The Burmese are deservedly proud of their cuisine which, while borrowing heavily from those of its neighbors, manages to remain totally distinctive. A wealth of spices and pungent seafood pastes combine to create curries with intense flavors, while dry-roasted nuts, pulses, and seeds sprinkled over the top add surprising textures. Noodles and tofu feature prominently in the cooking of the Shan Plateau, just one of several regional styles represented throughout the country. International food, such as pizza, pasta, and burgers, is also widely available in the big cities and tourist resorts, which offer a variety of dining options. The range extends from swish air-conditioned restaurants to relatively basic Burmese places where you can order a feast for a few dollars, and street stalls selling piping hot, tasty snacks for even less than that. Cafés range from American-style coffee- houses in the cities to traditional hole-in-the- wall teashops, while Chinese-style beer stations offer lively venues for watching soccer matches in the evenings.
The most authentic Burmese food is served in busy, no-frills restaurants around shopping districts and local neighbor- hoods, where the emphasis is definitely more on the cooking than the decor. It is best to ignore the strip lighting and plastic furniture, and head for the glass-topped buffet cabinet where dozens of different stews, curries, salads, and side dishes will be on display. Having selected one or two main courses, diners wait for them to be brought to their table, along with a host of accompa- niments, clear soup, and side dishes, ranging from bowls of steaming white rice to nose- tingling balachaung (dried shrimp relish), fermented tea- leaf salad, roughly chopped crudités, and green leaves.
Chinese influence is apparent in the open-air barbecue stalls, where customers pick a skewer of pork, chicken, mutton, or fish and wait for it to be flame- grilled and served up with deli- cious sauces. Shan restaurants also reveal Chinese inspi ra tion in the different noodles they serve up in meaty broths, along with tofu made from chickpeas (garbanzo beans).
Until recently, foreign food was the exclusive preserve of restaurants in Myanmar’s few five-star hotels, but since the revival of tourism, scores of places have opened in major visitor destinations such as Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake), Bagan, and Ngapali (Western Myanmar) where visitors can enjoy pizza, burgers, and sushi.
In metropolitan cities such as Yangon and Mandalay, the appetite of the affluent elite for culinary novelties means that it is now possible to enjoy French patisserie and designer ice creams, and to surf the web over a muffin and a cappuccino.
Some of the tastiest meals and snacks on offer in Myanmar are sold from street outlets. In larger cities, food stalls often cater for dozens of diners who sit at low tables on undersized plastic chairs while they eat. Mohinga, or noodle soup , is a favorite breakfast meal among local workers. In the evenings, Indian chapati and curry ven- dors spring up in downtown areas. Contrary to appear ances, the food served in such places is usually safe and hygienic because turnover is brisk and everything freshly prepared each day. The same applies to fried snacks, such as the Indian pakora, cooked on hot griddles in the street, and the delicious mont linmayar (literally “husband and wife”) – mini rice flour pancakes filled with quail eggs, yellow split peas, tomatoes, and spring onions. When crispy on the outside, two pancakes are flipped on top of each other to form a ball, said to resemble a loving couple, from where their Burmese name is derived. They are served in bags of 10 pairs with a tablespoon of sesame powder. areas. Contrary to appear ances, the food served in such places is usually safe and hygienic because turnover is brisk and everything freshly prepared each day. The same applies to fried snacks, such as the Indian pakora, cooked on hot griddles in the street, and the delicious mont linmayar (literally “husband and wife”) – mini rice flour pancakes filled with quail eggs, yellow split peas, tomatoes, and spring onions.
When crispy on the outside, two pancakes are flipped on top of each other to form a ball, said to resemble a loving couple, from where their Burmese name is derived. They are served in bags of 10 pairs with a tablespoon of sesame powder.
Myanmar presents no particular problems for vegetarians, and although the choice of dishes will inevitably be more limited, most restaurants, whether Burmese or tourist-oriented, offer plenty of options. Stews made from chickpeas and other beans or pulses, which go well with rice and noodles, as well as Myanmar’s delicious tomato salads are popular with vege- tarians. Shan State is a region where vegetarians are partic- ularly well served, thanks to the predomi nance of tofu, vegetable and noodle soups, and filling clay pot meals.
Teashops and Beer Stations
Traditional Burmese teashops are very much part of the culinary scene, particularly in Yangon, where a brew of strong, sweet tea (usually made with condensed milk) provides the accompaniment to a bowl of hot mohinga, steamed bun, samosa, or semolina cake. Teashops are where workers and senior citizens go to relax, chat, and read the newspaper. Younger Burmese, however, tend to congregate more in Chinese-style beer stations, where soccer matches are shown on widescreen TVs and karaoke or other live enter- tainment is often laid on.
Beer is fast overtaking tea as the country’s national drink. By far the most popular brand is Myanmar Beer, produced by a company jointly owned by the military and a conglomerate backed by Wa drug barons. Dagon and Mandalay, both refreshing lagers, are also owned either by the gov ern- ment or by military-linked conglomerates. In more high- end bars, Singaporean Tiger Beer may be on offer, along with boutique beers such as Spirulina (made with the epon ymous algae) and ABC (a strong, dark beer rated at 8 per cent ABV).
Demand in tourist centers for wine has spawned two Burmese vineyards (see p173), Aythaya on the outskirts of Taunggyi, and Red Mountain on the shores of nearby Inle Lake. Both produce reds and whites, from mostly European vine stocks such as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Dornfelder. Quality, while improving each year, is roughly comparable with mid-price New World wines. Prices As in any country, prices for meals vary greatly in Myanmar. While you can expect to pay no more than US$4 for an elaborate, filling meal in a traditional Burmese restaurant, a simple bowl of pasta with pesto could cost double that in a tourist café. Only in smart hotels and the odd gourmet restaurant are you likely to pay more than US$20 per head for a meal. Wine can dramatically increase your bill, with local bottles and New World imports costing US$15–25, or double that in upscale hotels.
Service is nearly always included in the cost of your meal and tipping is not customary in ordinary Burmese places. In tourist restaurants, it is com- mon place to leave the small change from the bill – up to 1,000–1,500 kyat – as a tip.
The restaurants on the following pages have been carefully chosen from across the country to cover a range of possibilities, from fine dining and traditional to modern Burmese fusion cuisine and gourmet Thai. The more high-end places are often located in smart hotels, where the price you pay is as much for the ambience and showy service as the cook ing. The DK Choice category draws attention to establish ments that are exceptional in some way – either because they offer great value for money or because the food they serve stands out from the crowd.