Thailand has pad thai and tom yam; Vietnam is known for pho; so what dish puts Burma on the culinary world map? With a wide range of cultures and ethnic groups all living in the same area plus a history of being colonised, food in Burma is sometimes hard to pin down and categorise. It's not uncommon to hear about people eating Indian naan bread for breakfast, having a Burmese salad for lunch, then finishing the day at a Chinese restaurant -- all the better for you, the traveller, as you have a wide variety of food to consider. Here are some common choices that you may see on your trip to Burma.
If anything, this is the national dish of Burma. You can find it in just about any restaurant, tea shop, or street stall, especially before noon as it is usually consumed for breakfast. While there is no standard formula, the base of mohinga is made with fish paste and rice noodles. This is usually mixed with garlic, onions and lemongrass along with optional extras such as banana tree stems, fried gourd, chickpeas, or fish cake. If you are near the ocean, you are more likely to get bits of fresh fish as a bonus. As it is a dish available throughout the country, the variations are endless; this is one meal that you can try a thousand times without ever getting two precisely the same.
The most famous salad in Burma and probably the country's second signature dish (after mohinga) is laphet thoke (green tea leaf salad). Tea leaves pickled by oil, garlic, salt and chilli (optional) are consumed together with fried beans, peanuts, garlic, sesame seeds and dried shrimp. The ingredients vary depending on the shop and family recipe so, like mohinga, no two laphet thoke are the same.
In addition to using tea leaves, you can find salads of just about anything else. Vegetarians can try pennywort leaves salad, tomato salad, green mango salad, ginger salad, or even the deceptively tasty cloud fungus salad (which is often mistakenly translated as seaweed salad). For the carnivores of the group, let there be no fear as samosa salads, prawn salads, chicken salads, and pig head salads all exist as well. And yes, they are just as they sound: a chicken salad, for instance, is nothing more than cooked strips of chicken piled high on a plate.
One of the few foods that is featured in restaurants while not being cooked at home, Kyay Oh (pronounced "Jay Oh") is a popular dish with the young people of Burma. Rumour has it that it probably originated in China, but no one seems to know this for sure. A simple formula, kyah oh is made from vermicelli noodles in soup with pork bits and greens. Quite often the waiter will ask if you want the broth on the noodles or on the side. For whatever reason, most local people seem to like the broth on the side although I can't figure out why this might be an advantage.
Shan khao swe
As the name implies, Shan khao swe (literally "Shan noodles") is a Shan-inspired dish from the northeastern part of Burma. A base of rice noodles is mixed with chicken/pork, onions, garlic, tomatoes, chillies, and crushed roasted peanuts. Its appearance, taste and consistency make it sort of like the "spaghetti" of Burma as it is a rich taste easily enjoyed even by the most finicky of palates. Quite often, this becomes the de facto dinner food of many travellers as it is widely available, not spicy, and generally safe to eat.
While a Burmese curry doesn't quite hold its weight against those of its neighbours (India and Thailand), a chance to eat an authentic curry in Burma shouldn't be missed. Since meat is sometimes expensive or dodgy, an egg curry is a good alternative to getting a taste of the Burmese variety. Usually made with chicken eggs and occasionally duck eggs, egg curry has a very rich and filling taste due to its overwhelming use of oil. As it is normally served in a small dish, it should be taken with a plate of plain, white rice to complete the curry set.
An Indian-inspired dish found at nearly every teashop, pepyoke nanbya ("beans and naan bread") is a favourite and cheap breakfast for the masses. For around 300 kyat (less than $0.50), the diner receives a huge chunk of freshly cooked naan bread accompanied by a side of creamy, chickpea-like beans. Often the beans are topped with fried onions or local spices. To find a location to get your own, poke your head into any teashop and look for a large wood-burning oven, the hallmark symbol of fresh naan being created. As it is typically a breakfast food, finding it after noon can be a challenge.
Present at most Shan restaurants, Mala Hin is a vegetarian meal which can contain tofu, beans, rice noodles, peas, kailan, carrots, and any other seasonal vegetable. It is all smothered in a spicy bean sauce and sometimes topped with peanuts. It's a little bit like that stir-fry you try to do at home, except way better.
Quite often you want something good without having to think about it. You want to point at something and have it on your plate. Well, it's a good thing most towns in Burma have at least one barbecue joint. The process is pretty simple: go to the food display area, pick up a plastic basket, then put whatever food you want in it; selections may include a whole fish, fresh corn on the cob, skewers of okra, or maybe even a whole squid. After giving the basket to one of the attendants, just wait until they bring you back your food nicely cut and cooked for your consumption.
Myae oh meeshay
Another Shan dish, myae oh meeshay is a vegetarian favourite. Best described as a bunch of vegetables cooked in a clay pot, myae oh meeshay typically starts with rice noodles, which are then added to a spicy sauce and topped with handfuls of whatever vegetables are around. Due to the sheer amount of food in one portion of myae oh meeshay, it is often shared with someone else along with a small order of fried tofu.
By Edward Moore
Last updated on 5th February, 2012.