Burmese Food: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Salads
Burmese cuisine is not something on the radar of most Americans; unless you live near one of the small handful of Burmese restaurants, it might not even occur to you that Burmese folks don’t eat, oh, you know, a mix of Thai, Indian, and Chinese food. But Burmese food is very distinct and very delicious. We just spent a month there and want to share a few of our favorites. One thing worth noting first, though:
I didn’t get sick once in 28 days in Burma. When we travel throughout India & Nepal, I am typically religious about not eating raw vegetables (lest they be washed in tap water that wants to kill me). Now, Burma is still a developing country tourism-wise, so I figured it would make sense to also be cautious there. However, so much of what I read online reflected the same sentiment: people were eating these delicious, sometimes raw salads and not getting ill. I knew there was no way I was not going to eat tea leaf salad, so armed with Imodium and charcoal tablets, I bravely forged ahead. However, it seems no bravado was necessary. This is by no means medical advice; I would certainly advise you to follow the usual precautions (eat where the locals eat, eat where the hot things stay hot and cold things stay cold, etc etc) but I can at least tell you, I ate some form of raw vegetables every day, and I was fine. Do with that what you will.
Laphet Thoke : Tea Leaf Salad
Also spelled lephet and lahpet (thoke means salad), tea leaf salad is a must-try when you come to Burma. While everyone has a different take on it, the core ingredients remain the same: pickled tea leaves, fried beans and/or nuts, garlic, onions, and tomatoes (and very often, tiny dried shrimp). And did I mention oil? The best ones come unmixed and you can toss them at will; I’m also very partial to fried garlic bits in mine. The best I had was in Yangon at a restaurant called Chancellor, although you wouldn’t find it by name as there is no English on the outside (or really, the inside). But it is almost directly across the street from the big reclining Buddha (Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda) in a 2 story purple building.
The pickled tea leaves give this dish an ever so mildly briny, sour flavor that is supported on each side by the savory, crunchy bits around it. Every version varies; some offer copious (almost medicinal!) amounts of raw garlic, some have almost none. Some are very heavy in peanuts while others seem to be an oil-based soup. My advice is to try them all, as they vary from 50 cents to $1 (2014 prices) and they’re all worth at least a taste.
This national dish is traditionally served for breakfast and is a rice noodle and fish soup. Variations are limitless from cook to cook. The broth is usually thickened with chick pea or rice flour and toppings can include fried fish, fried peas, fried onion or garlic, cilantro, egg… you get the idea that food is very customizable in Burma, no? A bit too fishy for my tastes, but BJ enjoyed is nearly every morning when it was available. It seems the cheaper the mohinga is, the better it tastes; our very first morning in Yangon we plopped down at a street stall and we each had a bowl for 30 cents!
OK, so I only saw this on one menu, but I used to get it all the time at Burma Superstar in San Francisco so I had to mention it! I had it every day for breakfast in Yangon at Lucky 7 teahouse (49th & Anawratha). Salad is a bit of a misnomer, as it is a more of a thickened soup with some raw ingredients tossed in. Imagine a lightly fried samosa cut up, resting in a slightly spicy broth, complete with cooling cabbage, fresh onions, and a few springs of mint. Oh, and wicked little peppers if you decide you’re up for the challenge! [I have to give a brief shout-out to Lucky 7 here; every morning I would get samosa salad, BJ would get mohinga, and we would get 2-3 drinks (lime juice!), along with unlimited free tea, all for under $3. Oh, but if you ever find out what “Nutrient” is on the menu, let me know!!]
I’ll admit, this probably shouldn’t be listed a meal, but we ate so many of them, they earned a spot. These delicious buggers are ONLY available in Bagan (as if you needed another excuse to go). Your first encounter will most likely be as a post-dinner treat that comes with the bill, although you can find bags of them for sale at convenience stores and even temples. This nickel-to-quarter sized treat is paper thin and is a perfect combination of sour tamarind and sweet sugar. There are about 5 to a wrapper, 8 to 10 wrappers to a small bag, and maybe 10 bags to a package… let’s just say we can’t wait to get back to Bagan.
Other Burmese treats along the way
Miniature potatoes! Condensed deliciousness! We encountered these is Mrauk U, in the northern part of Rakhine state. They are apparently a specialty of this area and they were an all-too-delicious (and cute) carbohydrate delivery mechanism.
Bamboo-cooked sticky rice (Khao Lam in Thai). Our friend Zaw Zaw brought us back to her house where she and her mother plied us with edibles. This little snack was sticky rice that had been cooked inside the hollow of a length of bamboo. While not very sweet (though it had been cooked with coconut), it was a great texture and super novel!
Rice Cakes. Bear with me. These aren’t your January 1st-10th “I’m on a diet” rice cakes. These are freshly cooked, thin, flavorful sheets of goodness. How can anything cooked in hot river sand NOT be good? To the left are the uncooked “patties”; to cook them, she quickly buries them in the hot sand (heated via fire from underneath) for ~15 seconds until they puff up and resemble the lower picture. I’d imagine these are best when fresh off the sand-griddle, not after hours and hours of sittin’ around.
Need a visual? Here’s a video we took (Click here if the video isn’t loading):
19th Street (Chinatown) in Yangon. More than a specific food, this is a recommendation to check out 19th street (between Mahabandoola and Anawratha). The whole street is packed with small restaurants that specialize in grilling anything and everything under the sun. I stuck with mostly tofu & vegetables (broccoli, potatoes, mushroom, gingko nuts, lotus roots, garlic…) but there are rows and rows of all sorts of meats. You just grab what you’d like, put it in a basket, hand it over & they’ll grill it up for you. There are other dishes available, but we were too enamored with the BBQ to branch out (although we did try a fantastic dish of corn). We regularly downed ~30 sticks of BBQ and a big Myanmar beer, always for about $10 total.
All the seafood in Ngapali beach was stunningly good; we stuck mostly to the beachfront shacks, but our guesthouse, Lin Thar Oo, had some epic (and inexpensive) fish. The restaurant ‘Excellence’ in town a bit had great pasta, too. For the view, you can’t pass up Pleasant View Islet restaurant:
In Yangon our standbys were Lucky 7 teahouse and 19th street; we broke down one of our last days and got a burger at Chewy Junior on 47th, and it hit the spot after 27 days of almost exclusively Burmese food. In Bagan we visited The Moon vegetarian restaurant a number of times; we had a number of nice meals elsewhere in the city but nothing stands out as being epic. At Inle Lake we had a few great meals but the names have escaped us–so sorry! One was a bright green, 2 story bamboo affair on the very west side of town, on the south side of the road. In Mrauk U, we would recommend having at least one meal at Prince Hotel, even if you’re not staying there, as their spread is pretty darn impressive. Similarly, at Moe Cherry in Mrauk U, you always get more than you bargain for. In this picture, we had only ordered 1 veg noodle and 1 squid curry and we got 3 bonus dishes, AND bananas for dessert! (All of this, plus drinks, was maybe $5 or $6.)
Yeah, I’m going to confess: I ate a LOT of Pizza Squares. Part of the fun of traveling to new places is to scope out the junk food, right? Well, I discovered these in the Yangon domestic airport and never looked back. Upon first open, it’s an olfactory caricature of a pizza shop; the first bite is lackluster but after that, they actually taste like pizza, or at least what a scratch-n-sniff pizza sticker smells like. And rightly so: one of the ingredients listed is “pizza flavor.”
This is just a small, small sliver of some of the delightful cuisine (Pizza Squares are cuisine, right? ) in Burma. And so many things we didn’t capture in photos: Bamboo soup (I liked it, BJ developed an immediate aversion); Lemon salad (loved the tartness, not so much the spice); and countless curries. It’s true what you hear about the oiliness of the curries, but you can pour that off or spoon around it. Tofu, especially in the Shan state, is made of yellow peas instead of soy, and creates a softer, creamier end product. Oh, and “mutton” in Burma almost always means goat meat, and, man…do they cook a mean goat meat.
Have you ever tried Burmese food, at home or abroad? Have some favorites yourself? Leave a comment below!