Awesome Things We Ate in Myanmar

Nom nom nom nom

Before we went to Myanmar, we really had no idea what to expect, food-wise.  It wasn’t a cuisine that was well represented in the South East Asian culinary repetoire internationally.

We knew it was just across the water from all things Indian and Bangladeshi, and surrounded on the other side by Thailand and China, with just a hint of Laos. These are all excellent neighbours to have, culinarily speaking. We just had no idea what to expect from actual Burmese food.

We are both food nerds, and half-assed backpacker cheapo stir-fries in seedy bar/restaurants wear thin after the first dozen or so servings of oily fried cabbage and green pepper, doused in soy sauce.  We wanted to avoid these as much as possible.

We were somewhat successful, though in some small towns we didn’t have much choice. Kinpun, the pilgrim-filled base town for the golden rock at Kyaikhtiyo, was almost absurd in its appalling food: tomato-tinted hot water filled with shredded cabbage being passed off as soup; a plate full of fried chicken bones being labelled ‘fried chicken’- I stuck to the tomato salad as everything else was going horribly awry.

Veggie biryani in Yangon

There were some amazing places that we found, however; places that we just kept going back to because they were so awesome.

These places ranged from tiny Indian holes-in-the-wall serving biryanis and chapatis and hot spiced chai, to tea shops, street vendors and low-key open-air places with pots full of lukewarm Burmese curries, to an Italian joint with a Myanmar chef taught by a passing Italian chef.

Our tastes leaned toward Thai and Indian (both very well represented in the country), with an emphasis on lots of spice and un-scary meat, if any. If you want a Bourdain-style skin-fat-organs-bones paean to  food, you’ve come to the wrong place.  More often than not, we went vegetarian. It was easy and, generally, it was very good.

In no particular order and in no particular geographical grouping, here are some of the best things we found in our 26 days in Myanmar.

1. Aroma 2 (Restaurant street/Yarkinnthar Hotel Road, Nyaung Oo, near Bagan)

Be his guest, please

We went there three times and three times we were almost giddy with joy from having eaten there. They have a basic thali menu (veggie/paneer, chicken, mutton: choose one of the above from the short but yummy list) that comes with a rainbow of chutneys and garlic and chili pastes and yogurt-mint sauces and whatnot and as many of the lovely plain chapatis and rice as you can bear. And a marvellous lentil soup to start.  I think they also do some biryanis but we stuck with the thalis because they were so awesome.

They make everything in the back as you order it so it all comes out hot and fresh. This is seriously home made, pure food here- no msg (yay!), no jars of supermarkt sauces.

The family who runs this place is lovely: the father and some of the kids (including some cousins, I think) work out front, waiting tables and greeting guests, and the mother and other kids are in the kitchen, slaving away over hot stoves so you can stuff yourself silly.

They have a policy whereby if you aren’t satisfied with your meal you don’t pay. If I hear that anyone who reads this has done such a thing, I’ll be very, very upset: there is no way on earth that these guys could produce a bad meal.

I wish they could open a place in Shanghai.

Veggie masala; paneer and veggie masala; chicken tikka

Soup, yummy soup

The chapatis

Mutton stewing, with cardamom and cinnamon

2. Monsoon (85-87 Thein Byu Rd, Yangon, about two blocks south of Mahabandoola near 46th street)

This was our Yangon comfort zone, as well as what we dreamed about whilst being drenched by monsoon rains out in the quagmire rice paddies up in rural Shan state. This place is right in the middle of Yangon, walkable down broken sidewalks, just off the main drag. Inside? Air conditioned. Calm. Gently lit. Happy hour from 17:00-19:00 (half price cocktails!). Sweet, polite, non-invasive staff. Fabulous Asian food (they have Burmese, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian and VietNamese options, all excellent). It was the eye of the travelling storm for us, a place to quietly retreat to after a long day out in the madness of traffic and stimuli.

Fresh mango sours

Spicy, clear, gorgeous Laotian chicken soup

Beef and Bamboo

Burmese tomato (and potato) salad

My soup is trying to kill me

3. Mi Cho (North Bogyoke Road, Moulmein/Mawlamyine)

This one was a funny one, because we’d had a string of unpleasant meaty meals leading up to our discovery of this tiny little place and so when we went in to order, I was fairly adamant in my poorly toned Lonely Planet Burmese that we absolutely didn’t eat meat and that we’d like two vegetarian biryanis. The patient woman who served us said they had no vegetarian options, just mutton or beef.  The adamant vegetarian chose the beef. It was excellent.

Best biryani ever

The pumpkin-ful, spicy, gorgeous, bottomless soup

Fluffy fluffy rice

The kitchen/eating area

4. San Kabar (Main road, Nyaung Oo, near Bagan)/ Cafe Dibar (14/20 Than Lwin Road, Yangon)

This one is actually two places, totally unrelated except for the fact that they both somehow produce fabulous Italian food in Myanmar. San Kabar was my favourite. We ate there a lot when we were in Bagan- there is something marvellous about spending a day out cycling in the dry dusty plains, surrounded by ancient temples, then cycling back into town to drink cold beers and eat cool, fresh cucumber-tomato-feta-olive salads and very fresh home-made pastas (they roll out the linguine when you order it). The chef, rumour has it, was taught by another wandering minstrel chef from Italy- hence the strangely authentic details (fresh basil and oregano in Myanmar? Ok!).

The other one, Cafe Dibar, is in Yangon. I don’t know where they learned their trade and I only tried their beautiful tomato mozzarella salad (3 times!) but Doug says their pastas are brilliant as well so I’m including them in the list.

I know that a list of the best food in Myanmar should technically focus on Burmese food but, really, I live in freaking China normally so I’ll take my gorgeous Euro-style comfort foods wherever I can find them.   It’s not like I can go back from our trip to a country where I’m surrounded by Italian restaurants. These were excellent.

What you don't expect in Nyaung Oo

Fresh, homemade pasta

The Zorba salad- with real feta and olives

A lovely tomato salad with real mozzarella and fresh basil

5. Ko’s Kitchen (Corner of 19th and 80th Streets, Mandalay)

Mandalay was not an easy place for food. We had some meh Nepalese thali (I liked the potato roti), a lot of veggie curries, some fried noodles with veggies outside of town and this: Ko’s Kitchen, a pretty accurate Thai place, according to Doug, who happens to have lived in Thailand for 3 years and knows his stuff. The cooks there seem to be Thai and the menu is very very Thai.

Best sidecar this side of Paris

Spicy beef 'n Thai basil

Tom Yam (yum yum yum)

6. Random tea shops and street stalls around the country

Somewhere between Moulmein and Kyaikhto, on a bus with the windows wide open for air, we dined on samusas, dried fruit, rounds of peanut brittle, sticky rice in folded-banana-leaf pyramids; on the train from Yangon heading south, we got Burmese rice and curries and little deep fried fritters (fish?) in a styrofoam box from a man with a set of cooking pots set up next to the tracks at a station. On the train, vendors sold fruit, corn, mystery puffy snacks, shrimp-sticky-rice mixes stuffed into leaves.

In tea shops, you can eat samusas and fried dough sticks and steamed buns and various noodle combinations; you can drink crappy 3-in-1 coffee mixes and strong black tea and spicy milky indian chai. You can eat and drink a lot for around 2000 kyat for 2 people ($2US).

My 30 cent metal cup of hot chai

Bamar veggie curry

Waiting for Godot (and rice)

Spicy fried noodles in Inwa

Steamed buns in Hsipaw

Awesome sweet coconut steamed buns

Samusa maker in tea shop

Fresh, hot samusas

Nibblies in Moulmein

Dried fruit bought through an open train window

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.