No More Bats and Bicycle Chickens: The Better Side of Burmese Cuisine

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.

Burmese Food, Streetside Soup - Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar)
Streetside soup in Rangoon.

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.

Burmese Food, Morning Soup - Meiktila, Burma
A bowl of mohinga for breakfast.

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).

Chapati Makers - Mandalay, Burma
Chapati line in Mandalay.

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.

Burmese Food, Grilled Okra and Broccoli - Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar)
Grilled okra and broccoli at Rangoon’s barbecue street.

4. Samosas

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.

Burmese Street Food - Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar)
All different varieties of samosas on the streets of Rangoon.

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.

Burmese Feast of Curries - Meiktila, Burma
Bus station thali. Pretty darn good.

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).

Burmese Flan - Rangoon, Burma (Yangon, Myanmar)
Who knew Burmese flan could be so good?

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.

Burmese Food, Spicy Noodles - Bagan, Burma
Kausuetho, spicy noodle goodness.

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).

Burmese Food, Vegetarian Curries - Mandalay, Burma
A tasty Burmese lunch selection across from the Teak Monastery.

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).

Burmese Food, Taster Plate - Mandalay, Burma
A plate of Burmese flavors, including Lahpet thouk, at Green Elephant.

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.

Burmese Food, Eggplant Salad - Bagan, Burma
Roasted eggplant salad and guacamole at Moon Restaurant in Bagan.

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

Best Breakfast

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.

Huge Breakfast at Guest House - Toungoo, Burma
An amazing breakfast at Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse.

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.

Smoked Bat Vendor - Bagan, Burma
Smoked bat vendors. Bagan, Burma.

Best Beer

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.

View More Photos of Burmese Food and Markets

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    Lovely images they are. When I saw the first pic, the first think I thought was – how was the light that day, that you made the picture so well that I can feel the third dimension like food popping up right on my screen. Flan and coffee is equally nice. Thanks for sharing.

  2. says

    That looks scrumptious. We have a few good Burmese place in the city, but nothing compares to the local cuisine. The set-up, presentation, and flavors.

  3. says

    Wow! Everything looks amazing. A beautiful example of fusion that has developed its own identity. My favorite is the Chapatis – sounds wonderful. I love flan. The flan-like dessert (pudim) we have here in Brazil is so great, that one looks like it might surpass it. Yum!

  4. says

    Aha! Many familiar scenes above. I could really go for a bowl of mohinga right now. And you beat me to the guac–I’ve been planning to post something on the great guacamole we had for breakfast, prepared as other Burmese salads are. I must try it at home when I get back to my kitchen!

  5. says

    Thanks everyone. As for the lighting in these shots, it must have been the morning light. I’m not always up to see it, but when I am, I always seem to be richly rewarded.

    I could go for some Burmese flan right about now.

  6. says

    Wow, what an amazing post! I love the photos and the food I miss! Breakfast was always one of my favorite meals, but only in Burma and I would get up at the crack of dawn just to sample a different treat every morning. So different from cornflakes and milk!

    I love that coffee shop you mentioned as well, they also have great semolina cake with carmelized coconut on top. Fantastic and across the street from there is where they make famous hand-tossed Burmese salads.

    Please show your support for the Burmese by signing this petition to drop the sanctions on Burma. Unfortunately we are not living in an ideal world and the sanctions have not helped the situation at all. The first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis is fast approaching and the international community needs to show support.

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/drop-sanctions-on-burma-myanmar

  7. says

    @hellaD: Savory breakfasts (soups, breads, beans, etc.) are a surprise treat in Southeast Asia.

    That coffee shop is incredible. We probably should have branched out from the flan, but we simply couldn’t change our focus. Next time, we’ll try the semolina cake with carmelized coconut (in Burma!…amazing). And hand-tossed Burmese salads? I’m making this comment just before lunch…dangerous timing.

    Thanks for the information on dropping the sanctions.

  8. Sam says

    Thanks for sharing your pictures.
    Did you guys ever tried coconut noodle soup (own no kao soi), similar to Kao Soi found in Chaing Mai? That along with mokhinga and let thoke (kaosuethoke) are my favorite. Just curious, you were never once sick from eating while traveling in Burma?

  9. says

    @Sam: We sampled so many different kinds of soups throughout Burma and Southeast Asia, that it’s possible that we had own no kao soi. But we don’t recall it specifically.

    And, no, we were never sick from eating while traveling in Burma. And we ate on the street and rather adventurously while we were there.

  10. amy says

    i love asian food but have recently become allergic to peanuts? do you think this will be a problem in burma? does anyone know how to say “i cannot eat peanuts (or peanut oil)” in burmese? thanks so much for the help. i’m so excited about my trip!!!

  11. says

    @amy: Being allergic to peanuts while traveling in Burma is not ideal, obviously. But if memory serves, it’s not the end of the world and not nearly as difficult as it might be in Thailand. Burmese cuisine is not as peanut heavy, but they are still present. Good thing is that you’ll have the more Indian and Chinese sides of the Burmese table to rely on.

    I don’t know off-hand how to say “I cannot eat peanuts…” in Burmese. However, someone at your guest house (in Rangoon / Yangon, probably) should be able to tell you how to say it and also be able to write it down on a piece of paper for you. That will help immensely.

    Have a great trip. Let us know how it goes — the trip and your avoidance of peanut-based foods in Burma!

  12. Myat says

    Hi Daniel,
    Thank you so much for promoting our Burmese food and sharing your experiences. I am glad that you have enjoyed the food so much. Wish you find a good Burmese friend to invite you for home cooked- authentic flavor meals to enjoy! Greeting from Canada.

  13. says

    @Myat: Burmese food is fun! We really enjoyed exploring the cuisine while traveling in Burma.

    A good home-cooked Burmese meal sounds absolutely great right about now. Glad you found us and left a comment.

  14. Sandra Southall says

    We are travelling to Burma very shortly and we are even more excited after reading your piece. Can’t wait to try all the lovely food and meet the people and really hope we get an invite to dinner like you.

  15. says

    @Sandra: We are very excited for you! The people in Burma are lovely (so is their food, of course). The more you explore and interact with Burmese people on the street, the higher the likelihood that you will be invited back home for tea, sky beer, or a meal. Any questions about traveling to Burma, just let us know.

  16. Ken Woytisek says

    Hi,
    I just returned from Myanmar where I traveled all around the country. One of my favorite “finds” was at a street vendor in Yangon. It was a delicious sweet fritter made with sticky rice flour , palm sugar, and sesame seeds (I think there was also coconut milk in the batter. She would scoop up a ladle of batter and put it in a small wok filled with cooking oil. I did not get the Burmese name but she told my guide that they were more popularly called “Barbie Cakes.” They were puffed up in the middle and were sooooo good! Have you come across these little gems? I would love to get the recipe and have searched the internet but have had no luck in finding anything remotely similar. Can you shed some light on this for me. I would be very grateful. Thanks!

  17. says

    @Ken: I believe we have, but I’ve never heard them called Barbie Cakes. Love that name. Maybe you are looking for the Burmese version of Halawa (or halwa or halva)? I’d do a search for recipes for that. Or, and I’m less confident of this: mont pyar thalet or bein mont, khauk mont.

  18. says

    Travelling to Burma next week and have always been under the impression the food is a bit rough and ready. You certainly make it look a whole lot better. Excited about the Indian influences in the area, I’m a sucker for curries and flat breads. Thanks for this.

  19. says

    @Allan: Burmese food isn’t as well known as Thai or Chinese foods (its neighbors), but there’s certainly lots of great soups, curries and other dishes to try. Hope you have a great trip and eat well!!

  20. says

    Looks like an amazing place with really interesting food. Thanks so much for sharing. Found another article that I really found interesting, it’s all about Myanmar and may be of interest to fellow South East Asia travellers.

Trackbacks

  1. […] – Food: Oh, the food. I plan on doing specific posts on Burmese tea leaf salads (lahpet thouk) , mohinga soups and delicious snacks, but suffice it to say that there is no shortage of street food, and it is fresh and safe . I did get food poisoning once, but that was where the woman was using river water to wash the dishes and didn’t dry them – big mistake. Overall, I spent approximately $0.50-$2 a meal, with most heartier meals coming in at $1 or $1.50. Tea shops with delicious naan accompanied by a bean dip are everywhere, and that terrific snack will cost you less than $0.50. The times I did eat at a restaurant (which was rare – usually I stuck to market and street stalls), meals were anywhere from $2-4, including water. Food, when eaten on the street, is incredibly cheap and delicious. To stave you off until I start on food posting, check out Uncornered Market’s great post ‘An Overview of Burmese Cuisine‘. […]

  2. […] The question is problematic. I’ve been asking it for over a year, and I know as little about the topic now as I did when I first moved to San Francisco. Something as straight forward as “beef curry” is a saucy Thai-Indian dish at Larkin Express, but by the same name is Chinese stir-fry at the Mission’s Yamo. Meanwhile, the originating region of Myanmar might be even less homogenized, or different altogether, from what I’ve gleaned from the internet. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>