Do you find yourself complaining about the food? Are you eating too much fried rice? Have you not been amazed by the range of tastes and cooking styles on offer? Are you not stunned by how cheaply you can get a great, even exceptional meal?
Is your first mistake to be eating breakfast at your hotel? It’s ‘included’, you paid for it already. Why wouldn’t you eat it? Because – with some notable exceptions – it’s rubbish.
Either it’s a safe, sanitised version of one or two local mainstays. Or worse, in a failed attempt to meet a perceived European expectation of breakfast, it’s a badly cooked egg, terrible sugary bread, something that is definitely not butter and a very-low-fruit-content jam. And a banana.
Eat the banana.
Myanmar Food Rule No. 1. Don’t eat breakfast in your hotel.
Get out on the street – at the best time of day to be on the street – find a good looking teashop or clean looking street stall. Have a cup of tea (tea comes in about 12 strength/milkiness/sugar variations but that’s a story for another post). While you’re sipping your tea have a look at what is coming out of the kitchen to other tables and have for breakfast something that you see someone else eating and that you like the look of. Tomorrow have something else.
There is so much to choose from that you could easily have a different breakfast everyday for a fortnight. If you end up ordering something you don’t like, order something else. You can afford to, teashop breakfasts rarely cost as much as a dollar, including the tea. Street stall ones are even cheaper. See the bottom of this page for my breakfast ‘be sure to try’ list.
Is your second mistake that you are not being adventurous enough? Are you seeing lots of food that you think you don’t like the look of? Or not choosing to eat something because you don’t know what it is?
Myanmar Food Rule No 2. You can’t say you don’t like it until you’ve had it in your mouth. As the vicar said to the actress.
I say dive right in. There are some horrible looking things that taste great. Soups can look and smell like the river warmed up but taste sublime. There are many great looking but unknown things that taste great. Many times I’ve eaten something just because I liked the look of it. Or because I’d not seen it before. Sometimes I’ve not liked it but most times I have.
Of course it’s OK to know what you don’t like. It’s OK to draw a line somewhere. I know for sure that I do not like the super-concentrated fish paste that is used more often than I would like. I rarely like the dip that comes with the raw vegetables in a Burmese restaurant. I rarely need to add more chilli to anything. I’ve tried that sort of Mongolian barbecue of bits of animal insides on sticks on the street and I don’t need to try it again.
Are you worried about getting a dicky tummy (and worse)? Is that causing you to play safe? That makes sense. Two of my lifetime top five food poisoning incidents have happened in Myanmar.
Myanmar Food Rule No. 3 Burmese at lunchtime, ‘Chinese’ at night.
Burmese food is often prepared early in the day, is often not served hot and can sit around a while. With the exception of places that specifically cater for an evening trade, mainly in larger towns, it’s intended for lunchtime eating. I’m cautious around it at night.
‘Chinese’ food, on the other hand is cooked on the spot and arrives at your table still steaming from the frying pan. Surely that’s a reasonable insurance against Delhi belly. (But then have you seen the kitchen? Have a look on the way to the toilet.)
Are you making your own choices about where to eat or are you letting a guide or guidebook decide for you?
Tour guides will often take you to places their company has a financial arrangement with. They will serve tourists all the time. Their food will be toned down to suit that market. You will spend all evening talking to people you spent all day with. So will they. Boring.
Guidebooks, other than in small towns, can never cover everything. Of course most of the places they mention are there on merit and are worth trying. But (unless they are exceptional) why keep going back to them when there are so many other places to try? Maybe you will be disappointed every now and again. At least it will be a disappointment founded in seeking out variety rather than in sticking with the familiar.
Myanmar Food Rule No 4. Get off the beaten track. Go beyond the book.
Strike out on your own. There are thousands of small restaurants cooking up amazing local food at super-cheap prices. Some of the very best (and cheapest) meals I’ve had have been in very out of the way places at restaurants that on appearances looked unpromising.
Myanmar’s regions and nation states have cuisines of their own that should be sampled. Shan food you will more than likely encounter in Mandalay or at Inle Lake. Maybe you will not visit Rakhine but if you see a Rakhine restaurant head straight in. Even if you’ve just eaten.
If you’re at the beach eat the locally caught seafood.
In the mountains avoid seafood.
Why not take advantage of the fact that, again especially in bigger places, the food of many other nations is on offer in Myanmar often much more cheaply than you can get it at home, wherever that is. Food from India. Japan. Thailand. Mexico. Even Germany. And many more.
Finally, are you finding some of the food to be oily? Some if it is oily, sometimes with good reason (it protects against contamination, particularly by insects – see Rule No.3) Get over it. Or eat one of the many dishes that are not oily. Do some restaurants put too much MSG in some of their food? Some do. Eat somewhere else. Is some of the food too spicy for you ? Learn how to ask if a dish is spicy or not; “Da asa de la?” Or eat it anyway and toughen up your tastebuds. Too much garlic? Don’t complain about that. It keeps the mosquitos away.
Myanmar Food Rule No. 5 : Stop Complaining About the Food.
Breakfast : be sure to try There are two breakfast times in Myanmar. Super early when it’s all about fried dough sticks and sugar or egg parata that offer sustenance to the early riser and then at normal breakfast time things get even more interesting. I’m always happy to see these things on a menu. Or to be able to ask for them if there is no menu.
Chaw – simply fried things. Vegetables in a tempura style batter. With a garlic dip – normally Beik Achin (from Myeik).
Mo Hin Nga – a noodle soup that comes with a choice of additives – crispy bean things cut up, a duck egg, both.
(Mandalay) Nan Gyi Touq – big fat noodles in a ‘salad’ with chicken bits and other exciting stuff.
(Rakhine) Moun Tee – similar to the above, but not the same. A thinner noodle for starters.
T’min Chaw (Che U Nay) – fried rice (with a fried egg), maybe some beans and a small side salad.
Aloo Loun Chaw – fried potato balls. If you see them, eat them. Especially at Shwe Weh Tun on 37 Street in Yangon (these small ones with a tamarind dip) or at Number 1 in Myeik (big ones with chicken inside).
Ka Gyi Ka if you’re down south in Tanintaryi near the sea. Pin Lay Sar Nay means with seafood (prawns or even better squid).
Sa Mu Sa Touq – samosa chopped up in a broth with potato and herbs.
Shan Kauq Sway – Shan style noodles, with or without soup.
See Chet – Noodles fried with garlic. With chicken. Or pork. Or not.
And a footnote : Mandalay has the best food. These rules apply there more than anywhere. Check out Min Tee Ha on 19 Street. Everything they serve is great but their Mandalay T’min Poun – gently fried rice with garlic, herbs, nuts and a variety of meats is wonderful.