Oft-criticised for lacking the flavour and variety of food in neighbouring countries such as Thailand, China and India, for those willing to give the local cuisine a try, are likely to be pleasantly surprised by what Myanmar offers when it comes to food. With those famous food-rich countries on its doorstep, it is hardly surprising that the country’s cuisine has borrowed heavily from other influences, yet Myanmar food maintains a rich uniqueness.
Tea Leaf Salad (Lahpet Thoke)
Much like its neighbours India and Bangladesh, Tea is native to Myanmar – grown most prominently in the west as well as Shan State in the east – and the country is one of the few in the world where the product is taken both in drink and food form. The Tea Leaf Salad is one of the country’s more unique dishes, and can be taken either as a starter, a snack or eaten alongside main dishes. Like most Myanmar dishes, there is a strong fusion of flavours in the dish, with the tea leaves mixed in by-hand with cabbage, tomatoes, deep-fried beans and nuts, while added flavours and ingredients often include garlic oil, chilli and raw garlic. Almost to highlight the influence of tea in Myanmar cuisine, the following is a popular saying within the country:
“Of all the fruit, the mango’s the best; of all the meat, the pork’s the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet’s (tea) the best.”
Shan Noodles (Shan Kauk Swe)
Located in the north east of the country, Shan State has a strong cultural heritage. The Shan people are proud of their ancient heritage and included in that is the food. One of Myanmar’s most lush and fertile states, it is here that a number of agricultural products are at their most abundant and this is evident in the food. Shan Kauk Swe is perhaps the state’s most recognised dish and it is one of the most common dishes you will come across no matter where you are in the country.
Like many dishes in the country, there are a number of variations but one of the most common comes in the form of thin noodles that are cooked in a concoction of garlic, turmeric, chilli powder, tomato and fish paste. Usually, in order to moisten the dish, a chicken dosh is added to the equation, once again adding to the already-powerful flavour.
Oan Noak Kauk Swe
There is no real English-language alternative to the dish, but this is essentially another noodle dish that is chicken noodles cooked with coconut milk.
Much like the Shan equivalent, there is a range of varieties that can be cooked for this dish, but all dishes maintain the strong and wonderful coconut flavour. Again, it is often garnished with products such as deep-fried bean, onions, chillis with a boiled egg often a welcome addition.
Those who know their Malaysian food will find similarities with the dish laksa, while it also has close associations with the north Thai dish of Khao Soi.
You will be hard pressed to find a Burmese who does not class Mohinga as their favourite dish.
New arrivals will be forgiven for looking at the beige-coloured fishy broth and being instantly turned away, but it is worth persevering. Many a traveler relays the tale of being presented with the dish by a friendly local on one of their first nights in the city and looking down at it in utter fear. “I can’t eat this,” they’ll think, “I’ll vomit it up everywhere.” But each storyteller then accepts that upon touching spoon to lips, to be pleasantly surprised by the joy a mohinga brings. Rice noodles cooked in a herbal fish broth, variations include additions of deep-fried noodles, nuts and vegetables. The added hard-boiled egg is another option, while lemon and dried chilli add to the flavour.
The nation’s unofficial dessert, the Myanmar version is a mild variation on the brightly coloured drink that is enjoyed across Asia all the way to the Middle East. Most popular during the searing heat of Dry Season, Myanmar’s Falooda is usually bright pink in colour. It consists of milk, sago, vermicelli noodles, ice cream, jelly, saturated milk fat and sugar and the occasionally cherry added for lunch. Available on most street corners, Falooda is available for less than 1,000 kyat and it will fill even the emptiest stomachs quickly – hardly surprising with all that hearty goodness and sugar thrown in.