For want of a better word, with local Burmese it’s in particular the format of the meals that’ll be different from what you’ll be used to elsewhere in Southeast Asia. A classic local meal is curry based — that is, a slow-cooked, Indian-style curry rather than a soupy, coconut milk version like you’ll find in most of Thailand. It’ll have been prepared in advance, not cooked to order and not re-heated. There may be a menu or you may have to peek under cooking pot lids, but standard choices are: chicken, beef, mutton (though usually actually goat), pork and meatballs, with fish plus prawn and squid appearing when you’re closer to the sea.
Chicken, and often pork, will frequently be on the bone, while mutton and beef may well contain bits of tripe and offal, and fish won’t be filleted. The Indian-style curries are oily but while high on spices they are generally low on chillies.
Having chosen your own main curry dish, you’ll then be presented with rice, a hot soup (lentil or rosella leaf are common), and a selection of side servings such as vegetables and various dips, chutneys and condiments. These side dishes vary enormously from place to place, season to season and indeed day to day, presumably depending upon what’s cheap and plentiful in the market. Some restaurants may allow you to choose. We recently visited a restaurant in Hpa-An advertising no less than 10 free side dishes per curry ordered.
In a local cafe, the menu, if they have one, will generally note the curry options, speciality dishes such as salads and more substantial vegetable dishes. The price indicated — roughly speaking between 2,000 and 3,500 kyat — thus includes soup and side dishes. So $3 or $4 may not sound particularly cheap for a curry, but as staff rapidly fill up the table you’ll see it’s an excellent deal.
Furthermore the soup and side dishes are refilled for free, though extra curry is extra kyat. For two or three people ordering you will get the same number of dishes and if you wish to partake of the side dishes you will typically be charged for a curry whether you want one or not.
A word of warning: we are referring to local eateries here, and if you order a chicken curry in a guesthouse cafe or fancy tourist spot then you may well receive a chicken curry and nothing else.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.