10 meals every Myanmar traveler should try

10 meals every Myanmar traveler should try

Rich, savory Burmese cuisine has been hidden away for half a century. That's about to change

With Myanmar opening to the outside world, visitors are discovering a cuisine that’s been largely hidden from sight for the last 50 years.

With an emphasis on rich, predominately savory/salty flavors, influences from South and Southeast Asia and a repertoire of ingredients not found in any other cuisine, there’s much to discover.

As in most of Southeast Asia, Myanmar restaurants and stalls tend to specialize in a single dish or culinary style.

For a comprehensive taste of the cuisine, we've chosen these 10 Burmese dishes and snacks. Every visitor to the country should seek them out.

Tea leaf salad

Laphet thoke can be a meal, snack or appetizer.

​Perhaps the most famed Burmese food is lephet -- fermented tea leaves.

The tart leaves are eaten on their own, typically as dessert, but they’re also served in the form of lephet thoke, a salad of pickled tea leaves.

To make the dish, the sour, slightly bitter leaves are mixed by hand with shredded cabbage, sliced tomatoes, crunchy deep-fried beans, nuts and peas, a splash of garlic oil and pungent slices of chili and garlic.

The dish is versatile. It can be a snack, an appetizer or, coupled with a plate of rice, a meal.

It’s also considered a stimulant: the Burmese says that eating too much lephet thoke can prevent sleep.

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Shan-style rice

Nga htamin's essential components: turmeric rice and fish.​​Known in Burmese as nga htamin (fish rice), this Shan (one of the country's main Buddhist ethnic groups) dish combines rice that's been cooked with turmeric and squashed into a disk with a topping of flakes of freshwater fish and garlic oil.

Oily and savory, when served with sides of leek roots, cloves of raw garlic and deep-fried pork rinds, nga htamin becomes a snack that runs the gamut from pungent to spicy.


Burmese curry

Burmese curry meal in Kalaw, Shan State.​A visit to a traditional Burmese restaurant is more than just a meal, it’s a culinary experience.

As the name suggests, curry is the central element, but after you’ve chosen one -- typically a meaty, somewhat oily curry based around pork, fish, shrimp, beef or mutton -- a seemingly never-ending succession of side dishes will follow.

These include rice, a tart salad, a small dish of fried vegetables, a small bowl of soup and a large tray of fresh and par-boiled vegetables and herbs to be eaten with various dips.

Dips range from ngapi ye, a watery, fishy sauce, to balachaung, a dry, spicy mixture of chillies, garlic and dried shrimp fried in oil.

At a Muslim-run curry shop the soup might be a combination of lentils and root vegetables, while the sides might include a few crispy pappadum.

By the time it all arrives, you’ll be face to face with a spread of dishes that seems to include all the ingredients, textures and flavors of Myanmar.

After you’ve finished, you’ll also get a traditional Burmese dessert -- a lacquer tray containing pickled tea leaves and nuts, or a jar of chunks of palm sugar.

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Burmese tea shop meal

Sweet and savory snacks at a tea shop in Kalaw, Shan State.​Myanmar’s tea shops aren't just places to sip tiny cups of sweet, milky tea.

They also function as a crash-course on various cuisines of Myanmar -- dishes served often reflect the ethnicity of the shop’s proprietor.

Tea shops run by ethnic Burmese are good places to dig into the world of traditional Burmese noodle or rice dishes such as htamin thoke, a type of rice salad.

Indian/Muslim-owned tea shops tend to serve South Asian-influenced, deep-fried savory snacks, such as samosas or poori (deep-fried bread served with a potato curry) or baked breads such nanbya (naan). The latter also often serve South Asian-style desserts.

Chinese-owned tea shops often feature baked sweets as well as meaty steamed buns and dim sum-like items.


Burmese sweet snacks

Burmese sweets at a market in Hpa-an, Kayin State.

​Unlike sweet dishes in the West, Burmese sweets, known collectively as "moun," aren't consumed as dessert but rather as snacks, typically taken with tea in the morning or afternoon.

And unlike sweets elsewhere in Southeast Asia, moun aren’t generally packed with sugar, instead getting their sweet flavors from ingredients such as grated coconut, coconut milk, rice flour, cooked sticky rice, tapioca and fruit.

Standout Burmese sweets include hsa nwin ma kin, small cakes of crumbly semolina flour with coconut milk, ghee and raisins; and bein moun and moun pyit thalet, Burmese-style pancakes, served sweet or savory, with a damp, hole-y consistency not unlike an English crumpet.

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Deep-fried stuff

Deep-fried snacks are widely available on the streets of Yangon.​The Burmese have an obsession with deep-frying foods in oil -- in Myanmar, it’s practically impossible to avoid fried foods.

The majority of snacks found on the street or in tea shops -- samosas, spring rolls, savory fritters, sweets, breads -- are deep-fried, and many noodle dishes are topped with akyaw, deep-fried crispy garnishes.

One deep-fried dish particularly worth seeking out is buthi kyaw, battered and deep-fried chunks of gourd.

When served hot, the thin, crisp batter conceals a soft, slightly watery interior of tender gourd, and the fritters are typically served with a sour/sweet dip made from tamarind that can be made savory with the addition of bean powder.


Shan-style ‘tofu’ noodles

Hto hpu nwe (warm tofu) isn't actually made of tofu.

​One of the most unusual dishes in Myanmar is hto-hpu nwe, literally "warm tofu."

Associated with the ethnic Shan of northern Myanmar, the dish doesn’t actually include tofu, but rather a thick porridge made from chickpea flour.

The sticky yellow stuff is served over thin rice noodles, chunks of marinated chicken or pork. It's topped with a drizzle of chili oil and includes sides of pickled veggies and broth.

It’s an odd and visually arresting combination, but, if you’re a fan of savory flavors, one that will grow on you.

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Nangyi thoke

Nangyi thoke, a "salad" of thick rice noodles.

​The Burmese love "dry" noodle dishes -- essentially noodle-based "salads" with broth served on the side -- and perhaps the tastiest and most ubiquitous is nangyi thoke.

The dish takes the form of thick, round rice noodles with chicken, thin slices of fish cake, par-boiled bean sprouts and slices of hard-boiled egg.

The ingredients are seasoned with a mixture of roasted chickpea flour and turmeric and chili oil, tossed by hand and served with sides of pickled greens and a bowl of broth.

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Mohinga

Rice noodles served in a hearty, herbal fish- and shallot-based broth, mohinga is often called Myanmar’s national dish.

​Myanmar’s unofficial national dish is mohinga -- fine, round rice noodles served in a hearty, herbal fish- and shallot-based broth, often supplemented with the crunchy pith of the banana tree.

It’s beloved as a breakfast dish, but, sold by mobile vendors, it’s a common snack at any time of day or night.

Optional toppings include a sliced hard-boiled egg and akyaw, deep-fried crispy veggies and/or disks of lentil batter. The dish is seasoned to taste with a squeeze of lime and/or flakes of dried chili.

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Shan-style noodles

Myanmar's Shan State is famous for noodles.

​The dish most commonly associated with Shan State is this combination of thin, flat rice noodles in a clear, peppery broth with marinated chicken or pork, garnished with toasted sesame and a drizzle of garlic oil. It's served with a side of pickled vegetables.

Compared with most Burmese noodle dishes, it’s relatively simple, verging on bland, but is reassuringly comforting and consistently delicious.

A "dry" version, with the broth served on the side, is also common.

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Austin Bush is an American writer/photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His photos have been published in variety of magazines, books and newspapers including DestinAsian, Food & Travel, Olive, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, as well as numerous Lonely Planet publications. For an online portfolio and samples of his work, check out www.austinbushphotography.com.

Read more about Austin Bush
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