Burmese food can be an absolute delight, or an oil soaked stewed nightmare. It depends on how adventurous you are. The best food we ate during our stay in Myanmar was when we weren’t quite sure what we were getting, but dived in anyway. Sometimes more carefully than others.
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My first realisation that we were off the beaten track was when stumbled into the kitchen and was presented, for my breakfast, – a bowl of hornets. Delicately fried, definitely distinguishable, obviously hornets. A disgruntled relative buzzed around my head.
What the heck, I though and dove in. Carefully.
This was breakfast in Shan State. We’d trekked just for a day to stay with a hill tribe (there might not have been a toilet in the building, but I’m sure that was a satellite dish out front…) and the hornets were just one of the examples of how they use all available food sources. The World Health Organization does recommend that we eat more insects, so give it a go if you can. Hornets are crunchy-ish, and yes, there’s an almost chicken like taste about them.
The rest of breakfast was pretty normal..
In our three weeks in Myanmar, we never did get to try the “National Dish”- Mohinga – a catfish noodle soup with onions, lemongrass, garlic, chili and lime. The opportunity just didn’t present itself, but, I figure, it’s a reason to go back..
It was on our first night in Myanmar a week earlier that we’d raced off to a rated Burmese restaurant in Mandalay to test out our food for the next three or so weeks. This was Aye Myit Tar –one of the top restaurants in Mandalay.
And so began the adventure.
I must admit I was expecting a place that got a lot of English language reviews to have more people that spoke English, but then I was in Myanmar, so I should have brushed up on my Burmese…which is very tonal and tough to pick up, but never mind, there was one older man in the restaurant who spoke great English and so we ordered one dish that he recommended and one that we chose and thought, um, what the heck, and dug in.
A meal in Myanmar comes with all the fixings. You order a main dish – we went for Burmese Pork with sour mango and (a separate dish) fermented river fish – Side dishes galore arrive.
Here there was green tomato salad, raw vegetables and dips and stir fried bamboo. And soup, because soup is the mainstay of all meals. It’s different in each place, but here in Aye Mit Yar it was marvellous.
And if you don’t want anymore, don’t empty your bowl – because it will get refilled. This soup was thick, oniony, but vegetable, there was definitely a meat stock to it. One to savour as a meal on its own, but here just part of the experience.
There’s rice. Rice with every meal. As much rice as you can force down. I love rice. I never thought I’d crave rice, but I do now. And Asian rice, not the Uncle Ben’s packet rice that you find in super markets.
I’m glad we tried the fermented river fish, it was like ceviche without the citrus. And best eaten with your eyes closed. Interesting, but once was enough.
There’s always a side dish of dried ground up chilli, so you can add your own spice if necessary.
But the pork with sour mango?.
Not a fan. There was a piece or two of pork. Mostly fat. I can’t even say it was swimming in oil, because it had clearly expired. And the oil looked past it’s best too. And so I came away from my first meal in Myanmar thinking that it was going to be a long three weeks.
The next night I discovered Shan food. Oh my. This was everything that last night hadn’t been. And I began to consider that I might never leave the country. At Shan Ma Ma’s in Mandalay you’ll find more locals than visitors.
You’ll find a constant stream of takeaway customers zooming up on motorbikes, picking up bags and bags of food and zooming off. And you’ll find a buffet of the most amazing food.
Pumpkin. Green Asian pumpkin, lightly cooked in a mild curry sauce.
Pork or Chicken in a light vegetable slightly spicy sauce.
Freshly cooked green vegetables, of an undetermined name, but seriously memorable for their taste.
We went back two more nights. Each time the owner said “see you tomorrow”. I swear I’d still be there if it was possible.
And so began my love affair with Burmese food. Although I really should say Shan State Food.
Shan State is in the north. We weren’t planning to head there, really, until we went to Shan Ma Ma’s. And then we changed our plans. On the basis of food.
There’s an Indian influence to the food here in Myanmar, but it’s not heavy. There’s a Thai influence too. But in Shan food, there’s the influence of the fresh food and the taste comes through. There’s also a Chinese influence – the borders of each country aren’t far away and the mix of cultures is curiously lacking in Burmese food.
At the heart though, of Burmese food, (if you take away the meat dishes drowing in oil) is the freshness of the vegetables.
There were tomatoes everywhere, green vegetables, pumpkin galore. Bamboo.
And, a chart of what we should not eat. On the basis of this, Cream of Mushroom soup could seriously damage my long term health!
At Inle Lake – on the eastern side of Shan State there are tomatoes.
These aren’t just any tomatoes, they’re grown on the lake and for me they started a craving for tomatoes with every meal. The Burmese tomato salad comes in many forms, all of them delicious.
In Hsipaw at the San restaurant you’ll find succulent sliced tomatoes, drowned in a heavy peanut based sauce. And somehow, it doesn’t kill the taste of the tomatoes. Somehow it makes it better by half.
In Bagan you’ll find tomato salad enhanced with coriander (cilantro) and it’s oh so moorish.
Amazingly so. At the Bibo Restaurant in Bagan you’ll find tomato salad with mint. And it is to die for. I mean seriously, who would have thought it? Mint and Tomato. Go on try it. It’s amazing.
Also in Bagan you’ll find these curious wrapped sweets.
They’re tamarind disks. We only found them in Bagan. Served at the end of a meal. They’re light. In each individual parcel perhaps four or five disks of jaggery (palm sugar) and tamarind that just melts on your tongue. My mouth is watering just thinking about them.
In the south – in China town in Yangon and in Mawlamyine, where we left Myanmar to head to Sukhothai in Thailand (Moulamein) you’ll find barbecue. There’ll be skewers of pork, of chicken, of tofu (although not so much tofu, you have to look for it). There’s fish – from pieces to whole fish. And vegetables. Amazingly tender, melt-in-the-mouth new baby potatoes that you can never have too many of.
In Hsipaw we lunched on Shan Noodles – rice noodles in a savoury broth with minced meat (more than likely chicken, but no one spoke any English at the hole in the wall place that we ate them) with spring onions, ground peanuts and with a side dish of pickled vegetables.
Tea Leaf Salad is a national Burmese favourite. Tea leaves are fermented, then topped with oil, fried garlic, beans, dried shrimp and some chopped tomato. We were promised that the caffeine would keep us awake if we ate it too late!
For breakfast there were Cha Kway – a long slightly greasy, but amazing doughnut especially when slathered in jam. I mean, seriously, when food tastes this good, who cares about the calories, the saturated fat, it’s just about the taste.
Curry is the Burmese lunch meal. Lunch because the curries are prepared in the morning and left in a pot during the day, so catch it while it’s fresh(er). The curries are oily, very oily, apparently to ward off bacteria, and if you can’t get over the amount of oil and the copious amounts of fat on any meats in the curry, then, well, the side dishes are usually enough to sate you. Because the curries come with heaps and heaps of side dishes.. that as soon as you empty, they replenish.
There’s wine here too. At the Red Mountain Winery near Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake there is Burmese Wine.
You can taste four of their wines for 3,000 kyat or buy bottles. (You should taste first, it’s an acquired taste – not the best I’ve ever had and certainly not the worse).
And there’s beer here too. From the weak, but usually cheapest Mandalay, to our favourite, Myanmar through to the stout of ABC.
Dagon is stronger and heavier in taste than Myanmar but not a stout like ABC and Regal 7 – well we only found that in Mawlamyine and one bottle at that!
So, Myanmar, or Burmese food it seems is the product of it’s history. A mix of what’s available, of the cultures that have swept through this country, of necessities forced upon it. We leave Myanmar craving Tomato Salad and with new recipes to try if we find a kitchen some time, somehow, though I think we’ll leave the hornets here though!.
I’ll leave you with the Shan noodles – from Hsipaw from a hole in the wall, where no one spoke English but where all the tables were full with locals.
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