Friday, July 20, 2012

Dining in Yangon: an introduction to Myanmar cuisine

Prior to this trip to Myanmar, I had never tasted Myamnar cuisine before. I did not know what to expect. But I had a hunch it would be spicy, similar to next-door neighbor, Thailand. I was wrong. The food I sampled in Yangon was not all spicy.

One thing is sure- three days and three nights is not enough to sample the cuisine of Myanmar. With 135 ethnic races living in the country, there is a vast diversity of regional dishes. While there are curries and salads as the Thai have, they are not spicy in Myanmar. In fact, there are many dishes influenced by Myanmar’s other neighbors: India and China. Many main dishes are variations of curries with a basic gravy mixture of garlic, onions, ginger, tumeric, vinegar, paprika, and tomato paste. Freshwater catfish is a staple.

To give you an idea on the food scene in Yangon, allow me to share photos (mostly taken on ipad) of the food I sampled while I was in the city recently.

My friend Stu had been to Yangon many times. He recommended Padonmar Restaurant. According to Stu, the chef sunny is a better chef than his ex-wife, who owns another popular restaurant in Yangon. Not sure what their marital squabbles are about, but I was keen to sample the cooking of the better chef. So I headed to Padonmar on Sunday lunch. But I was shocked to see the restaurant empty, with me as the lone diner of the entire establishment.

Waiter at Padonmar -- your lunch is served!

Padonmar Restaurant
The menu said it serves Fine Dining Myanmar & Thai Cuisine. The left pages of the menu were devoted to Myanmar dishes and the right pages for Thai dishes. Naturally, I opted for Myanmar. There were complimentary Tofu Chips for appetizers. Extremely, crunchy and addicting, I admit to finishing off the plateful of chips.

According to Ma Thanegi’s book “An Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine,” “Myanmar Cuisine is not complete without a side dish of a salad, and they are also eaten as snacks.” She said when men go drinking in the evening they have a variety of salads with their beer or toddy palm wine. The pickled tea leaf salad is the most popular snack in the country. The tea leaves are steamed and buried to mature for six months then washed, and pounded with garlic, seeped in oil, then served with sesame seeds, nuts, fried beans, dried fish, and garlic.

I did not know that at the time and opted for Banana bud salad (Kyat 2,600). It was delicious, with a distinct nutty taste. Every thing can be turned into a salad: Chicken Vermicelli, Herbal leaves, Radish, Green tomatoes, Read tomatoes, Cauliflower, Pickled Vegetables, Winged Beans, Fresh pomelo, Grilled Aubergine, and Fish cake. One stomped me, it was called Drumstick leaves salad. I tried the pork curry with Black Soy paste. They served the dish with a side of pickled vegetables and Balachaung (Crispy Fried Dried Shrimp). The Balachung is made of dried shrimp, shrimp paste, fried onions, and spices like turmeric, garlic, shrimp paste and tamarind paste.

According to the author, relishes are part of the typical Myanmar meal with upper Myanmar people favoring relishes with shrimp paste and tomatoes. Those in the south prefer relishes made with pickled fish. Whatever it is, they always add it to a combination of cooked raw and blanched vegetables.

At the end of the meal, they served a complimentary dessert of fried banana (plantain), served with a side of honey. It brought back memories of the pudgy saba we eat back home in the Philippines. We often fry in our house and sprinkle some sugar on top.

Mohinga –
Mohinga at Daw Cho Mohinga, near Shwedagon
“You must try the Mohinga,” I was told by Myanmar people before I even arrived in Yangon. “What is it?,” I asked. It is the typical breakfast of people in Myanmar: fish soup with noodles. Known as the national noodle dish of Myanmar, most popular in Yanon, which lies in the southern delta where fish are abundant. Edwin, an expat who had resided in Yangon for almost ten years, insist the best Mohinga can be found close to the Shwedagon. Close to the East exit and across a shop selling lots of Buddha statues, there it was Daw Cho Mohinga.

It is a hearty soup with fish, often times catfish, with fish stock flavored with ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, turmeric powder, onion, garlic, ginger, sweet paprika, and garnished with chickpea fritters, coriander, lime, hardboiled egg, and shallots.

Indeed, it is a complete meal. I this hearty soup makes for a great energizing breakfast.

Feel Restaurant stands out amidst grand structures along Restaurant row. At lunch time, there is a crowd of locals, foreigners working at the nearby embassies and a sprinkling of tourists. There is a large spread of cooked dishes laid out on a warmer. You point to it, and they serve it to you. It is almost a dizzying task to choose what to eat. There are so many wait staff behind the counter, and more fluttering around the restaurant to address your every need. I opted for a mutton curry and a bean salad (Pae Thee Thout- long/string bean steamed and served with ground peanuts, sesame, fried onions and a squeeze of lime).
My lunch spread of dishes at Feel Restaurant

When I returned to my table, I was shocked to see a large platter of blanched vegetables with a fish or shrimp sauce for dipping. I was told by the waiter it is called “Toe Saya."
Free veggies on the house- Toe Saya, blanched veggies with fish dipping sauce

While I enjoyed the Mutton Curry and bean Salad, what I liked the most was a free vegetable soup. It reminded me of Indian sambar. Indeed, the best things in life are free! Many Indian dishes like Vinadaloo are part of Myanmar cuisine. The sweet ending was again complimentary. It is called Tago, a sweet hot soup with sago (tapioca balls) palm sugar and cubes of sweet potato. Delicious, again the flavors remind me of home. My entire bill was only 4,200 kyat (about US$4). It was less than half of the two other Myanmar restaurants I sampled.

Bean Salad at Feel

TAING YIN THAR – Myanmar National Restaurant
There are said to be 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar. With this cultural fact, there is much diversity in their cuisine. Taing Yin Thar lets you sample the different regional flavors. The book had dozens of options of appetizers, soups, salads, and mains. I was stomped.

Wat Nan Yoe That Kal Mwe Chaut Kyaw

I chose the Wat Nan Yoe That Kal Mwe Chaut Kyaw (Pork ribs cooked with Shan herbs). I opted for Kyat Oe Sue BokeKyaw, an omelet cooked with Sue-boke leaves, again Shan-style. When the food arrived, both dishes were dry. I was thinking the Pork ribs would have a sauce. I then ordered a Buu Thee Hin Khar (gourd soup with grilled dish, garlic, fish paste and pepper). The ribs were lip-smacking good, they were not all oily. The omelet was light and tasty, and the soup hearty. It tasted very much like home-cooked dishes. But again, the restaurant was virtually empty for lunch.

Kyat Oe Sue BokeKyaw

I was told by Edwin, a Yangon resident. of over a decade now: "The best places for Myanmar food can be found in homes." Perhaps, that is why the restaurants are often empty.When I return to Myanmar for a longer visit, I will definitely make my way to join a family for an authentic home-cooked Myanmar meal.

Copyright Maida Pineda. No part of this blog may be used without permission of the author. 20/7/12


  1. Really interesting, I didn't know anything about Myanmar cuisine but now I am really hungry!

    1. Thanks, Emily. It is fascinating to learn more about a cuisine we haven't tried before. There's still more to learn. The world is our oyster. Thanks for reading. Cheers!


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