Burmese food suffers from an undeservedly bad rap. While the country's cuisine can be oily, and it lacks the diversity of the food of neighbouring Thailand, with a bit of pointing in the right direction and some background knowledge, you’ll almost certainly return from Myanmar having savoured some truly tasty and memorable meals.
It's rarely necessary to book a table when eating out in Myanmar. Bookings are usually only required for top dining spots in Yangon and other major tourist centres at peak travel times, eg Chinese New Year.
- Cafes and teahouses Simple cafes and teahouses are the most common places to eat a meal across Myanmar.
- Restaurants Outside major urban centres, fancy restaurants are a rarity. If they're not serving Burmese food, it will usually be Chinese or possibly Indian.
- Street food Very common across Myanmar and can be excellent, but hygiene can be a problem.
A Burmese Meal
T’ămìn (rice; also written as htamin) is the indisputable core of any Burmese meal. Second in importance, and providing the grains with some flavour, are hìn (Burmese-style curries). Those who find Thai food too spicy will be pleased to learn that Burmese curries are probably the mildest in Asia. The downside is that Burmese curries are often oily, largely due to a cooking process that sees them cooked until the oil separates from all other ingredients and rises to the top. The Burmese term for this cooking method is s’i pyan (oil returns), and the process ensures that the rather harsh curry-paste ingredients – typically chilli, turmeric, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, onions and shrimp paste – have properly amalgamated and have become milder. Some restaurants also add extra oil to maintain the correct top layer, as the fat also preserves the underlying food from contamination by insects and airborne bacteria while the curries sit in open, unheated pots for hours at a time.
Accompanying the curries is a unique repertoire of side dishes that blend Burmese, Mon, Indian and Chinese influences, predominantly plant- and seafood-based ingredients, and overwhelmingly savoury, salty and sometimes tart flavours. Indeed, one of the pleasures of eating an authentic Burmese meal is the sheer variety of things to eat at a single sitting. Upon arriving at any Myanma sà thauq sain (Burmese restaurant), and after having chosen a curry, a succession of sides will follow. One of these is invariably soup, either an Indian-influenced peh·hìn·ye (lentil soup, or dhal), studded with chunks of vegetables, or a tart, leaf-based broth. A tray of fresh and parboiled vegetables, fruits and herbs is another obligatory side dish; they’re eaten with various dips, ranging from ngăpí ye (a watery, fishy dip) to balachaung (a dry, pungent combination of chillies, garlic and dried shrimp fried in oil). Additional vegetable-based salads or stir-fries, unlimited green tea and a dessert of pickled tea leaves and chunks of jaggery (palm sugar) are also usually included.
One of the culinary highlights of Burmese food is undoubtedly ăthouq – light, tart and spicy salads made with vegetables, herbs, fruit or meat tossed with lime juice, onions, peanuts, roasted chickpea powder or chillies. Among the most exquisite are maji·yweq thouq, made with tender young tamarind leaves, and shauq·thi dhouq, made with a type of lemon-like citrus fruit. In fact, the Burmese will make just about anything into a salad, as t’ămìn dhouq, a savoury salad made with rice, and nan·gyi dhouq, a salad made with thick rice noodles, prove.
A popular finish to Burmese meals, and possibly the most iconic Burmese dish of all, is leq·p’eq (often spelled laphet): fermented green tea leaves mixed with a combination of sesame seeds, fried peas, fried garlic, peanuts and other crunchy ingredients. A popular variant of the dish is leq·p’eq thouq, in which the fermented tea and nuts are combined with slices of tomato and cabbage and a squeeze of lime. The salad is a popular bar snack, and the caffeine boost supplied by the tea leaves makes the dish a favourite of students who need to stay up late studying.
Regional & Ethnic Variations
Burmese cuisine can be broadly broken down into dishes found in ‘lower Myanmar’ (roughly Yangon and the delta), with more fish pastes and sour foods; and ‘upper Myanmar’ (centred at Mandalay), with more sesame, nuts and beans used in dishes.
In Mandalay and around Inle Lake, it is fairly easy to find Shan cuisine, which is relatively similar to northern Thai cuisine. Rice plays an important role in Shan cuisine, and in addition to Shan-style rice noodles, ngà t’ămìn jin (rice kneaded with turmeric oil and topped with fish) is worth seeking out.
Mon cuisine, most readily available in towns stretching from Bago to Mawlamyine, is very similar to Burmese food, with a greater emphasis on curry selections. While a Burmese restaurant might offer a choice of four or five curries, a Mon restaurant will have as many as a dozen, all lined up in curry pots to be examined. Mon curries are also more likely to contain chillies than those of other cuisines.
Rakhine food is often likened to Thai food for its spiciness. Ngǎyouq·thì jiq, a 'dip' of grilled chillies mashed with lime and shrimp paste, is an obligatory side that embodies this, and sour soups and seafood-based curries are also constants. The region's signature noodle dish is móun·di, thin rice noodles served in a peppery fish-based broth, often with a side of a spicy chilli paste.
In towns large and small throughout Myanmar, you’ll find plenty of Chinese restaurants, many of which do a distinctly Burmese (ie oily) take on Chinese standards. Despite being the most ubiquitous type of dining in Myanmar (upcountry, this is often the only kind of restaurant you’ll find), it’s probably the least interesting.
Indian restaurants are also common, although much more so in the big cities than elsewhere. Excellent chicken dan·bauq (biryani), as well as all-you-can-eat vegetarian thali served on a banana leaf, can be found in Yangon and Mandalay.
A Burmese Noodle Primer
Myanmar's noodle dishes, known generally as k'auq·s'wèh, are quite unlike those found elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Often eaten for breakfast or as snacks between the main meals of the day, they can be divided into three general categories.
- S'i jeq Meaning 'cooked oil', this refers to noodles (rice or wheat) slicked with oil, topped with roast meat, and served with a side of broth and a small salad of cucumber (in Yangon) or onions (in Mandalay).
- Nàn·gyì dhouq/móun·di These two, virtually identical, dishes consist of thick, round rice noodles served with chicken, slices of fish cake, parboiled bean sprouts and sometimes slices of hard-boiled egg. The ingredients are seasoned with toasted chickpea flour, drizzles of turmeric and/or chilli oil, and served with sides of pickled vegetables and a bowl of broth.
- Nàn·byà·gyì thouq In Mandalay, this is a dish similar to the above, but made with flat, wide wheat noodles.
- Kya·zin hìn Mung-bean vermicelli served in a clear broth with wood-ear mushrooms, lily flowers, slices of fish cake, and pork or chicken. Typically garnished with hard-boiled egg, coriander, chilli flakes and thinly sliced shallots, and seasoned with lime juice and fish sauce.
- Kyè òu Meaning 'copper pot', this dish with Chinese origins combines thin rice noodles, egg, pork, seasoned pork balls, pork offal and greens in a hearty broth.
- Móun·hìn·gà The most ubiquitous noodle, and Myanmar's unofficial national dish, consists of fine, round rice noodles served in a thick fish- and shallot-based broth. Made hearty with the addition of pith from the stalk of the banana tree, the dish is often served topped with crispy deep-fried veggies or lentils.
- Óun·nó k'auq·s'wèh This dish unites pale wheat noodles, a mild coconut-milk-based broth, shredded chicken, slices of hard-boiled egg, deep-fried crispy bits and a drizzle of chilli oil. Served with sides of chopped green onion, thinly sliced shallots and lime.
- Shàn k’auq·s'wèh Possibly the most famous Shan dish, this takes the form of thin, flat rice noodles in a clear broth with chunks of marinated chicken or pork, garnished with toasted sesame and a drizzle of garlic oil, and served with a side of pickled vegetables. A dry version, in which the broth is served on the side, is also common.
- Rakhine móun·di This state's signature dish unites thin rice noodles, flaked fish and a peppery broth. Served with a spicy condiment of pounded green chilli.
Somewhere In Between
- To·hù nwe k'auq·s'wèh Literally 'warm tofu', this dish is similar to shàn k’auq·s'wèh, except that the clear broth is replaced by a thick porridge made from chickpea flour. The mixture is supplemented with pieces of marinated chicken or pork, a drizzle of chilli oil, and sides of pickled veggies and broth.
- Myì shay Thick rice noodles served with chicken or pork and parboiled bean sprouts, and united by a dollop of sticky rice 'glue' (actually the same batter used to make the noodles). The dish is seasoned with chilli oil and vinegar (in Mandalay) or tamarind (in Mogok), and served with sides of pickled veggies and broth.
The typical Burmese dessert is often little more than a pinch of pickled tea leaves or a lump of palm sugar (jaggery). More substantial sweet dishes, generally referred to as móun (sometimes written moun or mont), are regarded as snacks in Myanmar, and are often taken with equally sweet tea in the morning or afternoon.
Prime ingredients for Burmese sweets include grated coconut, coconut milk, rice flour (from white rice or sticky rice), cooked sticky rice, tapioca and various fruits. Some Burmese sweets have been influenced by Indian cooking and include more exotic ingredients such as semolina and poppy seeds. In general, Burmese sweets are slightly less syrupy-sweet than those of neighbouring Thailand, and often take a cake-like, seemingly Western form, such as bein móun and móun pyit thalet, Burmese-style 'pancakes' served sweet or savoury.
Black tea, brewed in the Indian style with lots of milk and sugar, is ubiquitous and cheap, costing K300 per cup at the time of research. Most restaurants and tea shops also provide as much free Chinese tea as you can handle.
International and local-brand soft drinks are widely available. Real coffee can be found at a steadily increasing number of modern Western-style cafes in Yangon and other large cities. Elsewhere, coffee drinkers might find themselves growing disturbingly attached to the ‘three-in-one’ packets of instant coffee (the ‘three’ being coffee, creamer and sugar); you can have these in teahouses for about K200.
Drink water in Myanmar only when you know it has been purified – which in most restaurants it should be. Ice in drinks bought in beer stations and bars is normally fine. Be more suspicious of ice from street stalls. Many brands of drinking water are sold in bottles and are quite safe, but check the seal on the bottle first. A 1L bottle, usually kept cool by ice or refrigerator, costs K300 to K500.
Myanmar's alcohol-drinking culture is all about 'beer stations', the Burmese version of pubs or bars. Found in every city and town, these rough-and-ready places serve cheap draught beer as well as local whisky and rum. Often they have kitchens that whip up noodle and rice dishes and Burmese beer snacks such as salads and barbecue; in small towns, beer stations are sometimes the only dining-out options. They're key spots for watching football, and so are busiest at weekends and when a big match is on. It's a pretty male scene – not many Burmese women drink alcohol – but foreigners are nearly always welcomed with a smile.
In Yangon, you'll find some sophisticated cocktail bars that cater to foreigners and cashed-up locals.
While a craft-beer scene is a long way off, the opening up of Myanmar's economy is leading to a broadening of what's available to beer drinkers. Japanese beverage giant Kirin has taken a 55% stake in Myanmar Brewery Limited (MBL; http://myanmarbeer.com), producer of the top-selling Myanmar Beer. Its standard (green-label) product is slightly lighter in flavour and alcohol (5%) than other Southeast Asian beers and costs around K800 a draught pint. Its new Premium brand is more wheaty and uses imported malt. The company also has a couple of other brands, including Black Shield stout.
Carlsberg and Heineken have also come into the market with their own brands and local variations, such as Yoma and Regal 7. At fancier urban bars you'll also find imported beers.
Liquors & Wines
Very popular in Shan State is an orange brandy called shwe leinmaw. Much of it is distilled in the mountains between Kalaw and Taunggyi. It’s a pleasant-tasting liqueur and packs quite a punch.
Near Taunggyi a couple of vineyards make wine, and in Pyin Oo Lwin there are several sweet strawberry-based wines.
There are also stronger liquors, including ayeq hpyu (white liquor), which varies in strength from brandy like to almost pure ethyl, and taw ayeq (jungle liquor), a cruder form of ayeq hpyu. Mandalay is well known for its rums, and there's also the fermented palm juice known as toddy.
Where To Eat & Drink
Myanmar has three default dining/drinking scenarios: what’s available in Yangon (including many expat-oriented, high-end choices); options in other oft-visited places, including Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Ngapali Beach (many traveller-oriented menus, with Thai and pizza among the choices); and what's on offer everywhere else.
Food is cheap – you can fill your stomach for K2500 to K5000 – if you stick to roadside restaurants with curry-filled pots or pick-and-point rice dishes. (It’s worth mentioning that these restaurants don’t always meet international hygiene standards.) In many midsize towns, there are street-food stalls, basic curry houses, a couple of Burmese-Chinese restaurants – and that’s it.
The bulk of Myanmar eateries are basic, with concrete floors, assertive fluorescent lighting and occasionally a menu in barely comprehensible English.
Burmese curry-based eateries are busiest (and many say freshest) at lunch. No menus are necessary at these; just go to the line of curries and point to what you want. A meal comes with a tableful of condiments, all of which are automatically refilled once you finish them. An all-you-can-eat meal can cost as little as K1500.
Chinese restaurants are found in most towns and many have similar sprawling menus, with as much as 50 rice or noodle and chicken, pork, lamb, fish, beef or vegetable dishes, almost always without prices indicated. Veggie dishes start at around K800 or K1000; meat dishes at about K1200 or K1500.
More upmarket restaurants – some serving a mix of Asian foods, others specialising in one food type, such as pizza or Thai – can be found in Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake and especially Yangon. Also, most top-end hotels offer plusher eating places, sometimes set around the pool. Such comfort is rarer to come by off the beaten track.
Most restaurants keep long hours daily, usually from 7am to 9pm or until the last diner wants to stumble out, their belly full of curry or beer.
Like most Southeast Asians, the people of Myanmar are great grab-and-go snackers. Stands at night markets, selling a host of sweets and barbecued meals and noodles, get going around 5pm to 8pm or later. Generally you can get some fried noodles, a few pieces of pork, or sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf for a few hundred kyat.
Outside of the big cities, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything resembling the Western concept of a bar or pub. Most drinking is done at open-air barbecue restaurants, often called ‘beer stations’ in Burmese English. Opening hours are therefore the same as for restaurants. All but Muslim Indian restaurants keep cold bottles of beer handy (charging from K1700 in basic restaurants and up to K3000 or so in swankier ones). It’s perfectly fine to linger for hours and down a few beers.
In addition to being a convenient place to grab a cuppa or a quick snack, teahouses are an important social institution in Myanmar, a key meeting place for family, friends or business associates. ‘Morning teahouses’ typically open from 6am to 4pm, while evening ones open from 4pm or 5pm and stay open till 11pm or later.
Note, it's common to see children working in teahouses.
When visiting a teahouse in Myanmar, abandon any preconceived notions of a fragrant cuppa served in a dainty China cup; the tea here is strong, often a bitter shot of black brew served in a minuscule glass mug with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk and a splash of tinned milk. To help you place your order, here is a short language lesson:
- lǎp’eq·ye – black tea served sweet with a dollop of condensed milk – the standard
- cho bawq – a less sweet version of lǎp’eq·ye
- kyauq padaung – very sweet; the phrase comes from a famous sugar-palm-growing region near Bagan
- cho kya – strongest tea, also served with condensed milk
Teahouses are also your best bet for breakfast, a light snack or sweet. Ethnic Burmese-run teahouses often emphasise noodles. Móun·hìn·gà is usually available as a matter of course, but other more obscure noodle dishes include óun·nó k'auq·swèh (thin wheat noodles in a mild coconut-milk-based broth), myì shay (thick rice noodles served with chicken or pork and a dollop of sticky rice 'glue') and nàngyì dhouq (a salad of wide rice noodles seasoned with chickpea flour). Teahouses that serve these dishes are also likely to serve fried rice and t’ămìn dhouq (rice salad), also great for breakfast.
Indian-owned teahouses often specialise in deep-fried dishes such as the ubiquitous samosas and poori (deep-fried bread served with a light potato curry), as well as oil-free breads such as dosai (southern Indian-style crepes) and nanbyá (naan bread), the latter often served with a delicious pigeon pea–based dip. And Chinese-style teahouses often feature lots of baked sweets as well as meaty steamed buns and yum cha–like nibbles.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarians will be able to find at least a couple of meat-free options at most restaurants in Myanmar. Many Burmese Buddhists abstain from eating the flesh of any four-legged animal and, during the Buddhist rain retreat around the Waso full moon, may take up a ‘fire-free’ diet that includes only uncooked vegetables and fruit. Some Indian or Nepali restaurants are vegan, and even meaty barbecues have a few skewered vegetables that can be grilled up. The easiest way to convey your needs is saying ‘ǎthà mǎsà nain bù' (I can’t eat meat).
Habits & Customs
At home, most families take their meals sitting on mats around a low, round table. In restaurants, chairs and tables are more common. The entire meal is served at once, rather than in courses. In Burmese restaurants each individual diner in a group typically orders a small plate of curry for himself or herself, while side dishes are shared among the whole party. This contrasts with China and Thailand, for example, where every dish is usually shared.
Traditionally, Burmese food is eaten with the fingers, much like in India, usually with the right hand. Nowadays, it’s also common for urban Myanmar people to eat with a k’ăyìn (or hkayin; fork) and zùn (spoon). These are always available at Burmese restaurants and are almost always given to foreign diners.
If you eat at a private home, it’s not unusual for the hostess and children to not join you at the table.
Dos & Don’ts
- A fork is held in the left hand and used as a probe to push food onto the spoon; you eat from the spoon.
- Locals tend to focus on the flavours, not table talk, during meals.
- If you’re asked to join someone at a restaurant, they will expect to pay for the meal. Expect to do likewise if you invite a local out for a meal.
Typical Burmese Dishes
|ǎmèh·hnaq||အမဲႏွပ္||beef in gravy|
|ceq·thà·gin||ၾကက္သားကင္||grilled chicken (satay)|
|ceq·thà·jaw jeq||ၾကက္သားေၾကာ္ခ်က္||fried chicken|
|ǎthì·ǎyweq·hìn/thì·zoun·hìn-jo||အသီးအရြက္ဟင္း ၊ သီးစုံဟင္းခ်ဳိ||vegetable curry|
|hìn·jo||ဟင္းခ်ဳိ||soup (clear or mild)|
|s’an·hlaw·hìn·jo||ဆန္ေလွာ္ဟင္းခ်ဳိ||sizzling rice soup|
|móun·di||မုန္႔တီ||mount-ti (Mandalay noodles and chicken/fish)|
|móun·hìn·gà||မုန္႔ဟင္းခါး||mohinga (noodles and chicken/fish)|
|móun·s’i·jaw||မုန္႔ဆီေၾကာ္||sweet fried-rice pancakes|
|móun·zàn||မုန္႔ဆန္း||sticky rice cake with jaggery (palm sugar)|
|myì shay||ၿမီးရွည္||Shan-style noodle soup|
|ngà·baùn·(douq)||ငါးေပါင္း(ထုပ္)||steamed fish (in banana leaves)|
|kauq·hnyìn·baùn||ေကာက္ၫႇင္းေပါင္း||steamed sticky rice|
|t’ ǎmìn-gyaw||ထမင္းေၾကာ္||fried rice|
|t’ǎdhì·móun||ထန္းသီးမုန္႔||toddy-palm sugar cake|
Meat & Seafood
|pin·leh·za/ye·thaq·tǎwa||ပင္လယ္စာ ၊ ေရသတၱဝါ||seafood|
|àw·za·thì||ၾသဇာသီး||custard apple (‘influence fruit’)|
|ceq·mauq·thì||ၾကက္ေမာက္သီး||rambutan (‘cockscomb fruit’)|
|pàn·dhì||ပန္းသီး||apple (‘flower fruit’)|
|t’àw·baq·thì||ေထာပတ္သီး||avocado (‘butter fruit’)|
|thiq·thì/ǎthì||သစ္သီး ၊ အသီး||fruit|
|thìn·bàw·dhì||သေဘၤာသီး||papaya (‘boat-shaped fruit’)|
Spices & Condiments
|meiq·thǎlin||မိတ္သလင္||galangal (white ginger-like root)|
|t’oùn||ထံုး||lime (for betel)|
|to·hù/to·p’ù||တိုဟူး ၊ တိုဖူး||tofu (beancurd)|
|bi·ya/tăbălìn||ဘီယာ ၊ တစ္ပုလင္း||beer|
|p’yaw·ye/ă·è||ေဖ်ာ္ရည္ ၊ အေအး||soft drink|
|ye-thán||ေရသန္႔||bottled water (‘clean water’)|
|ye·jeq·è||ေရက်က္ေအး||boiled cold water|
|nó·s’i·néh||ႏို႔ဆီနဲ႔||with condensed milk|
|lǎp’eq·ye·jàn/ye·nwè·jàn||လက္ဖက္ရည္ၾကမ္း ၊ ေရေႏြးၾကမ္း||green tea (plain)|