I remember my first taste of what was supposed to be Burmese food at a restaurant in San Francisco. There was none of the coconut milk and fragrance of Thai curries and the spice palette didn't inspire like it did in Indian cuisine.
Underwhelming, I thought.
However, during our visit to Burma (Myanmar), we quickly appreciated Burmese cuisine for the beauty of what it is: an Asian cuisine fused from Southeast Asian, Chinese and Indian influences.
Armed with that perspective, we found Burmese food a pleasure. Street food was varied, accessible and inexpensive. Restaurants were similarly enjoyable. And we were even invited for a few home-cooked meals.
Note: In case you're wondering, we never got sick. Although we ate food on trains, in street stalls and in markets, we almost always ate vegetarian. In these environments, eating meat can be dicey. We avoid it if we have any doubts.
Our Top 15 Eating Experiences in Burma (Myanmar)
1. Mohinga (or mohinka)
The unofficial national dish of rice vermicelli in a fish-based broth of onions, garlic, ginger, and lemon grass – all topped with sliced banana blossom, boiled eggs and fritters (akyaw). Sounds like a strange choice for breakfast, doesn't it? But after almost a month of fried egg breakfasts, this soup provided a welcome change. The best: at the family-run roadside stand in Meikthila near the bus stop to Bagan.
2. Chapatis and Curry in Mandalay:
This chapati stand needs no name; everyone in Mandalay knows it. It’s difficult to decide which facet of the chapati production line impresses the most: the women rolling the dough or the guys tossing and frying the chapatis. And the taste is no slouch either. To give your chapati some company, opt for a dose of meat or veg curry from giant cauldrons. The veg curry and daal were both tasty – and bottomless. Between dips, scoops and swabs, enjoy life as it swirls on the street and tables around you. Location and Cost: Mandalay, 82nd and 27th Streets, 700 kyats (less than $1).
3. Barbecue Street in Rangoon (Yangon)
Although barbecue usually implies meat, we went all vegetarian. Herbivores and carnivores alike will find an endless choice. Opt for food that looks fresh and select your desired atmosphere. The grilled okra, broccoli, mushrooms, and tofu all rocked, particularly when washed down with a cold draft beer. Location and cost: Rangoon's Chinatown between Mahabandoola and Anawrahta Streets. Cheap, as in two people eat for less than $3.
Anywhere on the street, particularly in Rangoon. Sample them on the street corner, on the train platform, in the circle train. Try 'em, try 'em often. Some even feature hints of cinnamon and star anise. Try also the samosa soups (samusa thouk), where samosas are scissored into a light broth and topped with fresh herbs, onions and greens.
5. Burmese thali.
Bus journeys in Burma often take twice as long as they should. As a consolation, your bus will usually stop along the way at a roadside restaurant or two dishing out vast multi-course thalis (rice, soup, vegetables, curry, chutneys) that run $1.00-2.00 for all you can eat. Quality varies. We enjoyed our best experience on the way from Meikthila to Bagan. Roadside Restaurant Rule of Thumb: if the food looks fresh, go for it. If the food looks tired, give it a pass.
6. Flan and coffee near Sule Pagoda (Rangoon)
Wake up, walk down the street, and smell the coffee. Literally. We followed a strong coffee smell down the street to Let Ywe Sin, a hole-in-the-wall place that offers a lively local crowd, delicious coffee and flan. Audrey, not normally a fan of flan, is now a convert. Even better, a dish of flan and two coffees runs $0.80.
Location: 128 Sule Paya Road (a few doors down from Aroma Cafe and Castle Internet Café) in Rangoon (Yangon).
7. Fish with green chili curry
Does the thought of green chili make your belly boil? If so, give this dish a try. It was surprisingly light – a fish filet high on taste and low on heat. And the best refined fish we tasted during our travels in Burma. Price was reasonable, too. For a companion dish, try the pumpkin curry.
Location: Unique Superb Restaurant at Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake).
8. Kausuetho (khow suey)
Burmese yellow rice noodles turned with an Indian-slanted spice masala, herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice (or vinegar). As our vendor prepared the dish with her bare hands, we wondered whether our stomachs would abide it. The taste: terrific. Toilet emergency factor (TEF): none.
Location: Bago. From the main street hotel strip, cross the bridge and turn left into the local market. Look for the piles of the bright yellow noodles near the entrance.
9. Burmese lunch near Teak Monastery (Mandalay)
The food was decent, but the women who work here made the experience. They start out shy, giggling and skeptical. Then they end up like this. Oh, and you get an all-you-can-eat (they will be shoveling you full) Burmese thali featuring mung beans, green beans and various vegetarian stews sided with hot sauce. We forgot to ask what the dishes were named because we enjoyed the company too much.
Location and cost: Down the street from Teak Monastery in Mandalay, 700 kyats (less than $1).
10. Nepalese food and chutneys
Burma’s diversity also translates into a variety of available ethnic restaurants. No matter what you order – stuffed paratha (stuffed flat bread), curry, or rice, be sure to feast your eyes and mouth all over the accompanying chutneys.
Location: The Everest Café in Kalaw takes the prize for variety and quality of chutneys: radish, hot pepper, cabbage, mango pickle and tomato salsa. Also try the appropriately named Nepalese Restaurant in Mandalay (on 81st Street between 26th/27th) – great methi paratha (potato and fenugreek stuffed flat bread) and lassi.
11. Lahpet thouk
A salad of pickled tea leaves served with various crunchy bits and sauces (fried peas, peanuts and garlic; toasted sesame, fresh garlic, tomato, green chili, crushed dried shrimps, preserved ginger) and dressed with peanut oil, fish sauce and lime. Unique and delicious.
Location: Green Elephant Restaurant in Mandalay (27th and 6th Streets).
12. Trekking food
Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake with Sam’s treks, get a guide (ours was named Alex) and enjoy home made food three times a day. Dishes might include pumpkin and ginger soup, tomato slaw with lime juice and peanuts, pumpkin curry, and braised okra with sesame. Bonus treats include spicy salsa from the local village. Cost: Guide, accommodation and food = $8/day.
13. Guacamole and “Special Eggplant”
Guacamole in Burma? You better believe it. An American tourist taught the cooks at a local vegetarian restaurant how to churn out delicious guac with baked pappadums (paper-thin bread). A bit more local authentic: the candi mi po tho, a dish featuring roasted eggplant stir fried with spring onions, peanuts, garlic, sesame seeds and a dash of hot pepper. We returned and enjoyed a private lesson on how to make this flavorful dish.
Location: Moon Vegetarian Restaurant just inside the gates of Old Bagan, north of Ananda temple.
14. Hinto (or, Hnyin htoe)
A hearty favorite in the Burmese countryside. One night in the Burmese hills of Shan State, just after we brushed our teeth (a non-trivial production) and settled into bed, our host family delivered late night parcels of onion, leek, rice, and cabbage steamed in a banana leaf. Hnyin htoe tastes even better after the flavors have settled overnight and are fried up in the morning with turmeric and chili.
15. Gyin thouk
Grated ginger salad with sesame seeds. Our best experience came at the hands of the wife of a Burmese man who invited us to his house in New Bagan.
Final Burmese Food Recommendations
It’s almost worth getting off the bus in Toungoo and staying overnight at Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse just to experience the world's most abundant breakfast. Vast, varied, and delicious, it may include fresh fruit from the garden, fried chapati (crispy, blistered, and topped with boiled lentils/peas), eggs, samosas, fresh locally-grown coffee…and just about anything else you might desire.
Most Interesting Street Snack
Bat Skewers – roasted, toasted, crispy, crunchy, meat on the bone. Full disclosure: we never tried them. The woman selling them claimed they were very tasty, but they didn't look particularly meaty or enticing.
Stick with Mandalay Red (choose it over Mandalay Blue). You’ll learn early that not all beers are created equal. Myanmar Beer is OK too, particularly on draft.
Best Western Meal
Pizza and Tagliatelle Bolognese at Star Flower Restaurant in Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake). An Italian tourist from Bologna supposedly taught a couple of Burmese brothers how to cook Italian food. The results are impressive and remarkably authentic, especially considering you're in Burma and some of the ingredients can be difficult to come by.
Burma Pre-Trip Reading List: Recommended Books (Myanmar)
Pre-trip reading can help you better understand a place — its culture, history, cuisine, and popular stories. The following recommended books are either about Burma or written by Burmese authors. We hope that they make your visit even more enriching.
- Burmese Days: George Orwell uses his own experience working in Burma as a young man to show a glimpse of life in British colonial Burma in all of its craziness and spirit. The stories that left perhaps the strongest impression on me were those from the teak forest of the elephants working in the there and the relationship they had with their mahout (master), including their abilities to mourn and remember. A quick read.
- The Glass Palace: I actually read this after we had left Burma, and wish that I had read it beforehand. Amitav Ghosh's takes the reader through an incredible story that begins on the cusp of British rule in Burma (1885) and continues through to World War II and into the present. So much historical, cultural and economic context in this historical novel.
- The Art of Hearing Heartbeats: In Jan-Philipp Sendker's novel the urban, American daughter goes to Burma to look for her father who has disappeared. Along the way she learns about his family, childhood growing up in rural Burma, and realizes she really knew so little about her father. I read this book several years after visiting Burma and feel that the description of Burmese culture and people to be well done.
- Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma): Although things in Myanmar (Burma) are changing quickly we still appreciated having an actual paper guidebook with us. Even if restaurants and hotels change hands, the guidebook maps are still really helpful new cities and areas. Pick up a Burmese language phrasebook if you want to learn a few local words and sayings.