I travelled to Myanmar (Burma) with an open mind about the food, blocking out the bad rap that many reviewers had written. How could a country that’s surrounded by such culinary kings as Thailand, India and China possibly have such a reputation of poor food?
Well I’m here to assure you that the food is good, in fact great. Fresh, simple fare with tasty flavours and generous portion sizes.
As with many countries, rice is the staple of most Burmese meals. It’s served with a number of dishes that can be a blend of Indian, Chinese, Thai and Mon influences. Made with locally grown vegetables and freshly caught seafood, the meals can be one of four flavours: spicy, bitter, sour or salty.
The variety of dishes on a menu is extraordinary but for me, it was the ‘extras’ that appear on your table in addition to your main meal. A procession of plates filled with side salads, dips, sauces, marinated vegetables accompany your meal and are in themselves an interesting blend of flavours and textures.
Mandalay has a strong Chinese influence and Inle Lake has Shan cuisine, similar to eating Thai food. Wherever you travel throughout Myanmar (Burma) you’ll find plenty of Chinese and Indian restaurants that adopt some of the Burmese style of cooking to create a whole new style of food that challenges the palate to recognise the ingredients.
A signature dish of Burmese cooking is laphet which is fermented green tea leaves that have been mixed with sesame seeds, fried peas, fried garlic, peanuts, dried shrimp and other ingredients that I couldn’t identify. It doesn’t present very well at the table and therefore, many tourists turn their nose up at it, but I encourage you to stick with it.
Now let’s get to the good stuff – desserts. And it’s not chocolate. With so many fresh fruit varieties to choose from, the locals prepare an amazing selection of tarts, pies and cakes. Kyauk Kyaw or seaweed jelly is made with a layer of coconut milk on top. Sago and tapioca pudding sweetened with enriched coconut is another popular dish. A common offering at the end of a meal is palm sugar served in small squares – a dental nightmare but taste bud favourite.
Street food looks something like this picture. Fish pancake? Not really sure but there were often in market places. Wasn’t game to try one.
Trawling through markets is always interesting and a great opportunity to snap photos of food. I challenged a fellow traveller to identify five of the green vegetables at a stall. We could name 3, the other 20 or so were unrecognisable to us. We tried this same experiment when we looked at other stalls – legumes, nuts, fruit, fish and so on.
Here are some tips about the local food:
- Resort restaurants stay open late but street stalls and smaller cafes shut early.
- The local food stalls and restaurants are either in English/Burmese and stallholders were extremely helpful in making sure you get what you want. If you find yourself somewhere that doesn’t speak English – feel free to point at what you like on other restaurateurs plates and nod.
- I found the food to be often a little salty or a little oily in the curries than I have experienced in neighbouring countries which takes a little getting used to. Feel free to request less salt. MSG is now a bit of a ‘no-no’ due to complaints and you’ll rarely taste it (or notice the side effects) in mid range and above restaurants.
- Cutlery. – a fork. That’s all you really need. I don’t think I used a knife in any meal however, I was never offered chopsticks. Although I did see them used on street stalls. Locals tend to use them for their noodle dishes but more often, they use their hands to eat their food.
- Vegetarians are well catered for. With such an abundance of fruit and veggies you will be pleasantly surprised on what’s on offer. The locals aren’t generally vegetarians but they do have some tasty dishes on offer and recommend you try them out.
I generally found the food fresh and never had tummy troubles however, if you’re eating lots of curries you can be sure the effects will make its way through your system eventually.
I occasionally ate in darkness when the power went out. If you’ve got a smart phone, you can use your torch. For those romantics – bring a candle (although these are often on the table).
I only ate one western meal while I was there – Club Sandwich. Wish I hadn’t. Soggy, tasteless burger style meal. I broke my own golden rule of travel – eat what the locals do.
Drink only bottled water but if possible – bring a filter and then you don’t have to use water in plastic bottles.
Breakfasts at hotels can be a mixture of full buffet style to set menu. Croissants are a little ‘heavy’ for my liking but useful as a snack later in the day. Try the local breakfasts. They are tasty and you can add as much or as little as you like of all the condiments. Sometimes you can have a selection of bacon and eggs with all the trimmings but don’t rely on it. Juice is really Tang style flavour. At one hotel, they would serve Bircher muesli in little shot glasses and in other ones was fresh yoghurt. I’m always nervous about consuming dairy when travelling overseas but this was tasty with the Bircher muesli nicely flavoured with seeds, nuts and grains.
I experimented with some breakfast noodle dishes at a few of the hotels I stayed in. It’s something of a ‘make your own’ with all the ingredients on a table and you add what you’d like to your bowl.
Looking for a good coffee? Good luck! I’m not a coffee drinker but friends said it was a struggle to find anything decent. In one or two places they managed to succeed in an espresso or latte, often in the most obscure places. Good hotels often have a proper coffee machine. If you are a connoisseur of coffee, drink the local coffee at your peril.
The locals are some of the friendliest and kind people I’ve met in my travels. A nod, smile and small bow goes a long way.
Now it’s your turn. Share your experiences of travelling and food. Leave a comment below.