myamar monks and rice

Culture through Food in Myanmar

Chilli and lime fish. Chicken curry. Tomato salad. Pork curry with rice. Dhal and roti for breakfast. These are just a few of my favorite Burmese dishes. And then there are my comfort favorite foods like chicken coconut noodle soup (oun nouq kau swe).

As a Myanmar anthropologist, I’ve spent an awful lot of time eating in Myanmar. Eating is tremendously important in Myanmar, so much so that many everyday phrases involve food or food production.

I have a long list of favorite dishes that I want to share with you – comfort foods, regional foods, and foods that have been introduced by the many peoples who have lived, invaded, or colonized Myanmar. So come on a food journey with me and learn about the local foods that make Burmese mouth’s water!

In the next section I tell you about the main kinds of Burmese foods and the importance of food to Burmese culture. Then I explain the very best dishes you need to try on your next trip to Myanmar!

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Burmese Cuisine

If left to their own devices, Burmese people will eat fish and rice every day! Every meal begins with rice. If a Burmese person hasn’t eaten rice over the course of a day, they will complain that their stomach doesn’t feel full.

I’ve had friends rub their stomachs and look at me ruefully if its past lunchtime and they’ve still not had any rice that day! With a majority of the population being devout Buddhists, meat is not a mainstay of the diet.

Food is of course a critical part of the way that many cultural groups within Myanmar express their differences and maintain their cultural histories.

Unsurprisingly, there are significant regional variations that have evolved due to geography and the existence of kingdoms, invasions, colonialism, and a large number of ethnic minorities in this culturally rich nation.

Tilapia fish caught in Inle Lake

From the uplands to the lowlands, and from the Shan princedoms to the eastern and western jungles, Burmese cuisine depends upon the local geography for its particular ingredients and seasonality of dishes.

Rice and fish and rice and curry dishes predominate in the central part of the country where rice cultivation is intense. Noodle-based dishes come from the east of the country, in Shan State especially. Onions are essential, they must be cooked slowly, and the spice mix owes more to South Asian influences than to the complex and exciting food cultures of China to the north and Thailand and Malaysia to the east.

Rice in Myanmar

Myanmar rice farmers

In terms of Myanmar culture, there is no more important foodstuff than rice. “ta-min” is so important it is integrated into the Burmese language. When we greet each other in Myanmar, we don’t say “How are you.” We say, “Tamin sa la” which means ‘have you eaten rice?” Rice is so fundamental in Myanmar; it’s used interchangeably with the word “eat”!

Growing rice is what the majority of the rural population does and so it’s also not surprising that everyday terms for distance and time involve the planting and cooking of this staple food. If you were to ask a Burmese person ‘how far is it?” They might answer with a phrase that means, “as far as you can call over a rice field.” And if you were to ask how long something will take, you’ll often get the response, “As long as it takes to cook a pot of rice.”

In addition to boiled rice, coconut rice is made for special occasions and as offerings to the monks. It is delicately seasoned with coconut milk, coconut, sugar, and cinnamon tree leaves and offered during festivals. I’m addicted to coconut rice. In Yangon and surrounding towns, a part of an onion is often dropped into the billing coconut and rice mixture.

The Burmese usually eat at home where they have dishes with rice, fish, chicken, and vegetables flavored with ngapi which is a pungent, dry, fermented fish paste. Rudyard Kipling said ngapi smells like “fish pickled when it ought to have been buried long ago”. I’m with Kipling on this one but it’s very similar to shrimp paste which gives so many Thai dishes their wonderful flavor.

Eating has traditionally been done without utensils. You use your thumb to fill rice forward onto your fingertips and squash some curry into the rice. You then pop into your mouth a rice-and-curry-ball. Utensils are provided at teashops and restaurants and these include a fork, spoon, and chopsticks.

Traditional Foods of Myanmar

Myanmar (called Burma until changed by the military regime in 1989) is at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia and is bordered by India, Thailand, China, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Burmese food is not as spicy as Indian or as hot as Thai food and it doesn’t resemble Chinese food, with the exception of stir-fried vegetables.

It is fair to say that it is not one of the world’s great cuisines, but there are some truly delicious and addictive dishes in this geographically diverse country that I can’t live without!

You can find, on one of the many street food stalls, Burmese snacks that range from Samosas, naan, biryanis, various noodle dishes, fried insects, and curries. The cuisine of Myanmar has been shaped by varied influences stemming from the border countries but they have all been subjected to Burmese tastes.

Tea Shops in Myanmar

yangon tea shop

You will find tea shops throughout Myanmar and according to locals, it is where the Burmese go for cheap food. These shops are patronized dominantly by men and older men at that although they can be female-owned.

They used to be hotbeds not just for village or local suburb gossip, but for discussions around politics and world events and they have long been a part of Burmese cultural identity. During the years of military dictatorship, the tiny stools were placed far enough away so that military intelligence could not spy on conversations. Now they are back to being crowded, noisy and welcoming places for Burmese and travelers alike.

Tea

Tea in Myanmar is drunk daily by millions, and of course, eaten in pickled tea leaf salad (lahpet thoke).

Tea is a part of Myanmar culture and you can’t start the day without it. Burmese tea is a robust black tea mixed with condensed or evaporated milk. The most popular tea in Burmese tea shops is laphet-yeh which is a condensed milk sweet tea. Coffee is also available but generally speaking, is made from instant coffee.

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Betel

Betel nut for sale in Yangon

Kun, or betel nut, has traditionally been the way that some Asian cultures have dampened down hunger throughout the day. Betel is a carcinogen but is still widely used and avaliable im Myanmar.

The mildly addictive, alkaloid acreca nut and betel leaf (with lime juice and sometimes tobacco and nuts and seasonings) are chewed and the juices spat upon the ground. And that is why the streets of Myanmar’s towns are red!

Indian and Chinese influences on Myanmar foods

Roti and daal for breakfast

Throughout Myanmar, you will see many Chinese and Indian restaurants. In Yangon the Indian restaurants dish up what the Burmese call “Chitty” which is an all you can eat vegetarian buffet served on banana leaves.

You can see the Chinese influences in Burmese cuisine with the use of ingredients such as soy sauce, noodles, tofu, and stir-frying techniques. The Burmese class food into the heating or cooling categories similar to the Chinese who have five classes such as sour, sweet, bitter, acid, and salty.

Vegetarian Food

Vegetarian food is not a strange concept in Myanmar, and neither is it the exception. In a country of devout Buddhists, many do not eat meat and many others only eat meat occasionally. Soups and salads are plentiful, present at every meal, and are an unusual and unique aspect of Burmese cuisine. 

Vegetable soup with tofu

10 Burmese Traditional dishes

Shan Noodles

Shan Noodles

The hill states of eastern Myanmar are the home of the proud Shan people, once a series of autonomous princedoms. Throughout Myanmar, you will find “Shan-style” cuisine, such as Shan-style rice. But what really gets Burmese mouths watering is the thought of a bowl of Shan noodles. 

Shan noodles are flat rice noodles in a soup that consists of meat broth bases with vegetables and/or condiments. These thin rice noodles are also excellent when stir-fried (Shan khao swe) and the noodles can be seen hanging up to dry in Mandalay (Mandalay Mee Shay is a popular Shan noodle dish). Most tourists discover Shan noodles when they visit Inle Lake in Shan State.

Mohinga

If you asked a Burmese person what the country’s national dish is, they would almost certainly telly you that it is Mohinga. Mohinga is essentially rice vermicelli in fish soup served at breakfast.

Traditional ingredients include fine rice noodles flavored with shallots, ginger, lemongrass, chili or chili powder, and the pith of a banana tree stalk. The banana stalk gives the dish a subtle crunch and flavor similar to jicama used in Mexican foods.

Mohinga is very much a dish that you tailor to your own liking – adding more chili for heat, more lime juice for tartness, and so on. Freshwater fish are usually the basis of the soup but simply because of the Ayeyarwaddy River that runs from the foothills of the Himalayas all the way to the Yangon Delta.

 Shan Rice (Nga Htamin)

The Shan are originally from China and are the largest minority group in Myanmar. Shan Rice was one of their traditional foods but it is now found throughout Myanmar. Shan rice consists of rice, tomato, with potato cooked with turmeric, and then shaped into a round or flat disc that is topped with fish cooked with onion, garlic, and chili.

The Burmese call the dish nga htamin (fish rice) as it is ingredients include fresh or fermented fish mixed with fish, mashed potatoes, and fresh tomato paste, and then it is garnished with crispy garlic, chives, and chili oil.  

Burmese Curry

Beef curry

Curries are much milder in Burma than other Asian countries but they are the main element of many meals here.  Curries in Myanmar are somewhat oily and are typically meat-based from mutton, pork, beef, to fish and shrimp. Oily or not, they are delicious!

These curries are not served alone though they are often accompanied by rice, dishes of fried vegetables, a small bowl of soup, and an assortment of dips. These dips range from Ngapi ye to season the dish to baa chaung which is a dried mix of garlic, shrimp, and chilies. If the curry is served in an Indian restaurant or food stall, the soup and curry will be vegetable or lentil-based and accompanied by roti or another Indian bread.

Burmese Salads

Salads, known as thoke, are eaten all day long in Myanmar – at breakfast, accompanying meals, and as late-night snacks. There is an incredible array of salads in Myanmar and with the primary ingredient being vegetables livened up with lots of crunch and flavor. They make the perfect side to curries and other traditional Myanmar foods. 

Tea Leaf Salad

Myanmar is a country steeped in tea culture and they even eat fermented tea leaves. Lahpet, which is one of Myanmar’s most popular dishes, is made from fermented tea leaves with ingredients than can include peanuts, fried garlic, sesame seeds, dried shrimp, and fried yellow split peas.

Lahpet is an important food in Burmese rituals and is beautifully presented in lacquerware trays made especially for lahpet.

The Burmese idea of the perfect mouthful of food is one that feels like an explosion inside your mouth. All of the tastes are present and for non-Burmese tastes, the sour and bitter tastes can seem unpleasant if they are strong components of dishes (such as the popular dish, fish with sour berries).

Because laphet is somewhat strange to a western palate it can often be served with slices of tomato, thinly sliced cabbage, and a squeeze of lime.

Nangyi Thoke

Nan gyi thoke is a “dry” noodle salad with broth served as a side dish. This salad is comprised of thick round rice noodles, chicken pieces, and bean sprouts, hardboiled eggs, and slices of fish cake. Seasoned with a mixture of turmeric, chili oil, and roasted chickpea flour (besan) the dish is served with the soup and pickled greens on the side.

Ginger Salad

A beautiful fresh salad that uses pickled ginger as the base with fish sauce, fried lentils or chickpeas, and finely sliced cabbage dressed with lime or lemon juice. This salad is full of crunchy morsels and a fabulous side dish to a curry.

Kayan Chin Thi Thoke

This is a green tomato salad. The other ingredients include coriander, crushed peanuts, black sesame seeds, chili flakes, and garlic oil. It is eaten as a side dish with curry or noodle dishes and is garnished with red chili and coriander.

Moun: Myanmar Snacks and Sweets

Tea shops serve a variety of snacks such as spring rolls, dim sum, samosas, and noodles topped with a wide variety of garnishes. You will also find sweet snacks such as tha-gu moun (tapioca in syrup), tan thi moun (palm sugar cake), moun zan (sticky rice cake with jaggery), bain moun and moun sein baung.

Traditionally Burmese sweets are known collectively as moun and are considered snacks not so much a desert. They are not packed with sugar but get their flavor from coconut, coconut milkrice flour, tapioca, and fresh fruit.

Bain Moun

These are traditional Myanmar snacks made with rice or sticky rice mixed with jaggery. Bain moun is baked creamy rice with chopped peanuts, poppy seeds and coconut sprinkled on top.

Moun Sein Baung

Moun sein baung is a two-layered dish. The upper layer is creamed rice with jaggery and the bottom layer is a brown steamed rice powder with jaggery and the whole thing is topped with coconut and pounded sesame seeds

Drinks

Cane sugar juice in Yangon

I have met Burmese who drink whiskey like there’s no tomorrow but the vast majority of Burmese Buddhists I have met do not drink alcohol. Instead, the Burmese drink tea and coffee, and mainly tea. The best thing about tea in Myanmar is that you are unlikely to become ill from drinking it as it is boiled for long periods of time.

Alcoholic beverages are drunk during some festivals but not during most religious festivals. In the cities or larger towns, beer and other types of alcohol are available but in the smaller rural area, a locally distilled alcohol is made. This is usually a fermented rice or palm juice type of liquor. In urbanized areas, commercial beer and other forms of alcohol are consumed, while in more remote rural areas, locally made alcohol is more common.  

Drinks made from fruit are popular and refreshing in Myanmar and during the hot season, my favorites are lime juice, mixed with soda and a little sugar syrup, as well as papaya and watermelon juice.

Links and Further Information

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