You’ll find all the fresh herbs of Thai cooking; lemon grass , ginger, galangal, coriander, chillies, the spices, pulses and breads of Indian food, distinct Chinese influences and plenty of unique local flavours which, combined, make for an original and highly varied Burmese cuisine. Varied, due not only to the strong cultural heritages of its neighbours, but also the country’s incredible ethnic mix and variety of landscapes and climate which create not a mishmash but a delicious fusion of ‘all things Asian’. You could probably sample a different dish every day of the year without running out of options but here are a just a few of our favourites!
1. Laphet or tea-leaf salad
Seeds, nuts, fried beans, pickled tea, fresh tomatoes, a dash of chilli: sour, salty, spicy, crispy, crunchy and yet moist this dish is a taste explosion and not for nothing is it one of the best known Burmese dishes. You can’t travel in Burma without trying one and indeed since no two laphets are ever alike we’d recommend trying one every day!
Almost a national dish – mohinga is to Burmese what tom yam is to Thailand, laksa to Malaysia or pho for the Vietnamese. A rich delicious fish based soup with noodles, egg, shallots, and crispy crackers. It’s the classic Burmese breakfast, a hearty way to start the day and fortunately a staple of most decent hotel buffet breakfasts so forget the eggs and toast! Otherwise ubiquitous in any market and generally costs less than a dollar a bowl.
3. Local style Burmese mutton curry
Or; chicken, pork, meatball, fish, vegetable whatever, the curry forms the basis of traditional Burmese meals. We have a preference for the mutton version since it’s very hard to find elsewhere in Southeast Asia though to be honest – sheep are extremely rare in Burma – and mutton and goat are synonymous to the Burmese. You choose your main curry dish then masses of vegetable side dishes, pickles, chutneys and dips will miraculously appear. These are not cooked to order coconut milk based curries of the kind you’ll find in Cambodia or Thailand but rich, stewed and simmered curries in an Indian style, generally mild chilli-wise but where – if it’s a good one – the meat will melt in your mouth. Note, we said local style!
4. Stuffed tofu
Whilst Yunnan changed our mind about tofu Burma completely converted us! These stuffed, fried tofu squares – a common snack in stalls and markets -are we reckon regular soya tofu but the excitement with these is all in the filling. Could be peanuts, fried beans, toasted garlic flakes, dried shrimp, grated cabbage, chillies topped with a sweet and spicy sauce – another taste sensation and, dare we say it, goes down great with a cold beer!
5. Chick-pea tofu
Until we met some locals on Inle Lake making this stuff we assumed that all tofu was made of soya beans – basically fairly tasteless and everything was in the preparation but this chick-pea based tofu was simply a sensation! Just cut into squares, deep fried and then eaten as a snack it’s creamy and flavoursome – doesn’t need anything else and, warning – is highly addictive. Once you pop you can’t stop and we reckon this stuff would convert even the most hardened carnivore! Found in street stalls and markets – don’t forget to look out for it.
6. Burmese style tomato salad.
Forget basil and mozzarella – this is the way fresh tomatoes should be eaten and whilst we would never have thought of picking ‘tomato salad’ off a Burmese menu having tasted it we’d now recommend it every time. A very simple dish, though we haven’t worked out exactly what goes into it other than crushed peanuts, sliced tomatoes, peanut or sesame oil and unidentified flavourings but the combination just works really well! Particularly common in the Bagan area where lots of peanuts are grown. An awesome complement to your Burmese curry!
7. Nga Tong – spicy fish dip
Actually posted a recipe for this superb side dish and simple it is to make too but the results are spot on. Try requesting this if you have to eat in one of the blander ‘tourist’ style restaurants, (logistics necessitate sometimes), – it won’t be on their menu but chances are they’ll know how to make it and this perky little paste is guaranteed to improve any meal. Flaked fish, crushed garlic, salt, diced chillies all soaked in fresh lime juice – though you can request a mild one. Commonly found where freshwater fish are abundant such as Inle Lake.
8. Tea shop snacks
The Burmese can snack like no others and the local tea shop is the place to find the best selection. Order a tea or coffee and your table will rapidly fill up with tempting nibbles, some familiar, some that’ll have you guessing. Some are sweet, others savoury with popular options being samosas, spring rolls, falafel-like chickpea balls, steamed Chinese style buns though no two coffee shops will have the same range. The mini Cornish pasties are fun if you can find them and there’ll also be plenty of cooked to order options such as rotis and chapatis. (Every decent cafe has its own griddle so most items will be cooked on the premises.) You’re not going to lose any weight on a Burma tour!
9. Shan curries
Ubiquitous in Mandalay, at least one meal in a popular Shan buffet style cafe is a must. There’s a wealth of regional and ethnic cuisine in Myanmar; Karen, Kachin, Mon, Rakhine and so-on, with Shan dishes being the mostly accessible and commonly found and buffet style the best means to sample several offerings. As befits their geographical situation Shan food displays Thai, Bamar, Chinese and Indian influences.
10. Shan noodle soup
Apart from local Burmese style restaurants, you’ll see plenty of Chinese ones, Indian and even Nepali curry houses and quite a lot of Thai fare on offer but Burma’s indigenous ethnic groups also contribute hugely to the vast range of dishes to be found; Mon style fish curries, spicy Kachin dishes, Intha specialities from the Inle region and of course Shan style cooking of which probably the most famous is the Shan style noodle soup. Rice noodles in a mild broth with spring onions, lime, usually pork or chicken and fresh herbs it’s a classic style Asian noodle soup, light, mild, tasty yet a filling lunch and can be found in large towns such as Mandalay and Rangoon, not only in Shan State.