Myanmar's flavorful, hearty food drives home Myanmar's wealth of culture and tradition. It's not hard to get started; stop at any street or market at any point of your Myanmar itinerary, and you will find eateries hawking freshly-cooked Myanmar staples for the first hungry visitor that comes along.
While Myanmar food lacks the sharp spices or flavoring you'd expect in Thai food, it's still good, hearty and best of all cheap: a serving of their noodles in a bowl usually costs about 500-4,000 Myanmar Kyat (about 50 US cents to US$4.10), depending where you are trying to get them. And that's just the beginning.
Mohinga - Myanmar's Favorite All-in-One Meal
Start with Myanmar's national dish, mohinga; eateries throughout Myanmar churn it out first thing in the morning, making this simple noodle concoction the country's favorite breakfast.
Burmese cooks make mohinga from fish, then fortify it with rice noodles, herbs, and a curry-like yellow fish stock. It is then garnished on top with little pieces of pork crackling, chopped coriander, fried garlic, and boiled egg.
Mohinga can be found anywhere in Myanmar, often served with locally brewed coffee (with a wedge of lime on the side). A bowl of the stuff is a complete meal on its own.
Laphet - Pickled Tea Leaves Predict Good Fortune
The Burmese are famous for their tea consumption, and they are one of the few cultures who embrace eating the leaves as well as drinking from them. The Burmese dish called laphet - pickled tea leaves - is considered a national dish of Myanmar (second only to mohinga).
You'll find laphet most commonly in its salad form - laphet thoke - which is usually served at the end of a meal. Pickled tea leaves are mixed with garlic, chili, tomatoes, cabbage, then tossed with a dressing of fish sauce or peanut oil; a spritz of lime finishes the dish.
Shan Khauk Swe - Legacy of the Proud Shan State
The Shan culture - centered around the eponymous eastern Myanmar state around Inle Lake - serves a wide range of noodle dishes, but it's Shan Khauk Swe that most tourists will encounter in any restaurant around the country.
The dish consists of boiled noodles mixed with sautéed vegetables (pickled mustard greens are a common ingredient) and your choice of chicken or pork; the sauce is redolent with soy sauce and other Asian spices, though it can also be served dry.
Kyat Thar Si Pyan – a Burmese Bachelor's Favorite
“Oil returns” - that's the meaning of the last two syllables in this filling chicken curry dish, referring to the chicken fat that separates from the sauce as the dish reaches completion.
The name aside, this chicken “curry” uses a simple paste of garlic, onions, cinnamon and ginger, eschewing the coconut oil and complicated spices you'll find in curries elsewhere. Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, the resulting dish offers plenty of flavor and character: a perfect accompaniment to rice, and a regular in many Burmese housewives' repertoire.
A variation of this chicken dish is called “bachelor's chicken”, referring to the days when the village night watchmen (usually composed of bachelors) would pilfer from local gardens to make their nocturnal chicken dinners.
A Kyaw Sone: Fried Veg on the Go
This fritter dish is easy to whip up using cheap ingredients you can find anywhere – that's why street food stalls and cheap cafeterias serve a kyaw sone (assorted fritters) almost without exception.
Chickpeas, potatoes, diced onions, chayote and gourds are chopped up, coated in batter and deep-fried to produce a hot and crisp treat that can be eaten as quickly as it's cooked.
The dish simply isn't complete without dipping in its accompanying sauce, usually made from fish sauce mixed with garlic, sugar, chili and fresh cilantro.
Onn Not Khao Swe: A Southeast Asia Original
If you've eaten Thai khao soi, you've encountered one of the many descendants of the Burmese dish onn not khao swe.
Its basic ingredients – wheat noodles, chicken and a broth derived from a coconut-milk curry – have ensured the dish's popularity even as it metamorphosed while crossing borders.
The name translates to “coconut milk noodles”, and like most food in Myanmar goes light on the spices but heavy on the heft and umami: the Burmese favor this dish as a comfort food, adding spices and texture to taste. Eaters often add garnishes of sliced raw onions, hard-boiled egg, and spritzes of lime or fish sauce.
Shwe Yin Aye - Sweet Burmese Delight
A popular local dessert that you can buy even from the rolling carts in the city streets, Shwe Yin Aye is basically a coconut cream enriched with colorful rectangular jellies and tiny clear tapioca pearls, served with ice and most of the time, a piece of tiny bread.
Shwe Yin Aye's popularity derives from its cheap ingredients, ease of preparation, and suitability for Myanmar's hot, humid days. A worthwhile treat after a day of wandering through the local temples.
The Burmese Buffet - Everything All At Once
The buffet houses in Myanmar say this is how the Royal Family ate their meals. Instead of being given a menu, guests are served a large series of dishes - vegetables, beef, chicken, pork, and sometimes seafood. Every dish comes with a tiny serving spoon; you'll be allowed to sample from everything that is served in front of you. The buffet comes with a big bowl of rice and a tiny bowl of soup.
A seat at a buffet meal costs between 4,000-10,000 Myanmar Kyat (US$4.10 to $10.25). Once you're done, they will remove all of the dishes in front of you, refill them and serve them to the next table!
For a similar smorgasbord-type meal, check out this article about Padang Food in Indonesia.