April 5th, 2013
04:00 PM ET
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Jamie Feldmar is a food and travel writer. Read more about her at jamiefeldmar.com and follow her on Twitter @jfeldmar

Eating does not usually pose a challenge to me. I’m a food writer by trade, with the appetite of a dozen varsity shot putters combined. It’s my job to eat and to know about what I’m eating, but I was having a hard time in Myanmar.

The problem wasn’t that I found the food unappetizing - far from it. I’m smitten by the flavors of curries, chilies, shallots and seeds, all of which make frequent appearances in Myanmar's cooking. The issue was that I was completely overwhelmed. Standing streetside in an early-morning market on my first day in Yangon, surrounded by vendors hawking strange spices, fantastical vegetables and prehistoric-looking fish, I’d never felt more unfamiliar with a style of food in my life.

So I spent the next two weeks methodically eating my way across the country, prowling produce markets, following the crowds to skilled street vendors and talking to the ultra-friendly locals about everything edible. It was hardly long enough to understand to all of the complexities of the cuisine, but by the end, I’d learned enough to finally feel a tiny bit at home.

Whether you’re planning a trip of your own or just armchair traveling, here’s what you need to know about food in Myanmar.

Curries and rice
Rice is the cornerstone of the national diet, and one of the most common meal formats in Myanmar involves a buffet-like display of rice, curried meat, soup, chili dipping pastes, fresh and blanched vegetables (to dip in the chili paste) and more - all intended to be mixed and matched at will. Curries are rarely spicy and often involve an inch-thick layer of oil on top, which is an important part of the cooking process. There’s no pressure to actually eat the oil; simply spoon the meat onto your plate and enjoy.

Not of the Caesar variety. Salads in Myanmar, called thoke, are hand-mixed combinations of raw and fresh ingredients, often bound together by oil, roasted seeds or nuts, fried garlic, sliced shallots and lime. The principal ingredient can be almost anything: fruit, vegetable, fish or meat. But look especially for renditions featuring sliced ginger root, the sprightly local green called pennywort or the fermented green tea leaves called laphet.

Noodles abound in Myanmar, and they're usually eaten as breakfast or a midday snack in between meals. In the morning, you’ll find the ubiquitous mohinga, which is fish soup with thin rice noodles, banana stem and crispy fried bean fritters. Also keep an eye out for oh no khao swe (egg noodles and torn chicken in a silky coconut milk sauce), and sticky Shan-style rice noodles slathered in a rich tomato-pork-peanut gravy, known simply as “Shan khao swe.”

Tea Shops
Tea shops are an integral part of daily life across Myanmar. In the early morning and early evening, groups gather at tea shops to drink, snack and socialize, often for hours on end. A thermos of clear Chinese-style tea comes standard at every table to drink in between cups of milk tea, made heady with a thick pour of sweetened condensed milk. Snacks are either brought to your table automatically or ordered à la carte, and might include sweet sesame seed cakes, fried samosas and crullers or steamed Chinese-style dim sum.

Street Snacks
There’s a deep culture of snacking in Myanmar, and the streets of Yangon and Mandalay are filled with grab-and-go vendors dispatching everything from Indian-style roti flatbreads to jiggly neon-hued jelly sweets. The nation's cooks are particularly well-versed in the art of deep frying, as evidenced by the profusion of fritters, pakoras, samosas and battered bananas that all take a whirl in the oil bath.

Previously - Anthony Bourdain: Eat out and tip big to save NYC restaurants after Sandy

Hungry for more from Burma? World-renowned chef, best-selling author and Emmy winning television personality Anthony Bourdain is the host of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," CNN's new showcase for coverage of food and travel. The series is shot entirely on location and premieres Sunday, April 14, at 9 p.m. ET. Bourdain's first stop: Myanmar. Follow along on Twitter and Facebook

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Filed under: Asia • Asian • Bite • Burma • Burmese • Content Partner • Cuisines • Parts Unknown • Travel

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