While authentic cuisine from Myanmar may not have the same global appeal as pad thai or Peking duck, what it lacks in fame it more than makes up for in flavour. Thanks to the nation’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity, its culinary scene incorporates a wealth of tastes and textures from a variety of sources. Myanmar’s neighbours – Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India – all have a strong influence over the flavours that come into play throughout many desirable dishes.
Likewise, the highly varied ethnic mix of Bamar, Bengali, Tamil, Nepalese, Shan and Mon communities all exert a strong influence over Myanmar’s favourite foods. Your location within the country often determines the kind of dishes you can expect to feature prominently on local menus, so it’s well worth reading up on the regional specialities to ensure you can savour as many delicious delights as possible.
A Feast of Flavours
While the flavours of Myanmar may draw influences from surrounding countries, they are a far cry from the dishes you can expect to see on the table across the rest of Southeast Asia. A wealth of intense flavours gives the food a unique edge, and some of the most popular local veggies – such as tangy roselle or cress-like pennywort leaves – are hardly eaten elsewhere. However, they are a main feature in many of the salad dishes served across the country. The extensive use of pulses and beans also sets Myanmar’s dishes apart from Thai food in particular. Thanks to the Indian influence, soya beans, kidney beans and sesame seeds feature heavily. The dry region around Bagan is a hotspot for the cultivation of peanuts and sesame, so they often appear in local delicacies.
Understanding the Format
In addition to the unique combination of spices, herbs and local veggies employed by Myanmar’s cooks, the eating format is somewhat different as well. Head out to a standard local eatery and you will find that most of the meals are curry-based, with each spicy concoction more closely resembling its slow-cooked Indian cousin than coconut-flavoured Thai varieties. For meat eaters, the standard choices are chicken, beef and mutton, however, if you’re in a coastal region expect seafood to feature. Once you’ve settled on your curry, you will usually be served rice and a hot soup – often lentil or rosella leaf. These side dishes will vary from restaurant to restaurant and from region to region, and being unable to predict what you’re going to get makes Myanmar’s food journey that much more exciting for the travelling foodie.
Where to Eat
One thing Myanmar does have in common with its Southeast Asian cousins is its delectable street food. Many visitors are powerless to resist the irresistible fragrance of freshly-cooked local delicacies, and for that matter – why would you want to? If you’re exploring Yangon, make your way to 19th street to discover a hive of activity as locals and visitors alike clamour to get their hands on the best bites. The alluring aroma of succulent meat, fresh seafood and crisp veggies is sure to get your taste buds tingling, and it’s worth visiting this pedestrianised area with a travel companion so you can share as many dishes as possible. Up in Mandalay, the culinary scene remains fairly traditional with the focus firmly fixed on local tea houses and street food. However, the growth of tourism in recent years also means that a variety of impressive restaurants have sprung up across the area.
Gifts from China
Myanmar’s cuisine takes plenty of inspiration from China, its northern neighbour. Throughout the country, you will find plenty of Chinese restaurants, many of which offer a scrumptious twist on well-known Chinese dishes. Seejeet khao swe is one traditional dish that is infused with enchanting Chinese flavours. This tasty mix of wheat noodles, duck and diced scallions is fried in garlic oil to create a hearty meal. However, for those seeking something tasty to satisfy a sweet tooth, shwe yin aye – a creamy concoction of agar jelly, sago, tapioca and coconut milk – will hit the spot.
The herbs, pulses and cooking techniques of India became part of Myanmar’s culinary repertoire long before fiery Thai flavours or crisp Chinese vegetables entered the scene. Food outlets run by Indian families can be found everywhere, serving up everything from delectable biryanis to familiar vegetable samosas. The concentration of Indian restaurants in Yangon is higher, and traditional flatbreads and daal commonly serve as a typical breakfast in the city. For the best Indian-inspired food, head to Anawrahta Road or Mughal Street. There are also plenty of vegetarian eateries here for those who would prefer no meat. Bhajis, pakoras and dosa crepes are just a few of the snack-type foods on offer before you indulge in the full curry and rice experience.
For those that want to sample the quintessential range of Myanmar’s traditional dishes, here is a selection not to be missed:
- Tea leaf salad – known locally as lahpet – is the signature dish of the nation. Leafy green mashed leaves, a panoply of beans and nuts and a handful of diced tomatoes are seasoned to perfection with chillies and sesame oil. This sour, tangy dish is best enjoyed alongside a refreshing cup of green tea.
- Just as Thailand has its tom yam, Myanmar too has its own classic fish soup – mohinga. This indulgent soup is packed with flavour and steaming, noodle goodness. Typical versions will feature catfish, and tasty additions can include anything from chillies and hard boiled eggs to chickpea fritters and coriander.
- We’ve already mentioned pennywort leaves as being one of the ingredients that lends Myanmar’s range of traditional salads a unique edge. Pennywort salad is a regular feature on menus around the country, and is a zesty, light dish that’s more often served as a snack. The cress-like leaves are flavoured with lime juice, fish sauce, sesame seeds and chillies.
- Shan noodles are possibly one of Myanmar’s most famous dishes. Flat rice strips resembling tagliatelle are mixed with an enticing concoction of chicken, tomatoes, fish sauce and Chinese greens. The fresh produce is brought to life with turmeric, coriander, chilli and soy sauce – to name but a few.
- While most families around the country will not indulge in desserts on a regular basis, if you’re on holiday it would be a shame to miss out. If the thought of kyauk kyaw, seaweed jelly topped with a layer of coconut milk, doesn’t sound appealing – think again. This creamy dish is one of Myanmar’s most sumptuous sweet delicacies.