Myanmar may be where India meets Southeast Asia but can the same be said for it’s cuisine? After three weeks munching our way around the country, here’s my verdict and opinions on food in Myanmar.
Reading the guidebook description of Myanmar cuisine didn’t instill me with enthusiasm for what lay ahead, especially the description of Burmese curry. However after travelling for 10 months and only getting ill from food twice, I plunged straight in on the first day, thinking how bad could it be? Turns out pretty bad as something we ate in those first few days wiped out most of the next week! Arriving in Myanmar as well as dealing with a churning stomachs, we were also faced with yet another language that doesn’t use the roman alphabet. Restaurant menus were often only in Burmese so we had no clue what was on offer or how much it would cost, however, spoken English was pretty good in the places we visited so we had no problems ordering food. Any problems that did occur were resolved with Mike peering in cooking pots and pointing at what we wanted, which was how we often ended up eating Burmese curry.
The description of the curry that filled me with apprehension was that “a great deal of oil is added to Burmese curries, supposedly to keep the bacteria out, but, like the locals, you can skim the oil off”. As per our experiences with national dishes so far on this trip, they range in quality from the brilliantly delicious examples to the downright unappealing, here with a really thick layer of oil on top. A Burmese curry consists of the curry (meat or fish or sometimes just the choice of spicy or not), rice, side dishes and a soup. I thought the soups were all pretty bad, with some cabbage greens and a taste somewhere between fish sauce and farmyard smell, one sip was generally enough for me! The side dishes were my favourite, sometimes you could choose two from the selection on offer or other times we would be given up to 7 small plates. They were always vegetables, most often beans (butter, green or broad) or cauliflower. Burmese curry was standard fare at service stations which we sampled on bus journeys and vying for the title of best curry for me is the service station on the outskirts of Pyin Oo Lwin and a family restaurant a couple of blocks from our hotel in Mandalay.
Another renowned Burmese dish, well according to our guide book at least, is salad. Having eaten lots of meat in the previous weeks in Thailand and Laos, vegetables and salad was a delicious change. Different to a green leaf or Mediterranean salad you might find in Europe, in Myanmar they consisted of one principal item maybe with some onion, garlic, nuts or fish sauce to liven it up a little. Those that we tried were tomato, potato, bean, egg and the iconic tea leaf. Mike wasn’t so fond of the century egg salad but I really enjoyed all those that we tried and they were cheap or at least reasonably priced.
Sharing a border with India, we were expecting some good Indian food in Myanmar and we were not disappointed. From the places we visited Yangon had the most Indian restaurants and the best curry we’ve had outside India and Nepal, although the roti didn’t live up to expectations. In Pyin Oo Lwin in Shan state, we spotted some Indian restaurants and our hotel even recommended one nearby for breakfast, they made a deliciously thin and crisp egg dosa, although sadly no masala tea. This made for a welcome reprieve from the normal hotel breakfasts, which consisted of fried egg or omelette, toast (made from really sweet, tiny bread), jam (more like strawberry sauce) and fried rice or noodles, no fruit, curd and muesli in sight now! Ah well at least the beer was cheap and plentiful, with beer stations in every town serving draught beer and pretty good food and free nuts from the few we tried!
Myanmar also shares a border with China and there were a lot of Chinese restaurants or ones serving Chinese style cuisine such as the ubiquitous sweet and sour. The best food we tried was without doubt Shan food, restaurants served a variety of dishes, BBQ, noodles and other fried dishes I would describe as being similar to some Chinese dishes, which makes sense as Shan state borders China. Dishes referred to on a menu as Shan noodles, were either dry and like a cold noodle salad served with onions and coriander and a separate bowl of soup or all mixed together and served as a soup.
Another reason we enjoyed Shan food was the variety and freshness of vegetables on offer and BBQ potatoes! These were a revelation, tiny little BBQ potatoes that we couldn’t work out if they were that size originally or if they’d been mashed and reformed before grilling, either way they were delicious and something to try and replicate back home in the summer. Shan food was often meat heavy, especially at the wedding we dropped in on where there were only pork dishes on the table, but they were the best pork dishes we sampled during our stay in Myanmar. The same could be said for the BBQ meat dishes we tried were succulent and surprisingly reasonably priced.
So what was the verdict? When cooked well Burmese food ranked up there with some of the tastiest we tried on our trip, there was, however, quite a lot of food that was average at best. It was refreshingly different to it’s neighbours and we just loved Shan food and the little BBQ potatoes. Burmese cuisine will feature in my memories from our visit along with the people and if you’re planning a visit to the country my advice is to be bold, take the plunge and try the local food!