This post needs to begin with a big disclaimer – I cannot claim the tag of a foodie – for I’m unfortunately a bit fussy about what I eat – fish, seafood and red-meat have rarely, if never found their way on to my plate. I’m allergic to prawns and lobster, the innate fishiness of fishy-smelling fish (fish can’t smell like anything other than fish, can it?) makes me look for other options and red-meat – well the less said about them the better in my foodie journey. So what does that leave me with? A lot of veggie options and the bad apology for meat according to hard-core carnivores – chicken! My fuss about food also extends to my inability to sit at roadside stalls and eat what the locals eat – I end up looking at the table, hunting for scurrying rats or roaches or sniffing about for unsavoury- I’m told all this in fact adds to the flavour and at about a tenth of the cost of what I’d pay in ‘posh’ cafes and restaurants. I hunt for clean and functional, not posh and opulent. And the truth is, in any country, there are several of these options available too!
Disclaimers apart, I hope this post helps kindred travel junkies like me with a sensitive stomach and an over-sniffy nose as their Achilles heel. Few posts helped me before I got here, so I’m hoping mine helps more like me!
Myanmarese cuisine is a rich melting pot – it borrows generously from every community that has settled here for centuries to make it a very varied cuisine to try. Like my driver in Mandalay explained “In Myanmar, you see lots of people – Burmese Buddhists, Chinese, Hindustani, Malay, Singaporeans, Muslims (never quite understood why in most countries, Muslims occupy an almost national identity)” And thanks to the diversity, food is beautifully varied too. There’s also the generous influence of Thai cuisine or perhaps its the popularity of Thai cuisine globally that has inspired the Myanmarese to add a lot of Thai influences into their menus too.
So here’s listing out a few things I tried and what I think of it.
The Tea Leaf Salad – I tried it at the Rangoon Tea House. It’s a lovely restaurant, tastefully done (and prices that the locals don’t really like) on Pansodan Road, on a lane a bit off The Strand. Fermented pickled tea leaves, mixed with a lot of crunchy deep fried lentils, tomatoes and shallots. I saw a great many plates of it being ordered and ordered one too. The pickled tea leaves, I must admit are an acquired taste. Might take me a while I feel to give it another shot, but I found several others, including expats who love this salad. Rangoon Tea House serves it minus anchovies. Our hotel in Bagan however, listed anchovies. So it became even easier not to give it another shot!
The Pennywort Salad – Couldn’t recommend this salad more highly. Vegetarians across the world rejoice. This is a light fresh green salad. The Pennywort leaves are popular in Myanmar, I haven’t seen it in India, but I’m now told that it is pretty commonly used in the Bengal region and has medicinal qualities.
The Samosas – Tiny triangular pastries stuffed with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options – I loved the vegetarian samosas that resemble the crispy crunchy version you are likely to find in South India than the plumper, stuffed version found in the north.
The Curries With Rice – The Indian influence on Myanmarese cuisine is evident in the curries. There are several vegetarian and chicken curries to choose from. Generous use of mustard and tamarind gives it the depth of colour, flavour and complexity. I’m not much of a rice eater, but this is my fall-back option when I don’t find other stuff. I had a yummy chicken and tofu version in Bagan. I loved the silky melt-in-the mouth flavour of the tofu so much in the curry that
The Fried Flat Rice Noodles and/or Vermicelli – I religiously ate this with a smattering of Rice Kongee (its an interpretation of our rice gruel, but teamed with choose what you like toppings _ PS you find this on the breakfast buffet across South East Asia). Now the fried noodles is not chopsuey, if that’s where the head took you to – not deepfried.. much like a fried rice-y version – lots of wok-fried veggies and sprouts, saucey (a tad oily – Myanmarese seem to be a bit on the generous side with oil in their wok). But what a burst of flavours in the mouth. Move over eggs and the bread and the works – let’s go native.
The Yangon Biryani – I remember reading about the biryani in Rangoon in the final chapters of Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. And I’d made a note to try it. Landed in Yangon and asked a couple of taxi guys and locals I met – and everyone suggested just one place – Nilar Biryani. Locals tell me it was a small hole-in-the-wall close to the Sule Pagoda. But now it’s a clean, functional, tiled eatery with huge cauldrons of biryani. If you want their special biryanis, you need to get there early enough to savour the limited editions. But the regular biryani is worth a go too, if a tad oily! (Don’t mind me, I’m snooty about the Indian biryanis maybe!) On that note, in Yangon, there’s a sizeable South Indian population – so on the roads by the Sule Pagoda, in the Indian quarters, you are likely to find everything that you’d get say in Chennai!
Tofu Tofu and more Tofu – I tried Tofu at a couple of places – in Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon. My favourite was the Chicken and Tofu curry I tried in Bagan. The tofu was so silky and melty in the mouth that I remember picking out the tofu when I knew I could eat no more of the curry or the rice! While in Yangon, give the Happy Cafe & Noodles a try! The tofu preparations from the Shan province are reputed to be among the best dishes that you could savour across Myanmar. If I haven’t mentioned it before the fried shallots that are usually liberally sprinkled with peanuts and coriander over more dishes just hit the right spots on the tongue leaving you salivating for some more crunch and punch!
If you want a quickie quick bite while around Scott Market in a neat eatery that has pretty decent WiFi, head to the Ya Kun Kaya Toast cafe. While the fare might be what is largely considered a Singaporean delicacy, the Chicken Curry Toast can make a hot yummy pool in your stomach on a rainy drizzly day.
Ohh and.. the British have left a major stamp on the baked goods that you get to taste across Myanmar. The tastes are fabulous. Here’s a glimpse of the jaggery bao with caramel home made ice cream that I sampled in Yangon.
While in Myanmar, do try the local wines. I make it a point to bring back some with me every time I head there. The whites are crisp and the reds full-bodied – so down a bottle at your peril! But if you love beer, there are several options for local brews – several are named after places/provinces – Myanmar, Mandalay, Dagon – nothing like a tall glass of frosty chilled beer on a suffocatingly humid summer or rainy day sitting on chairs by the Ayeyarwaddy river watching boats chug by!!!
On that note, happy adventures across Myanmar. Since I didn’t venture Inle Lake side, I did miss out on some really authentic native stuff, but the local favourites like Mohingya were anyways out of bounds for me – no fishy business for me, remember?