf curry, vegetable and tofu in coconut milk curry and–my favorite–pumpkin curry, were among the ones I enjoyed.
Myanmar has some creative salads on their menus, combining interesting flavors such as lemon or ginger with chickpea paste and a variety of textures, including the crunch of peanuts or broad beans. Tea leaf salad is another national dish and includes fermented tea leaves, dried peas, roasted peanuts, lime juice and garlic (here is one recipe). I had it as part of the main meal in some restaurants and was also served it for dessert, along with pieces of jaggery (a lump of palm sugar).
Myanmar shares a border with India and at one point was considered part of British India, so you will find many Indian restaurants in Myanmar. I relied on these for delicious pancakes, chapati, dhal, biryani and chicken with coconut rice. My favorite Indian place was a street-side restaurant in Mandalay called Karaweik. They brought food in a truck and set up kiddie-sized tables and chairs–common for nearly all of the street-side restaurants in Myanmar–on a street corner in Central Mandalay every evening, opening at 6 p.m. The food was tasty, and it was another great way to sit with locals and watch the life on the streets. When I returned to Mandalay after several days of so-so Chinese food in Hsipaw, I immediately went back to Karaweik. Thankfully, the traffic noise drowned out the sound of my whimpers as I scooped spoonful after spoonful of coconut rice into my mouth. It was so good to be back.
You can also find several similar street-side “pop-up” Indian restaurants along 82nd Street between 27th and 28th Streets in Mandalay. I ate at one at the corner of 27th Street and 82nd Street and another that was the closest Indian restaurant to 28th Street and had a sign that read, “Indian Food.” Direct. Both places were good, though my heart remained loyal to Karaweik.
Street food options in Myanmar ranged from three-wheeled carts serving noodles, soups and fried foods to tables displaying skewers of meat, fish and vegetables that you chose for barbecue. In Yangon, the area of 19th Street is closed to traffic and filled with places selling barbecue options. I ate chicken satay, spare ribs, as well as grilled okra, prawns, octopus and whole pieces of garlic. I had a noodle soup with a flavorful broth, broccoli and cabbage; and a watercress dish with garlic sauce. As we ate, other mobile food carts walked by our table. I tried mini potato samosas and some particularly delicious fried chickpeas. And after eyeing the cart with curiosity two evenings in a row, I accepted an offer from a nearby table to try a fried cricket. Crunchy! After dinner, we walked the streets, gazing at men and women grilling fish, frying eggs and heating large bowls of crab curry. My eyes soaked in the dessert trays in colors of lime green and fuchsia and fruits such as mangosteen, watermelon, jackfruit and lychee. The colors and variety brought the streets alive, and it was a feast for the senses.
A Meal at the Water Festival
The water festival is an annual New Year’s celebration in various Southeast Asian countries that generally takes place around mid-April. In Myanmar, it is called Thingyan. Kids, adults and everyone in between spray, hose, pour and dump water on anyone passing by–whether they are on foot, on a bicycle, tricycle, bus or car. It is meant to wash away the previous year’s misdeeds, but it is also just a way to let loose, play and cool off from April’s intense heat.
As part of the festival, people will prepare food and give it out for free. I saw people on the street in Yangon giving out plastic bags of soup. And I went to a lunch one day of the water festival in Yangon. They prepared a gigantic iron pot of vegetable soup, including potatoes and pumpkin. In another dish they fried red pepper flakes and then added slices of mango and tiny dried fish to the mix. The gesture was full of kindness and generosity, which made it one of my favorite experiences.
These are the food spots I enjoyed the most in Myanmar:
Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake)
Everest Nepali 2 (Kyaung Taw Anouk Road): This restaurant has delicious dhal bat that comes with various side dishes such as pumpkin or chickpeas. There is also an Everest Nepali restaurant located in Kalaw, though I particularly enjoyed the sweet family that ran the Nyaung Shwe location and found the food tastier.
Lin Htett Myanmar Traditional Food (Yone Gyi Road): Very kind staff and a tender mutton curry. If you like Myanmar food or just want to try it, I recommend this place.
Be Kind to Animals – The Moon (off of Bagan-Nyaung U Road near Ananda Temple and Old Bagan): They have a broad menu, but in my opinion the curries are their specialties (I liked both the pumpkin and tamarind leaf curries).
Moe Moe Win (located along the Bagan-Nyaung U Road between Shwe Na Di hotel and Wu Mon Thit hotel): A small restaurant serving Myanmar food. I ate there for mohinga. The mohinga was some of the best I had in Myanmar. I also enjoyed the woman who prepared the food, who did her best sto teach me some Burmese words.
Karaweik (corner of 26th Street and 83rd Street): The pancakes are delicious, as is the chicken with coconut rice. The other food I had (chicken curry) was good, though nothing special, but combined with the street-side atmosphere and friendly staff, this was my favorite place in Mandalay.
Marie Min (off of 27th Street between 74th Street and 75th Street): A good vegetarian restaurant. I got the pumpkin curry and also tasted the tofu and vegetable curry with coconut milk, which I thought had better flavors than the pumpkin curry.
Mingalabar (71st Street between 28th Street and 29th Street): This was the best place I ate in Mandalay for traditional Myanmar food. I had a chicken curry, the lemon salad and watercress with garlic.
Shou-a-dee? Shou-a-bee? (Located in an alley between 28th/29th Streets and 80th/81st Streets): In Mandalay, I tried several variations on mohinga on the recommendation of my moto-taxi driver Nyi Nyi. This was my favorite in Mandalay and perhaps in Myanmar. I did not see any sign for it, and I could not always understand Nyi Nyi perfectly, so I typed the name here as it sounded to me.
Akaung Kyite (corner of Mandalay-Lashio Road and Hsipaw-Namtu Road): I saw local families eating lunch here and decided to give it a try. It ended up being my favorite restaurant in Hsipaw. I ate a chicken and potato curry. The highlight of the meal, though, were the side dishes, in particular the potato soup and a delicious bowl of lentils.
19th Street and its environs were colorful, alive and my favorite place to sample a variety of foods in Yangon.