Tuesday, 6 October 2015

a trip to myanmar: an exploration of burmese food

Dining out the Burmese way in Yangon, Myanmar.

To be honest, I didn't do a whole lot of research on Burmese cuisine before I went to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). While I'm a huge fan of eating, for some reason, when I travel, I don't feel the need to plan my food itinerary too meticulously. I'll have a few things that I absolutely want to try, but I'm happy to go with the flow the rest of the time.

As it happened, one of the first Burmese dishes I fell in love with was nan gyi thoke - thick round rice noodles tossed in a curry gravy, slightly tangy with lemon and slightly nutty with chickpea flour. Our cute and friendly guesthouse in Yangon served it for breakfast one morning, and that was it. Love at first bite. From that day onward, I was always on the lookout for nan gyi thoke. In places where there were no English menus, I would often shyly query "nan gyi thoke?" and if they had it, this endearing noodle salad would be my meal.

Nangyi thoke - curried noodle salad.

The Burmese tea leaf salad, lahpet thoke, was a dish that I had heard about before prior to my trip to Myanmar, so I made sure that I didn't miss out. Featuring pickled tea leaves, vegetables, sesame seeds, peanuts and deep-fried legumes, this salad is a delightful melange of soft and crunchy textures. If caffeine affects you easily, though, avoid this salad for dinner, lest you feel frustrated later at your inability to fall asleep. Ask me how I know.

Lahpet thoke - Burmese tea leaf salad.

During our trip, we enjoyed meals from both street stalls and upmarket restaurants. The food here tends to be very affordable, even more so if you eat where the locals eat. It seems that the less English is spoken, the cheaper the food gets. Not surprisingly, really - this is how it works in most countries!

At this particular spot, we basically pointed at what we wanted, then sat down and waited. Suddenly, an incredible amount of food came out, and what's more, they kept refilling the pickles and the vegetable sides. We later figured out this was customary. You get a limited amount of fried fish, meat curry or whatever, but everything else gets topped up, apparently at no additional charge. When we finished our meal, more gesturing occurred as we established how much we owed, and it turned out to be just under $1 per person. Awesome!

Incredibly cheap and filling meal if you eat where the locals eat!

And in case you were wondering what Burmese curry is like, it definitely varies depending on where you get it from, but when it's good, it's very, very good.

A delicious Burmese curry. I think this one was a lamb curry.

Surprisingly, though, one of our more expensive meals (only in relative terms, I use the word "expensive" loosely here) also came from a place popular with the locals. This was from an open-air restaurant that does grilled foods of all sorts. You pick what you want at a counter; they grill it and bring it to your table. Most people keep it affordable by having the grilled meats and vegetables with rice. We went without rice, so we ended up paying about $10 each - still very affordable!

Here I introduce you to basil fish balls, which tasted pretty great - the herbaceous touch definitely added something a little different. Other highlights include the enoki mushrooms and the broccoli. Oh my goodness, the broccoli! I have always enjoyed broccoli anyway, but this grilling business really takes it to another level - the smoky flavour is just incredible. Yes, I took a picture of that revelatory broccoli, but I won't bother posting it here because it just looks like broccoli. And we gobbled it up so fast that my picture was of literally just one piece of broccoli.

Basil fish balls. Plus other stuff.

Moving on. We have to talk about mohinga, because it's the national dish of Myanmar, and it is indeed special and scrumptious. Rice vermicelli noodles waft languidly in a warmly spiced fish broth thickened with chickpea flour, while interesting ingredients such as sliced banana tree stems (somewhat similar to celery) infuse it with delightful crunch. I like my mohinga with lots of lime or lemon, as that helps cut through the richness of the soup. We purchased this bowl of mohinga from a street stall, and it cost only about 30 cents.

Mohinga - Burmese fish noodle soup.

I must also tell you about the Shan tofu in Myanmar. Because it is absolutely fabulous. If you find regular Chinese tofu to be on the boring side (personally, I like it - I like almost everything!), give Burmese tofu a go. Instead of soy beans, this yellow tofu is made from yellow split peas and chickpeas - ingredients that impart a lovely flavour to the final product. When this yellow tofu is deep fried, the exterior crisps up, while the interior remains wonderfully creamy. This stuff can get addictive.

Shan-style yellow tofu. So good.

Speaking of which, Shan noodles are super popular in Myanmar. I think there are many varieties, but I don't really know the specifics. I just eat whatever gets placed in front of me. They typically come with pickles. The pickles provide a nice punch, so add them to your noodles to give it some sass.

Shan noodle soup.

If you don't feel like a soup version, dry versions are also available.

Shan noodle salad.

A friend recommended that I try ohn no khao swe, which she describes as being similar to curry laksa. I eventually found a place that served this chicken and coconut curry noodle dish. I never saw this dish on any English menus, so I asked about it wherever I went, just like I did with the nan gyi thoke. Using this nifty method, I finally found a place that served it, and the manager-owner was very impressed that I knew about ohn no khao swe. In turn, I was very impressed with the deliciousness of ohn no khao swe. It does taste somewhat like curry laksa, but with a charm of its own. Again, this dish has a touch of chickpea flour, an ingredient that seems to be the magical foundation for many Burmese dishes.

Ohn no khao swe - noodles in a coconut chicken curry soup.

Last but not least, let's talk dessert. This is a Burmese semolina cake called sanwin makin. Made with semolina, coconut cream, eggs, sugar and butter, spiced with cardamom and sprinkled with poppy seeds (or in some cases, sesame seeds), this cake is sweet, tender, and inviting. It goes very nicely with a cup of tea.

Sanwin makin - Burmese semolina cake.

Another after-meal treat that you might encounter in Myanmar are these rustic candies. I believe that this is jaggery or toddy palm candy, made by boiling down toddy palm juice into a thick and sticky consistency, then letting it cool and cutting it into pieces. The texture is firm yet chewable, and it showcases the complexity and lovely caramel taste of unrefined sugar in all its glory. Some call it "Burmese chocolate".

Palm sugar or jaggery candy.

In my next post I will talk about the sights and experiences we enjoyed in Myanmar, so get ready for a mini virtual tour through Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake - it will mostly be scenic photos, though I might still sneak in a few random captures and food pictures!

By the way, I've recently started an Instagram account and a Facebook page to showcase more photos from our travels, as well as cats and other things in our life (most photos are from Simon, while all the commentary is from me) - it's called Purring Around the World, and the content is quite different to what you see here at The Indolent Cook (for which I have a Facebook page and Twitter account too) - do check them out, and if you like what you see, go on and follow us! :)


  1. Thank you for this virtual tour of Burmese food :) Myanmar was unfortunately the first casualty on my SEA 'wish list' ... this time around at least ... due to time constraints and logistical issues. I look forward to the next instalment.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :) Hopefully you get to go another time, I'm keen to read about wherever you visit on your travels either way!

  2. Thanks for sharing about your food experience. We are going to Yangon next year so this is a great help! The food looks amazing.

    1. Thanks for coming by, I'm glad that you find this post helpful! :D

  3. Blimey, talk about food porn, this all looks so good (the curried noodle salad though, yum!). Sounds a really interesting place!

    1. That curried noodle salad is so so good! I definitely recommend Myanmar as a travel destination. :)

  4. Interesting foods! I like the look of that shan tofu. I'm really keen to visit Myanmar...and would definitely try all of these out.

    1. The Shan tofu is really addictive as a fried snack! Myanmar is a really awesome place to visit. :D


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