Burmese food suffers from a bad rap – a rather unjustified bad rap in our opinion. While Burmese food can be somewhat oily, and lacks the diversity and firy spicing of cuisine in neighbouring Thailand, with a bit of advice and background knowledge we’re confident you’ll return from Myanmar having savoured some truly tasty and memorable meals.
A Burmese meal
T’ămìn (rice), also written as htamin, is the core of any Burmese meal. Rice is served with a variety of dishes that characterise Burmese cuisine, a unique blend of Burmese, Mon, Indian and Chinese influences. These dishes use a variety of local, largely plant- and seafood-based ingredients, and as with other Southeast Asian cuisines, an effort is made to balance the four primary flavours: sour, salty, spicy and bitter.
Although these foundations are relatively simple, one of the pleasures of eating an authentic Burmese meal is the sheer variety of dishes at a single setting, something that rivals even Thai food. Upon arriving at any Myanma saa thauk sain (Burmese restaurant), and having chosen a curry, fried dish or salad, a succession of side dishes will follow. One of these side dishes is invariably soup, either an Indian-influenced peh-hìn-ye (lentil soup, or dhal), studded with chunks of vegetables, or a tart leaf-based hìn-jo (sour soup). A tray of fresh and par-boiled vegetables and herbs is another common 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 side dishes, 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 raw vegetables or fruit tossed with lime juice, onions, peanuts, roasted chickpea powder and chillies. Among the most exquisite are maji-yweq thouq, made with tender young tamarind leaves, and shauq-thi dhouq, made with a type of indigenous lemon. In fact, the Burmese will make just about anything into a salad, as t’ămìn dhouq a savoury salad made with rice, and nangyi dhouq, a salad made with thick rice noodles, prove.
A popular finish to Burmese meals and possibly the most infamous Burmese dish of all is leq-p’eq (often spelled laphet), fermented green tea leaves mixed with a combination of sesame seeds, fried peas, dried shrimp, fried garlic, peanuts and other crunchy ingredients. The slimy-looking mass of leaves puts some foreigners off, but it’s actually quite tasty once you get beyond the dish’s exotic appearance. A more user-friendly version of the dish is leq-p’eq thouq, where the fermented tea and nuts are combined in the form of a salad with slices of tomato and cabbage and a squeeze of lime. The dish is a popular snack in Myanmar, and the caffeine boost supplied by the tea leaves makes the dish a favourite of students who need to stay up late studying.
Noodle dishes are prized by the Burmese and are most often eaten for breakfast or as light meals between the main meals of the day. The general word for noodles is hkuauq-swèh. The most popular noodle and unofficial national dish is moún-hìn-gà (often spelled mohinga), thin rice noodles served in a thick fish and shallot broth and topped with crispy deep-fried veggies or lentils. Móun-di (also known as mondhi) are spaghetti-like noodles served with chunks of chicken or fish. Another popular noodle dish, especially at festivals, is oùn-nó hkauq-swèh, Chinese-style rice noodles with pieces of chicken in a broth made with coconut milk.
Regional & Ethnic Variations
Local 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 also fairly easy to find Shan cuisine, which is somewhat similar to northern Thai cuisine. Popular dishes are k’auq sen (Shan-style rice noodles with curry) and various fish and meat salads. Large maung jeut (rice crackers) are common throughout Shan State.
Shàn k’auq-swèh (Shan-style noodle soup), thin rice noodles in a light broth with chunks of chilli-marinated chicken or pork, is a favourite all over Myanmar, but is most common in Mandalay and Shan State. A variation popular in Mandalay, called myi shay, is made with rice noodles and is often served with pork. Another Shan dish worth seeking out is ngà t’ămìn jin, ‘kneaded fish rice’, a turmeric-tinged rice dish.
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.
Rakhaing (Arakan) food most resembles dishes found in Bangladesh and India’s Bengal state, featuring lots of bean and pulse dishes, very spicy curries and flatbreads.
In towns large and small throughout Myanmar you’ll find plenty of Chinese restaurants, many of which do a distinctly Burmese 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 Yangon than elsewhere. Most are run by Muslim Indians, a few by Hindus. Excellent chicken dan-bauq (biryani), as well as all-you-can-eat vegetarian thali served on a banana leaf, is easy to find in the capital. The Myanmar people call Indian restaurants that serve all-you-can-eat thali ‘Chitty’ or ‘Chetty’ restaurants.
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