Just like Khmer food and Laos food, I knew nothing about Myanmar food coming into Myanmar. Absolutely nothing. So naturally, given the history of food tasting during this trip, I expected Myanmar food to turn out like Khmer and Laos food – mediocre, lacking variety, and overall not very memorable. I’m so happy to be able to say that I was wrong! International cuisines were not nearly as prevalent in Myanmar as in other countries, which helped to ensure that we used every opportunity to enjoy local dishes.
More than anything else, we ate Myanmar curry during our time in Myanmar. You know how normally you order curry, and a bowl of curry comes along with rice/naan/chapatis/noodles? Well, that was not the case with Myanmar curry. It was an absolute feast. It was not just a simple dish or even an ordinary meal. It was a full-on culinary experience.
We basically had a mini-buffet at our table. There was a bowl of soup – often appetizing and it changed depending on the day. There was salad – one or two or more, ranging from papaya to bamboo shoots to tofu. There was a large plate of fresh vegetables – cucumbers and carrots, lettuce and peppers. There were multiple condiments and dips – mixes of chillies, dried small fishes, bean-based sauces, etc. Oh, and of course, there was also the curry and rice. We’ve tried curry made with chicken, pork, and even mutton meatball, which was ridiculously delicious.
My worst fear when it comes to food is having to eat the exact same thing every single day. I love variety, both between meals as well as within one meal. So naturally, Myanmar curry was really well-suited for my tastes. No one bite was the same. I switched between every bowl and plate on the table continuously. There was great balance throughout the entire meal. When the curry was too heavy, I had some salad or veggies. When the rice was too bland and dry, I had some soup or some dips. I want every meal for the rest of my life to be like this.
We’ve had curry in every city in Myanmar and everyone does it a little bit differently. Our favourite restaurant had to be Aye Myit Tar in Mandalay. Obviously, we haven’t tried everything out there, and we lucked out because we lived near the restaurant in Mandalay, but the curry there was superb. They offered curry with every kind of meat imaginable (normal stuff, nothing weird), plus they had particularly great side dishes. The rice was unlimited (and probably side dishes as well), but we never made it past the initial fill. Don’t go there on a full stomach!
A traditional Myanmar dessert always completed the curry meal – some palm sugar. Not only was it good for digestion, anyone with a sweet tooth would love it.
Originating from Shan state in northern Myanmar, we first stumbled upon Shan noodles unexpectedly. During one of our first days in Myanmar, Carlos ordered it at a random eatery in Yangon. I remember asking him why he chose that one instead of one of the more normal sounding noodle dishes, and he shrugged. It ended up tasting better than the noodle dish I chose. So afterwards I googled it, and realized that it was one of the best dishes to eat in Myanmar!
Shan noodle was a pretty typical noodle soup dish consisting of rice noodles in a broth with pieces of pork or chicken, garnished with sesame seeds. Pickled vegetables and soup were usually served on the side. However, there was a great deal of different varieties. Sticky vs. oil noodles, broth soup or dry, and even slightly different flavourings like ones with sweet dressing.
One reason why we loved Shan noodles was that no matter where in Myanmar we went, no matter what time of day it was, a bowl of Shan noodles was always a cheap and dependable option. Typically costing anywhere between $0.80 to $1.50, there was nothing more delectable for this price. When we couldn’t handle the monstrosity that was Myanmar curry, we knew we could order Shan noodles and count on it to be filling. Our favourite place was 999 Shan Noodle Shop that served wonderfully clean food in the chaos of downtown Yangon.
Tea Leaf Salad
One of the most famous and popular dishes in Myanmar is known as laphet thoke, or tea leaf salad. I had never heard of tea leaves being put into salads before Myanmar and I was a little apprehensive about how it could taste good. Tea leaves tend to be pretty bitter. As always, it turned out to be yummy beyond my expectations.
The tea leaves were pickled and fermented, giving them a sour and only slightly bitter taste. The salad in general had great texture, from the shredded cabbage to the juicy sliced tomatoes to the crunchy beans and nuts. Some chili and garlic also added a tad of spiciness. It has to be one of the most unique and memorable salads I’ve ever had. I enjoyed tea leaf salad the most as a side dish, but I can see how it could also be a snack, an appetizer, or even a main dish. A very versatile dish indeed!
An unofficial national food in Myanmar, we tried mohinga having no idea it was that. While we were visiting Golden Rock in Kinpun, we were tired of all the super touristy restaurants on the main street. So we just sat down at a random non-touristy restaurant where only locals sat on short stools. Of course, there was no menu (let alone an English menu), and we just pointed at what everybody else was having.
A bowl of what looked like noodles was put in front of us, so we thought it would taste like your average noodle soup dish. Not quite. The noodles were regular thin noodles, but the broth was thick, dark and fishy. There were some other toppings that we didn’t know, like crunchy pieces of fried batter of some sort. It was pretty good, so we ate it and didn’t ask questions. Later on, we found out that it was an unofficial national food and we felt so dumb for not knowing that (and not taking any pictures)!
We enjoyed Myanmar food much more than we ever thought we would. Other popular foods not mentioned here include lots of deep-fried items sold by street vendors. With influences from some culinary giants like India, China, and Thailand, Myanmar food was its own amalgamation of all of those other cuisines. We ate at least one of the dishes mentioned above everyday. Part of that, I admit, was definitely due to the lack of other options. Chinese food and Thai food were not great, and anything European was absurdly expensive and small. There were days when the thought of another Myanmar curry meal was less than appealing, but now I’m glad I can say I really took every opportunity to eat like a local in Myanmar.