travel bite: the food of Burma

image courtesy of Robyn Oretsky

APPARENTLY Burmese food has a bad rep. I was told of this by the Lonely Planet. However overall both mine and others’ personal experiences were of the opposite persuasion.

(Bar the ‘cheeseburger’ that was all artificial cheese slice but no burger. But then again why should the Burmese know how to make burgers when their local cuisine can be so fresh and delicious.)

Burma’s food is unlike any other that I’ve had in South East Asia. Drawing upon the culinary delights of its bordering countries – including Thailand, India and China – Burmese food is an amalgamation of noodles, curries, rice and salads, with plenty of peanuts thrown in for good measure. And yes you read that right: salads. And not your standard Asian papaya or beef ones.

Oh, and there’s a healthy amount of offal thrown in for good measure too.

The best place to sample Burma’s culinary variety is on the street. And at dirt cheap prices it’s worth your taste buds taking the plunge, even though you will rarely be disappointed. If you’re worried about your stomach then start off with the fried snacks – there are plenty to choose from…

snacks of deep-fried crabs, prawns and thin crispy onions for sale beneath U Bein Bridge near Mandalay

a doughy Burmese doughnut with a crunchy exterior and slight salty seafood flavour chopped up and added to a rice pancake with chickpeas – freshly made to order

a simpler version of the above with chickpeas, tomatoes and herbs

10 pieces of freshly fried tofu and mini pakoras for 300 kyat (that’s approximately 20p!) which also came with dip

crispy fish skins from a vendor in Mandalay

street vendor in Yangon
image courtesy of Robyn Oretsky

delicious seafood snack of tiny crispy fried prawns

Once the fried goods have been explored –  and you’ve survived that heart attack – you can then progress onto even greater things…

street vendors outside the market centres in central Mandalay offer a stunning breadth of dishes and tasty treats to try

the lady above served me up this vibrant bowl of chicken wrapped in a thin noodle with mint, onions, lettuce and a sweet-spicy sauce

and this was another bowl that she put together for another customer consisting of delicious fresh ingredients, nuts, herbs, spices and sauces

a samosa salad involving potatoes, chickpeas, chopped up samosas and pakoras, fresh onions, tomatoes and coriander, topped with a soupy peanut curry sauce
image courtesy of Robyn Oretsky

a doughy (cornmeal?!) patty from a stall at the Pyin Oo Lwin evening food market topped with a caramelised nutty sauce, spring onion, twisted bean sprouts, salty roasted peanuts and chilli sauce

a noodle dish from the traditional Shan restaurant Pyae Pyae in Kalaw
image courtesy of Robyn Oretsky

But where does one go in Burma to eat this food I hear you say??

Well if you don’t fancy pulling up to a vendor on the pavement upon a tiny plastic stool then you’re next best bet is a tea shop. Yes they serve tea (for free unless you want to indulge on the super sweet milky variations popular with locals) but they also do great small plates of food as well as breads, sweets, cakes and fried goodies such as samosas.

And don’t take no for an answer – the Burmese don’t always realise that you are happy with their small but perfectly formed salads and noodle dishes.

a luxuriously rich Shan noodle dish that seemed to include silken tofu cream and copious amounts of crushed peanuts from a local tea shop in Bagan whose proprietor claimed that they ‘didn’t do food’… they did. and it was one of our most memorably great Burmese meals

it may not look appealing but this ball of minced pork, ginger and fresh herbs was a delight once unwrapped from its banana leaf parcel at a tea shop in Hsipaw

plates of pickled tea leaf salad (left) and tomato salad (right) served with fresh plain roti at a friendly tea shop on anawrahta road, near nay kyar street
image courtesy of Robyn Oretsky

the local men inside the tea shop avidly watching sport on the television screen
image courtesy of Robyn Oretsky

Now let’s not forget that no meal is complete without a bite of something sweet. So if you’ve remembered to leave room…

tiny donuts seeped in syrup from a market stall at a rest stop in a little village whilst trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

a popular ice cream parlour in Mandalay that has locals pulling up in a constant stream to take away ice-cold treats such as strawberry sundaes, durian ice cream and milkshakes

a pear. not an apple.

Of course you can’t do all this eating without doing some drinking. But in true Burmese hospitality style this happens to involve food too…

peanuts, soups and cemented lighters are available at most beer stations for free. in a constant stream even – until you cry STOP

But if this isn’t enough for hungry guzzlers and you happen to bring along your own snack too then you’ll be pleased to know that this is completely acceptable. They’ll even arrange it on a plate for you…

wait staff at our favourite beer station in Pyin Oo Lwin insisted on whisking away our bunch of juicy sweet grapes and returning them on a serving plate with ice and cocktail sticks

Finally, if for some unfathomable reason you still have room for food, there are plenty more bite-sized delights to sample on the streets. Our favourites became these morsels of rice-flour batter fried in mini bowl shapes either plain or cupping toppings such as chickpeas, tomatoes, herbs and spices.

the best topping we found was in Pyin Oo Lwin from a vendor at the evening market

So if you ever find yourself in Burma be sure to put your best foot forward and explore the multitude of dishes that the country and its various states have to offer.

Yes much is fried, and yes you will find poor greasy versions of what can be spectacular; but if you’re brave and try all that’s put before you, you will more often than not be pleasantly surprised. The best tip is to head straight for the street, as the foods that we ate from vendors who prepare fresh to order were always the best. (And cheapest.)

Where stated, images are courtesy of Robyn Oretsky. If required, please contact for further information.

One Response to “travel bite: the food of Burma”
  1. Carrie Haines says:

    Made me hungry enough to reach for the chocolate! Hope all going well with you in Australia. Hear you had an interesting job in shoe shop. did you get some made? and assume you might be moving on to something else by now. It could almost be summer looking at the clear blue skies and wispy white clouds but alas it is freezing! so warm hug to you xx

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