“Southeast Asia is a food trip,” a veteran traveler reassured me after I explained that my stay in Bangkok had resulted in a daily what-will-I-eat-next obsession.
It’s true, Southeast Asia takes food obsession to new heights; everyone is a natural born foodie, with a wide open palate and limitless options with which to express it. While northern Myanmar food wasn’t quite living up to the edible wonderland that was Bangkok, I was confident that if I kept my eyes constantly open I’d find tasty eats somewhere.
“Well, I’m down to try anything.”
“Anything? ‘Hey waiter, we’ll have an order of goat balls over here!'” he mocked.
But the joke was on him, I would have tried the goat balls.
Located firmly in the Southeast Asian region, Myanmar still qualified as part of that legendary “food trip.” It’s a culturally diverse nation, and among the native Burmese are immigrant populations from throughout the Indochina region: Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Chinese, Thai. All of these cultures bring with them their food.
Here are the highlights of our favorite eats out of three breathtaking weeks in Myanmar. But first let’s start with the most important thing:
We were extremely pleased to find that tea drinking is the norm in Myanmar, as it hadn’t been in Bangkok. Nikita and I are avid tea drinkers, and enjoy most varieties. And when I say, enjoy I mean crave like an unhealthy addiction.
Our first meal in Myanmar was at a tea house in Nyaung U, just outside of Bagan. We scanned the menu, saw the words “Myanmar Tea,” and requested two.
Myanmar tea is black tea, brewed strong. But just saying it’s black tea doesn’t explain the mate-like flavor and chalky finish of the tea. It sounds unpleasant, I know, but the tea is whisked with a heaping spoonful (or several) of sweetened condensed milk to soften and dilute the bitterness. It’s a method comparable to that of Vietnamese coffee, which I don’t like at all, but the result is a tiny cup of flavorful, sweet, strong tea.
For the most authentic version, find a shop where you see mostly local men sitting alone or in small groups sipping tiny cups.
Split Yellow Pea Tofu
If you have the Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar (and pretty much every tourist did), you might come across mention of this strange yellow tofu in the pages about Inle Lake.
Since I love tofu, and was really trying to find some Myanmar foods that I liked, I insisted we rent some bikes and head to the village where it was made to try it.
The village itself was an hour away by bike, and once there we enlisted the help of a local to take us on a wild goose chase find this tofu. It went a little something like this:
“We want to find yellow tofu. Do you know where it is?”
“Yes. Follow me.”
*Biking through tiny, narrow streets for several minutes, then stopping in front of someone’s house*
“There. There it is, over there. Yellow tofu.”
“Cool. Well, we want to eat some.”
“Where can we buy it?”
She didn’t actually know and had us follow her all over the village while she knocked on doors, probably asking, “Who’s making tofu right now?”
Finally we ended up in a local woman’s house, where a small tofu operation was going down. Tofu congealing in a huge pan, and shelves upon shelves of tofu cubes drying out.
“Can we buy some?”
A brief interchange with the tofu maker, a bit bewildered, and our guide, who grabbed a baggie and started filling it up with handfuls of tofu cubes. We purchased 1,000 kyats worth and gave our tofu guide 2,000 for her troubles. (1,000 Myanmar kyats is $0.77 US)
The tofu itself was lovely. It has a very smooth, creamy texture and the taste is mild and buttery, lacking the hollow, unpalatable flavor of soy tofu.
Bubble Gum Liquor
Myanmar is growing popular among the traveling crowd for its palm, or toddy, wine. We definitely had toddy wine, but we had something else that we’re pretty sure was different, even though toddy wine is supposed to have a different flavor depending on the time of day.
After successfully acquiring a baggie full of the split yellow pea tofu, we headed up to a papaya salad restaurant for lunch. The papaya salads were delicious, but Nikita, spurred by the tofu into culinary curiosity, observed some local dudes pouring drinks out of 40 oz green beer bottles and asked for some.
What we got was a milky white, vaguely sour, vaguely carbonated, and vaguely alcoholic drink that tasted very similar to sticky sweet bubble gum. We worked our way through the bottle- it wasn’t strong as much as sweet.
It was clearly a small scale brewing operation, and since then we haven’t been able to confirm with anyone what exactly it was. We’ve had toddy wine and even though we drank the late-in-the-day, heavily fermented brew, it lacked the characteristic bubble gum taste.
We could be wrong though- insight on this concoction appreciated.
Indian influences abound in Myanmar, and that means you can easily get some hot, freshly prepared chapati bread- fried bread that is both chewy and fluffy. The Burmese eat their chapatis as both a savory and sweet dish, served with either mild bean paste or sugar.
Though we weren’t traveling around the country sampling chapatis, we did feel that they were better in the north.
Grilled Food Stalls in Chinatown, Yangon
If you’re spending any time whatsoever in Yangon (as most travelers do) you’ll no doubt hit up 19th street- the supercharged snacking, eating and drinking hub of Chinatown. The street is jam packed with restaurants, and every night they occupy the street with tables and grills.
It’s a great place to get either authentic or Burmese style Chinese food, but also to try grilled snacks and drink beer. The variety of grilled options means that no matter your preferences (or restrictions) you’ll be able to find plenty of skewers of food to grill up.
19th street also has many stands selling a popular Burmese street snack: a mix of fresh corn, boiled peanuts, pickled tea leaves, chilis and dried fish in a sour sauce. The sour fishy taste can be a bit overwhelming if you’re not used to it, but if you’re the type that likes to go for the really authentic, I recommend it.
Whether you want authentic Indian curry dishes or Burmese style curry, you can get them pretty much anywhere in Myanmar. Yangon is a curry hot spot.
Because we try to eat vegetarian whenever possible, and because we both had a serious case of food poisoning in Yangon, we didn’t partake in much curry, where the curries were a dark burgundy with spice and very meaty.
We did try chickpea curry in the south, in Dawei. This version was extremely mild, topped with fried shallots and served with finger-burning hot naan bread.
Dawei had a fabulous selection of salads, more tropical in flavor and closer in taste and preparation to Thailand’s Som Tam, or papaya salad.
My personal taste favors sour, so I’m a big fan of Southeast Asian salads, which are not like an American salad of lettuce dressed up with caesar dressing. These salads are mixtures of freshly julienned fruits and veggies, tomatoes, onions, peanuts, dried seafood, all tossed together with a tangy, and of course, spicy hot dressing.
Pickled tea leaf salad is a distinctly Burmese creation. Called lahpet, pickled tea leaves are an important part of tea culture in Myanmar and varieties can range from a creamy sauce to a leafy mixture. The salad is even further from the Som Tam style, and mostly a mixture of dried beans and peanuts, with shallots, garlic, chilis and zesty dressing with maybe some tomato wedges added.
Northern Myanmar also offered papaya salads, but there were also more interesting local varieties. These northern style favored more finely chopped ingredients and very creamy dressings. Flavors were still pungent, but overall the salads were less spicy.
It’s much easier to eat vegetarian in Myanmar than it is in neighboring Thailand. Whether you want rice or noodles, steamed or fried, Burmese cuisine lets the customer choose meat, no meat, or egg in many dishes.
You can also get simple stir fried veggies that are the main dish, and not background noise for the meat centerpiece.
Tropical Fruit Juices
In Dawei we frequented a local cold juice and smoothie restaurant about twice a day. When it’s hot and humid, nothing hits the spot like ice cold, fresh fruit juice.
Called Padon Mar (try to read that and not think “pardon me”), the staff would blend and cold press orange, coconut, papaya, banana or avocado all to order. Iced sweetened coconut juice with coconut meat was very refreshing and popular with the locals, and we loved the fresh iced orange juice.
We saved the best for last- a positively mind blowing Indonesian creation: avocado coffee.
Espresso, avocado, a little milk or cream, and ice blended together = the most amazing coffee drink we’ve ever had. The drink is both smooth and creamy without being too thick. Sweet enough to mask the bitterness, while the nutty flavors of espresso and avocado melt together perfectly.
Did you visit Myanmar? What did you like about Myanmar food? Share with us in the comments!