Before coming to Myanmar, all I’d heard about the food is that everything was incredibly oily, including dishes that shouldn’t even contain oil. Although I did find this to be true in many cases, it certainly doesn’t mean I didn’t like what I ate! With neighbours like Thailand, India and China who are all famous for their food, Myanmar has some tough competition in the culinary stakes. And whilst they are somewhat influenced by these countries, they also have many unique dishes of their own. After two solid months of eating traditional home cooked meals and snacks, I’ve narrowed the list down to just seven that I think all tourists should try.
1. Nan Gyi Thoke – Usually eaten for breakfast or brunch, this dish can be found in almost every tea shop across the country. ‘Nan Gyi’ refers to the spaghetti-like thick round rice noodles at the base of the dish, whilst ‘Thoke’ means salad. (Be warned that a salad in Myanmar cuisine is nothing like a Western salad, there certainly won’t be any lettuce!). Served cold, the noodles are mixed with a spicy chicken curry and often garnished with sliced onions, fried garlic, coriander, chillies, crispy noodles, slices of boiled egg, pieces of fried chickpea crackers, and lime. Sometimes it comes with almost no garnishes, and sometimes a lot. The other thing which varies is the spiciness, occasionally the chilli level is a bit extreme for some! This is my absolute favourite dish from Myanmar, the spicier the better.
2. Mohinga – Considered by most to be Myanmar’s national dish, I didn’t meet a single local who doesn’t love it. Usually eaten at breakfast it can be found at little stalls on many streets with people crowded around on small plastic stools getting their fill. It’s essentially a fish based noodle soup though the ingredients and appearance differ from region to region. The variety I mostly ate included garlic, ginger, coriander, mint, boiled duck egg, fish paste, onions, dried chilli and rice vermicelli. It is often served with deep fried onion or gourd fritters.
3. Shan Noodle Salad -Whilst they are easiest to find within Shan state, this tasty noodle dish can be found in many restaurants across the country. Eaten for lunch or dinner the ingredients are Shan noodles, onion, chilli, garlic, ginger, a lot of oil, chicken powder, salt, fish sauce, soy sauce, and a topping of crushed peanuts and sesame seeds. Often accompanied by a side dish of pickled vegetables. You can usually choose between a chicken or pork variety, but both are good!
4. Glutinous Rice – This stuff is everywhere and comes in more varieties than I can count. From the little brown squares put on tables in tea shops, to the clumps mixed with peanuts and sesame seeds or caramelised coconut. A traditional version you can easily spot is stuffed into bamboo sticks with shredded coconut and then cooked over an open fire. To eat you simply break the bamboo and east whole, including the papery coating from the wood itself which often has a smoky taste.
5. Lahpet (Tea Leaf Salad) – This snack is truly unique as most cultures don’t eat tea leaves. This is served in restaurants but can also be purchased pre-packaged with the ingredients split into little bags so you can mix it yourself. Those ingredients are fermented tea leaves, dried beans or peas, nuts, chillies, dried prawns, garlic, ginger and a heavy dose of sesame oil. The taste is slightly sour with a good chilli kick and the texture of the crunchy garlic, peas and nuts is perfect. Goes well with Myanmar beer!
6. Fresh Fruits – Myanmar has a whole range of tasty fruits, though some areas are specifically famous for their produce. Mawlamyine for example produces incredible Pomelo and mangoes which should not be missed. Other fruits readily available that you may not have had include rambutan, jicama, jackfruit, as well as unripened green plums and mangoes which are loved by the locals.
7. Street Food – It’s everywhere and sometimes you wont be sure what it is, but I recommend trying anything you see! Fried donuts, chick pea/gourd/onion fritters, fried bananas, fried tea leaves, fried tofu, fried spring rolls, fried samosas… I did mention the oil right? Often they will give you little bags of sauce or side-dishes with these and they are dirt cheap. A great if somewhat unhealthy way to eat cheaply as a backpacker in Myanmar. Just be wary of the pork intestines and solidified chicken’s blood as these aren’t for everyone!
Have you been to Myanmar and tried any of these, or have any recommendations of your own? Let us know in the comments below!