An Introduction to Food in Myanmar

Written by Kyle about Myanmar. Feelin' normal
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Lunch in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Food in Myanmar.  When someone says "Myanmar Food" to you, what do you think?  So far, food in Myanmar doesn't have the same reputation as neighboring China, Thailand, or India.  This is definitely not due to a lack of variety or taste, but more due to the fact that it is unknown.  For instance, in most cities in the US, you can find at least one Chinese, Thai, and Indian restaurant and because of that, the food is well-known.  If you go looking for a Myanmar or Burmese restaurant, you'd be lucky to run into one.

So, what I often see happen to tourists who come to Myanmar is that they have no point of reference; they don't even know where to start.  And, unfortunately, they try a couple of places, order a couple of random dishes, decide that they don't like it and brand food in Myanmar as not that good.

The real truth, though, is that food in Myanmar is as varied and tasty as any other cuisine in the world.  Let me put it this way: officially there are 180+ ethnicities in Myanmar and most of them have their own dishes, if not an entirely different cuisine.  Most of what I ate is confined to the city areas, but take a trip out into far-flung areas, and you're likely to find completely different foods with completely different tastes

Accompaniments (Burmese: Thoh Sayah)

A traditional Burmese meal should come with certain side dishes, called "Thoh Sayah".  The practice seems to be dying out a bit, at least in sit-down restaurants, and for reasons that I can't explain, exists more frequently in the side-of-the-road shops underneath rain tarps.  Go figure.  Here are some things that you might expect.

Fish Paste Sauce (Burmese: Nga Pi)
Comes with almost all burmese food

You'll either like it or hate it.  It's very fishy tasting.

Soup (Burmese: Hin Yeh)
Typical Burmese Soup

Usually served in endless proportions, the soups do the job.

Bean/Lentil soup (Beh Hin)
Beh hin (lentil/bean soup)

 One of my favorite restaurants serves this soup that could easily stand on its own.

Snacks (Burmese: mon) and Drinks (Burmese: athouq)

Sugar Cane Juice (Burmese: Chang Yeh)

Sugar Cane Juice Stand, Yangon, Myanmar

This is found all over the streets and is a great way to beat the heat.  Quite simply, the sugar cane (on the left) is put through the press (on the right) until a lot of juice is extracted.  It's best served with a squeeze of lime (thambiya).

Liquid palm sugar (I think) with coconut and sticky rice (Burmese: Mon Laq Sang)
Mon Latt Sang, Market in Taunggyi, Myanmar

Yoghurt with Palm Sugar (Burmese: Dain Jin Tinyet Yeh Neq, lit: "Yoghurt mixed with palm sugar")
Yogurt with Palm Sugar (Dain Jin Tinyet Yeh Net)

Yogurt in Myanmar is pure and very good quality.  You can get it with a variety of mixers, including strawberry, papaya, or just plain ol' sugar.  I would definitely try some if you are in the country.

Tasty Coconut Milk Thingy (Burmese: Shwe Yin Aye lit: "Cold, Golden Chest")
Cocunut milk with condensed milk and all kinds of goodies (Shwe Yin Aye)

This is usually only sold on the street from itinerant vendors who carry a mobile snack unit around on a bamboo pole.  Be forewarned that it has sweetened condensed milk and a lot of sugar in it!

Strawberry Domino (Same in Burmese)
Strawberry Domino

I seriously like sugar and a domino (or it's cousing, the faluda) is chock full of it.  They are probably more Indian than Myanmar, but they seem to have been adopted in Myanmar at most cold drink shops (Burmese: A-Eh Sein)

Steamed Dumplings (Burmese: Bouq Si)
Breakfast in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Served almost exclusively in tea shops, bouq si is a quick, tasty way to eat breakfast.  The usually fillings are pork, chicken, or beans (the bean bouq si is a good vegetarian option).

Beans and Naan Bread (Burmese: Beq Nanbya)
Bepyoke Nanbya (Beans and Naan)

Probably the BEST BREAKFAST FOOD EVER!  Usually, it is only sold before 10 or 11am at tea shops. 

Bean Parata (Burmese: Beq Parata)
Bepyoke Parata, Yangon, Myanmar

It's hard to tell from the picture, but yes, there are beans inside of the parata bread.  You can get parata with a lot of different things such as sugar (thajaa parata) or eggs (jet oo parata...see below).

Parata with Egg (Burmese: Jet Oo Parata)
Egg Parata (Kyet Oo Parata)

Shan Tomato Rice (Burmese: Shan Tamin Chin)
Shan Sticky Rice (Shan Tamin Shin)

As the name implies, this is a small Shan dish with savory rice, tomato, garlic, and meat on top (optional).  I like to have it as a filler between other meals.

Fried Tofu (Burmese: Tohoo Jaw)
Tohoo Jaw (fried tofu)

Glutinous Rice Snack (Burmese: Htoe Mon, lit: "Punch Snack")
Htoe Mon (Punch Snack!)

This tastes a whole lot better than it looks!  There are many varieties of Htoe Mon and curiously, they are found mostly in Mandalay.  This seems to be the standard gift to someone if you come back from visiting the Mandalay region.

Egg Snack (Burmese: Jet Oo Mon)
Kyet Oo Mon (egg snack), Thadingyut market and festival, Yangon, Myanmar


Salads (athoq)

Ok, before we start drooling over some of the salads, I first want you to take whatever notion of a "salad" that you have in your head and throw it out the window.  These aren't salads in the Western since.  A salad in Myanmar typically has one main ingredient and its flavorings.  With that in mind, you can make a salad out of just about anything.  For instance, a chicken salad is just a small pile of shredded, cooked, flavored chicken.

Even though I list a lot of salads here, the possibilities are endless.  There are even restaurants that serve nothing but salads and at those places, the list is quite long.

Noodle Salad (Burmese: Khao Sweh Thoq)
Khao Shwe Thoke (Noodle Salad), Mandalay, Myanmar

(Burmese: Tanau Thoq)
Tanau Thoke, Sagaing, Myanmar

I don't know what the name of this is in English.  We found it at a temple in Sagaing, near Mandalay.  My guess is that it's some sort of plant that lives in a nearby lake.  It's a good example to show you that you can make a salad out of just about anything!  In any case, it was really good!

Pig Head Salad (Burmese: Weq Gaun Thoq)
Pig Head Salad, Myanmar

Ignore the name and you'll really like it.  Think of it as "Bacon Salad", instead.  This is one of my favorite salads to get.

Fermented Green Tea Leaf Salad (Burmese: Lapheq Thoq)
Laphet Thoke (Tea Leaf Salad)

If you get just one salad, this should be it.  This is the staple salad of any meal and as such, there are many different ways to make it and different kinds of laphet (fermented tea leaves) to use.  My suggestion is to try it at many places and see which one you like the best!

Penny Wort Salad (Burmese: Myin Kwa Yuet Thoq)
Minkwayyuet thoke (pennywort salad)

Fun fact: "Min kwa yuet" actually means "Horse hoof leaf" because the shape of the leaf looks like a horse's hoof.  Homework: find out the Burmese word for rambutan and literally translate that.  Extra points for anyone who puts the answer in the comments :)

Tomato Salad (Burmese: Kayin Chin Thii Thoq)
Tomato Salad (Kayinchinthee Thoke)

Potato Salad (Burmese: Aloo Thoq)
Potato Salad (Aloo Thoke)

Seaweed Salad (Burmese: Japwint Thoq)  - It's actually Cloud Fungus salad, I believe
Cloud Fungus Salad (Japwint Thoke)

Sour Green Mango Salad (Burmese: Thee Yet Thee Thoq)
Theeyetthee Thoke (Sour Mango Salad)

Crab, Fish, and Shrimp Salad (Burmese: Thone Myo Thoke lit: "3 Kinds Salad")
3 kinds salad (crab, shrimp, fish)

Eggplant Salad (Burmese: Kayin Thee Thoke)
Eggplant Salad (Kayinthee Thoke)

Flower from a desert tree salad (Burmese: Diyote Saga Thoq, lit: "Chinese word salad")
Diyote Zaga Thoke (Chinese Word Salad, from the flowers of trees that grow in Sagaing)

Another random salad that we found at a temple in Sagaing, this is actually the flowers of a tree that exist in the arid regions of Myanmar's central plains. 

Tofu Salad (Burmese: Tohoo Thoq)
Tohoo Thoke (Tofu Salad)

This is a Shan salad that is usually made by street vendors in the cities.

Yellow Rice Salad (Burmese: Tamin Wa Thoke)
Tamin Wa Thoke (Yellow Rice Salad)

Another Shan dish that, again, is sold mainly by street vendors.

Rice Salad (Burmese: Tamin Thoq)
Rakhine Tamin Thoke (Rice Salad)

I know that a "rice salad" sounds weird but it's basically steamed rice, mixed with a bunch of other ingredients by hand.  As with most salads, it has garlic, peanuts, and dried shrimps.

Main Dishes

While many of the aforementioned snacks and salads can be eaten as a meal on its own, these are popular centerpieces to a meal.

Mohinga
Mandalay Mohinga

The mother of all Myanmar dishes Mohinga is something that everyone should try if they are in Myanmar.  It's basically a fish-based broth with rice noodes.  After that, the variations are endless.  A Mandalay mohinga might include more pork or chicken, while a Rakhine mohinga will have more fish and spice.  Most places will ask you what you want on your mohinga and again, the list gets quite long; I usually choose fried gourd (burmese: "buthi jaw") but if you want something different (fried banana stem, for instance) get one of your Myanmar friends to translate for you.

Mont Di Noodles (Burmese: Mont Di)
Rakhine Mont Di

Probably the most famous dish from the Rakhine region, Mont Di is one of those staple noodle dishes that's can be found in tea shops, street stalls, or Rakhine-specific restaurants.  If you want to impress anyone from Rakhine state, tell them how much you like to eat Mont Di.

Kyae Oo Noodles (Burmese: Chae Oh)
Kyae O Soup

I put both spellings because you are likely to see it on a menu as Kyae Oh, which is pronounced like "Chae Oh".  In any case, you can get the noodles dry with the broth on the side or with the broth included.  There are endless variations of Kyae Oh and if you really want to get into the dish, try one of the restaurants that specializes in making it: YKKO is the most famous, but there are many others, if you can read the signs in Burmese.

Soft tofu with noodles (Burmese: Tohoo Nooway)
Market Tohoo Nway, Taunggyi, Myanmar

This will be the dish that I will miss most about Myanmar and it's also the one that I have the hardest time describing.  There's nothing like it in the world.  It's basically rice noodles covered with a thick bean paste and topped with green onions and chili oil.  The description and the picture don't do it justice.  Trust me: try this one and you will like it.  I don't know anyone that's come away from eating it and not wanted some more.

Biryiani (Burmese: Dann Bouq)
Biryani in Yangon, Myanmar

A relic from the British inviting Indian businessmen to the country, most large cities will have many places serving biryiani for lunch.  The quality varies quite a bit, but if the place is busy, you can be assured that it is a good place.

Spicy Shan Curry (Burmese: Mala hin)
Cooking Shan Food

Golden Hill Noodles (Shwe Daun Khao Shwe)
Golden Hill Noodles (Shwe Down Khao Sweh)

Thali
Lunch in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Another Indian import Thali is served at Indian restaurants (duh!) and also at many tea shops.  This picture has naan bread with it, but you can get it with rice, parata, chapati, or any other bread that the place has.  The best part about Thali is that usually the refills on curry are on the house!

Sweet and Sour Fish (Burmese: Nga Acho Chin)
Fish in Chaung Tha, Myanmar

Crab (Burmese: Ganaan)
Crab in Chaung Tha, Myanmar

You're probably not going to find this in the cities, but it will be hard to miss if you go to the beach.  When we went to Chaungtha Beach, there were women walking the beach with pots full of live crabs.  Point and one and they will cook it up.

Prawns (Pazung)
Prawns, Chaung Tha, Myanmar

Chin Corn Soup (Chin: Sabuthi)
Chin Food and Mojitos: Corn Soup

I don't think there are any restaurants that serve this Chin dish; you'll have to make your way to the home of a Chin family and ask for some :)  And since foreigners are, for the time being, not allowed to go to Chin state, savor any opportunity to get some real Chin food.  In any case, this goulash-style soup is a staple of any Chin diet and it would delight any Chin person for them to know that you like to eat it.

Fried Beef (Burmese: Amethaa Jaw)
Chin Food and Mojitos: Fried Beef

Spicy Noodles in a Clay Pot (Burmese: Myae Oh Myee Shae)
Mio Mishay, Myanmar

A favorite of any vegetarian, Myae Oh Myee Shae is a Hodge-podge of vegetables in a spicy sauce.  The name, like most food names is a literal translation: "Myao Oh" is the name of the clay pot and "Myee Shae" is the name of the curry flavor.  You can find it in restaurants, but it is best made by street stalls who specialize in the stuff.  Note that it is usually too large for one person and is a great dish to share with a friend.

Beans and Rice (Burmese: Beq Tamin)
Beptamin, Yangon, Myanmar

There are actually lots of rice dishes mixed with another ingredient, this being just one.  Some other options are tea leaf rice (lapet tamin) and peanut rice (myeh peq tamin).  I eat lapet tamin nearly every day...

Fried Rice (Burmese: Tamin Kyaw)
Myanmar Fried Rice

While fried rice doesn't sound that exciting, it's a great staple dish when you just want something comfortable.  Note that a lot of teashops have several variations of friend rice so they may ask you if you want Chinese, Thai, or Myanmar fried rice, for instance.  Just nod your head and they'll bring out something..

Fried Cow Brains
Fried Cow Brains!

Ya, I had to include this for the gross-out factor, but to be honest, it tasted pretty good.  Actually, it kind of tasted like tofu (think about that, vegetarians!).  You're not going to find this at many places and most likely it will be at a halaal restaurant in one of the cities.  Before you say "ewww..", though, don't knock it until you try it.

Fried Vermicelli Noodles (Burmese: Ja Zan Jaw)
Ja Zan Gyaw (Fried Vermicelli Noodles)

Rice with Fish (Burmese: Nga Tamin)
Rice with Fish (Nga Tamin)

San Si Noodles (Burmese: San Si)
San Si Noodles

I wish I knew how to better describe this, but to be honest, it tastes a hell of a lot like Shan noodles.

Chicken with Oiled Rice (Burmese: Jesi Tamin)
Steamed Chicken with Fatty Rice (Jesi Tamin)

Another Shan dish, this is probably one of my favorite things to eat in the world.  If you're coming from Thailand, you might recognize this as khao mun gai.  The thing that makes this is the rice, which is very rich and cooked in chicken fat.  Noms all around on this one.

Stirred Fish (Burmese: Nga Hmwe)
Stirred fish (Nga Hmwe)

BBQ
BBQ in Yangon

I don't think that any tourist escapes Myanmar without having at least one BBQ meal, if not all of their meals in this style.  It's cheap, easy, and quite often comes with ample servings of beer.

Stir Fry on Steamed Rice (Tamin Poun, lit: "Steamed Rice")
Steamed Rice (Tamin Poun)

This should probably be named "everything but the kitchen sink on rice".  There are typically two styles: one which looks like this and another that has more meat (usually pork) and a heavy gravy-like sauce on it.  You're more likely to get this version as it is served in restaurants and tea shops; the other version is sold on the street during lunch time.

Fish Curry (Burmese: Nga Hin)
Fish curry

Fish and Eggplant Curry (Burmese: Kayin Thii Nga Hin)
Fish and Eggplant Curry

Clay Pot Pork (Burmese: Wet Thaa Myae Oh)
Wehtha Myae Oh (Pork in a ceramic bowl)

Much like it's cousin Myae Oh Myee Shae (above), Wet Thaa Myae Oh (lit: Pork Meat Clay Pot) is a favorite bar food of mine.  Just like the name implies, it is pork with vegetables and oil cooked in a clay pot.

Bean Powder Curry (Burmese: Pone Yeh Gee)
Pone Yeh Gyi

Winning the award for "Food that Looks Aweful but Tastes Amazing", Pone Yeh Gee is a dish that is best eaten in the Bagan region.  This is another dish that I can't pass up when I see it.

Sweet and Spicy Pork (Bork: Wet Thaa Acho Sut)
Wetha Achoe Sut (Sweet and sour pork)

Sticky Rice Meal (Hta Ma Neh)
hta ma ne (sticky rice meal)

This is not something that you'll ever find in a restaurant and is more a meal of sustenance than taste, as it is packed with energy and calories.  The one in the picture was given to us at a Mon heritage festival.

Stir Fried Paprika (Burmese: Gone Baun)
Gone Paun (Paprika with meat)

Another favorite tea shop food of mine.

Coconut Noodles (Burmese: Oh No Khao Swe)
Oh No Khao Swe (Coconut Milk noodles)

Unlike Thailand, Myanmar doesn't cook a whole lot with coconut milk.  Oh No Khao Swe is one of the rare exceptions.

Fish with Lime (Burmese: Nga Thambiya)
Lime Fish

Fried Noodles (Burmese: Khao Swe Jaw)
Khao Shwe Gyaw (Fried Noodles)

Japan Tofu (Burmese: Japan Tohoo)
Japan Tohoo (Japan Tofu)

Ok, I'm not really sure if this dish is Japanese, or Myanmar, or even Chinese.  All I can say is that I've only seen it in Myanmar and is a great dish to have some beer with.

Steamed Chicken with Shan Noodles w/ broth (Burmese: Jet Paun Shan Khao Swe Ayeh)
Steamed Chicken with Shan Noodles (Kyet Paun Shan Khao Shwe, Ayeh)

Watercress w/ garlic (Burmese: Gazun Yuwet)
Fried gourd leaves with garlic

Fish Cake Curry (Burmese: Nga Peh Hin)
Fish cake curry

Fried Chicken (Burmese: Jet Tha Jaw)
Kyet thaa kyaw (Fried Chicken)

Shan-style Wontons
Shan-style wontons

I've only found this at one restaurant and they're probably more Chinese than Shan, but, whatever.  They're still delicioius.

Dried, Fried Goat Meat (Burmese: Seit thaa chaut jaw)
Seit Thaa Kyaut Kyaw (Dried, Fried Goat Meat)

Along with the Frid, Dried Chicken (below), this is one of my favorite dishes to get with rice for lunch. 

Fried, Dried Chicken (Burmese: Jet Thaa Chaut Jaw)
Kyet Thaa Kyaut Kyaw (Fried, Dried Chicken)

Kachin Fish (Nga Kachin)
Kachin Fish (Nga Kachin)

I don't know how Kachin this really is, but Kachin-named dishes can be found at a lot of "beer stations".  If you don't like fish, there's usually a Kachin chicken (Jet Kachin Chet) around as well.

Worth Noting

Corn (Burmese: Byon Bu)
Street Vendors, Hledan, Yangon, Myanmar

I know.  Corn.  Boooriing.  But seriously, the corn in Myanmar is fantastic and this is coming from someone who grew up in Kansas, home of corn-eaters.  If you want to eat it Myanmar style, pick it off kernel by kernel and pop it into your mouth much like popcorn. 

Also, despite eating it probably 1000 times, I don't have a picture of ladyfingers / okra.  In the States, I usually pass on eating okra because it doesn't really taste that good.  But THE OKRA IN MYANMAR IS THE BEST.  I think I'm spoiled as far as my okra tastes go.  Maybe with the economy opening up, someone will start exporting okra from Myanmar to the US?

Finally

Market in Taunggyi, Myanmar

When we were visiting Inle Lake, knowing that Myanmar has a lot of regional variation of food, I pestered people asking what kind of dishes that I could eat in this area that would be hard to find in Yangon.  I was given the name of a Shan noodle dish that was supposedly very good in the nearby town of Taunggyi but difficult to find outside of that city.

So, we did what any rational people would do, which was take the bumpy, cramped 2 hour covered truck ride up the mountains into Taunggyi.  Armed with only the name of the dish we walked around until we found a vendor that sold what we were looking for, slightly hidden in a dark market surrounded by vendors selling everything from shampoo to dried fish.  We chowed down our portions happily and paid the $0.50 per bowl that we ate.

The dish we ate is pictured above, and despite me repeating the name over and over to strangers in Taunggyi, I don't remember its name.  It's not that important, really.  The important thing is that there is a lot of food out there to explore in Myanmar and you shouldn't be afraid to go get it.  If you don't like what you find at first, go to a different place and try something else.  Despite the rumors, there is a wide variety of food in Myanmar if you are able to take a chance and discover it. 

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