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Burmese food – so what’s the grub like then?

A brief rundown on the excellent and varied, yet little-known. Burmese cuisine

As with, for example, Malaysia the wide ethnic mix of Burma (Myanmar) leads to a wide range of Burmese food. Along with regional ethnic groups such as Karen, Shan, Kachin, Thai, Mon etc that contribute towards the indigenous mix, there were, during the British period, large numbers of Nepalese, Indian ((Bengali and Tamil for instance) – and in more recent times Chinese – immigrants, and all those different cuisines are represented. These varied influences have contributed to lesser or greater extents to what may be seen today as ‘standard Burmese fare’. (If such a thing exists?) The country’s geographical location has then determined its cuisine and whilst it may be an over-simplification, a description of Burmese food as halfway between Thai and Indian. does have a certain validity.

Burmese food. Mandalay lunch
Mandalay lunch

Rice and wheat noodles are popular contributions of Chinese origin and the ubiquitous mohinga makes a very tasty breakfast/brunch option consisting of rice noodles in a mild, usually fish-based, broth reminding us vaguely of a Malaysian laksa. A common dinner would be rice, eaten with a variety of vegetable dishes, mildly spicy dips (although certain regional variants can be quite firey) and the main dish of either fish, chicken or mutton. (The latter is far more common in Burma than beef or pork although can refer equally to sheep or goat’s meat.) This dish is typically curried but lacks either the hotness of Thai offerings, the complexity of northern Indian curries or the creamy, coconut milk sauces of south India and Sri Lanka.

The dishes are generally very mild – a major advantage to some visitors – though chilli dips or condiments are always available on the side. A frequent complaint by tourists is that the food is typically very oily – as with much south Asian food – but bear in mind the film of oil actually acts to insulate the dishes from bacteria and contamination so it’s probably worth putting up with a bit of grease!

Inle market stall
Inle market stall

A couple of aspects where Burmese food does diverge considerably from other Southeast Asian fare is in the widespread use of pulses – beans and nuts – plus the commonly-eaten south Asian bread such as rotis, parathas, nans etc. Dahl or lentil soup is a common accompaniment to many meals and rotis are standard tea-shop snacks. Peanuts, lentils, sesame, chickpeas, soya beans are all common which makes us wonder even why these relatively easily grown and nutritious crops are largely ignored in the rest of Southeast Asia. (Thais have almost an aversion to any pulses with just a few kidney beans finding their way into occasional desserts!?) It’s a cultural thing not climatic since soya beans are widely grown for soya sauce whilst in Burma, they are fried as a side dish or even included in fried rice on occasions.

Also popular in Burmese cooking are the excellent salads – concoctions of fresh vegetables, herbs, lime juice, chillies and frequently plenty of nuts again – but one more dish we’d like to mention before moving on to the regional cuisines is the classic laphet or tea-leaf salad – a unique kind of savoury dessert or snack made from partly fermented, mashed, tea leaves mixed with various nuts, sesame seeds, roasted coconut etc. This might sound odd but personally we found highly addictive and can’t wait to eat some more!

Burmese food. Our friend Moe and an Intha feast
Our friend Moe and a traditional Intha feast at Lake Inle

The various regional offerings also make eating in Myanmar a lot of fun and whilst we missed the Mon food and slightly spicier dishes of the south, the Shan and Intha, (Lake Inle region), were excellent. Intha food clearly reflected the local environment with fish from the lake and tomatoes from the floating gardens being key ingredients and with, inevitably, fried fish in tomato sauce being their signature dish.

Living in Thailand we felt more familiar with the Shan (Tai Yai) dishes though again, similar to northern Thai as they often were, the dishes lacked the ferociousness of Thai dishes and pulses were again predominate, especially the ubiquitous pe pok– a pungent, fermented dried soya bean paste that seemed to be incorporated into many dishes or just served as a side dip.

Pa-O women selling 'pe pok' in Aung Ban market
Pa-O women selling ‘pe pok’ in Aung Ban market

Below is a typical Shan style meal in, if we remember correctly, Kalaw. As with classic Burmese food, you choose the main dish then an unlimited supply of vegetable and side dishes comes free with it!

Great Shan restaurant with unpronouncable name in Kalaw.
Great Shan restaurant with unpronounceable name in Kalaw.
Burmese food
Dinner at the Golden Tamarind, Hpa-an

So…probably not a place where you’re going to lose weight but we reckon a country where you going to enjoy the food immensely! As usual on our tours, our emphasis will be on the local, more authentic eateries and on sampling the different fare from different parts of the country.  There’ll be a couple of more tourist-style places to ‘break you in’ and as we always like to do and a few ‘free meals’ when you can select your own lunch or dinner destination if you want to vary things with a Chinese, Indian or even Western option?

Oh, and by the way the beer’s great: – Mandalay Beer was our fave – a light, smooth drop that went down very well and can be found in the charmingly named ‘beer stations’! (The Inle lake wine was also surprisingly drinkable and deserves it’s own post so more on that wonder later!)

Cheers and bon appetit!