Myanmar was sealed off for the last 50 years, but, as the country opens up, travelers finally get to have a taste of one of Southeast Asia’s most colorful culinary palettes.
Burmese food is a collision between Chinese, Indian, and other Southeast Asian cooking traditions. This rich culinary palate combines a hodgepodge of unique flavors from Myanmar’s ethnic and regional cuisines.
Throughout the streets of the Golden Land, as the country is known, the savory fragrance of rich, bright curries simmer from street vendors’ vats and penetrate passerby’s nostrils in an enticing assault on the senses.
Motley arrays of boiled vegetables, fresh local herbs, and sour and salty sauces decorate tables low to the ground where local patrons eagerly dig into their feasts.
If you’re a vegetarian this is also the place for you – you can discover many kinds of salads and tossed greens on these streets. Ginger, cucumber, tomato, tea leaves, kaffir lime, long bean – if it grows in Myanmar’s fertile soil, then it’s probably in a salad.
When you sit down for a meal, you’ll find yourself packed next to your neighbor as you try to fit on small stools or on the floor around a small table with other diners. But don’t just start chowing down when the first (of many) dishes come out – Burmese don’t start the feast until everything is served and the elders and guests are given priority. When the first scoop has been given, then it’s time to dig into the aromatic medley before you.
Paul Arps via flickr
Like some other South Asian countries, in traditional settings people only eat with their right hand, using their fingers to ball the local rice, t’ămìn, into a small sphere before mixing it with other dishes or oily dipping sauces. While the tables are small enough to reach everything, spoons and forks are often provided for serving with the left hand and can be requested for eating as well.
When it comes down to the specifics of what to order and eat, the options are numerous, and our local guide can help you decide. Classic Burmese staples are pervasive throughout the country and are usually accompanied by an incredible array of complimenting sides and soups.
If you’re up north in the Mandalay region, you might find yourself surrounded by the more rich and savory bean and sesame-based dishes of the Shan culture like Hto-hpu Nwe: a thick, yellow porridge made from chickpea flower delivered over fresh, thin hkuauq-swèh rice noodles topped off by a sprinkle of bright chili oil and a side of pickled vegetables.
In the south around Yangon, you might be surprised to find more fish-paste based sauces and dips, with strong sour flavors dominating the palate. There’s also the impressive variety of Bon curries around the Gulf of Martaban: pork, beef, shrimp, fish, or mutton bases alongside fried vegetables and rice with choices of an ngapi ye fish sauce or balachaung dip, a dry garlicky sauce mixed with chilies, dried shrimp, and a splash of oil. For a mix of both Shan cuisine and the seafood taste of the south, dig into some mildly spiced Nga Htamin served with turmeric rice and marinated pork rinds.
But, wherever you go, you can’t miss this staple: Lephet thoke. Found everywhere, this is the Burmese pick-me-up salad with a shock of caffeine that is a must try. Made from fresh, fermented tea leaves the name means “hand-mixed” and, as it would imply, is meant to be eaten – and mixed – with your hands.
Fully customizable, you can mix and choose your own flavors by adding in a variety of crispy deep fried beans, toasted nuts, peas, garlic oil, and sliced chili. If the flavor is too tart, add some diced tomatoes and shredded cabbage to the mix. It can be served as a light, midday snack when you need an energy boost, a cool accompaniment to the simmering rice and curry staples of a main meal, or refreshing desert after dinner.
Jason Eppink via flickr
And, the list goes on: mohinga fish soup and noodles, Indian poori and samosas, moun sweets, deep fried breads and savory fritters, heaps of dragon fruit, and mouth-watering barbequed meats skewered on a stick.
The rich and savory tastes of Burmese food unify the otherwise very diverse geography of Myanmar. You’ll relish the chance to find a seat at one of these packed, brightly colored tables with twenty small, fragrant dishes in front of you. The life of these newly-opened streets zooming by is not to be missed.
Hungry for a taste of Myanmar? WildChina takes you deep into the heart of this culinary culture on our Myanmar: Into the Golden Lands tour.