Could it be curry o’clock? It was a question I asked myself countless times on a recent trip to Myanmar (Burma) where the frequent sight of silver tiffin tins – the quintessential Indian means of transporting lunch to school or work – hanging from bicycle handlebars or swinging in the hands of monks were a constant reminder of the country’s curry culture and eclectic food scene that needed to be explored.
Myanmar neighbours India and has a large Indian community – which explains the country’s intriguing tiffin trend – but the curries are uniquely its own. There is also a much broader food scene spanning fresh seafood from the Bay of Bengal on the country’s west coast (think prawns the size of small lobsters), an array of ethnic noodle dishes (there are 135 officially recorded ethnic races living in the country), texturally brilliant salads, and deep-fried delicacies from ubiquitous kerb-side teahouses, just in case you over-dose on curry while you’re in town. Knowing where to kick-start your culinary adventure is not the problem: follow your nose or these subsequent food tips and pointers. The problem is: knowing when to stop. And that, my little food adventurer, is entirely your call.
We bee-lined for a curry when we arrived in Yangon, the former capital city. After trudging up and down several streets that were jam-packed with traffic and lined with many-storied, moldy and dilapidated buildings we eventually found Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee Myanmar restaurant – a no-frills affair that was brimful with locals. As Myanmar curry novices we were ushered towards a number of curries that were on display.
We pointed at what we wanted – one chicken and one beef – and took a seat. At our table a plastic food cover was taken off a plate of fresh herbs and blanched vegetables – including baby eggplant and slices of cucumber – which are traditionally dipped in relishes and served as an accompaniment to curry, along with soup and rice. Our hin-jo(sour soup) was moss-green and awash with vine-like leaves. It was dishwater thin but surprisingly refreshing. The relishes – one was super chilli hot and the other was pungent, watery and fish-saucy – were challenging.
Our curries, on the other hand, hit the spot. They were small in portion size given the accompanying side dishes and served luke-warm, which was surprisingly pleasant. They were sufficiently but not overly saucy, and were only mildly spiced. On the downside, they were surrounded by an oil slick half an inch wide, though we circumvented the oil spill by serving each curry carefully. This oily curry avoidance tactic came in handy as the trip progressed.
In An Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine Ma Thanegi explains that some curries are called hsi pyan hin because the oil has “returned to the surface” after the water, which the basic ingredients have been cooked in, evaporates. The Myanmar Lonely Planet, which has an excellent chapter on food, also explains that the process ensures that the somewhat harsh base ingredients – typically turmeric, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, onions, and shrimp paste – have properly amalgamated and become milder. Extra oil is often added as a protective layer against flies, etc, as curries stand in uncovered, unheated pots for much of the day. I tried not to ponder on this latter point too carefully.
We segwayed off the curry trail after a late afternoon visit to Shwedagon Paya – the most sacred of the country’s Buddhist sites. We were escorted by a young monk, who spent several hours practicing his English on us, to a noodle stand at the north entrance of the pagoda for mohinga – thin rice noodles served in fish broth. Described by Thanegi as “the national noodle of Myanmar”, mohingais available all over the city and is eaten by the locals morning, noon and night.
Our aromatic bowls of soft noodles were laced with a subtle fishiness from the broth made from fish flesh and bones and were studded with slices of hard-boiled egg, small rounds of the core of banana tree stem, coriander, and whole shallots. Something unidentifiable and crunchy – almost biscuit-like – floated on top. The noodles were light, fragrant and hearty and could be customised to our own taste with lime wedges and roasted dried red chilli powder served on the side. We slurped them unashamedly and washed them down with big glasses of sugar cane juice.
Famed for its fresh seafood, Ngapali Beach on the west coast is a three-kilometre stretch of pristine coconut palm-lined sand interspersed with bungalow-style resorts and bamboo shacks selling food and drinks. At night you can see lights bobbing on the horizon from the fishing boats that are dressed with more bulbs than Christmas trees in order to attract squid that will be grilled, curried or thrown through salads the following day. There are about a dozen beach shacks to choose from as well as permanent restaurants on the road behind the beach. Rough seas meant that squid – which is supposed to be especially good in the region – was in short supply during our stay, so we opted for a prawn curry. Our order was lost in translation and we received two enormous barbecued prawns instead. We accepted our fate and were rewarded with big chunks of tender prawn flesh that we submerged in a firey green chilli dipping sauce served on the side.
Determined to combine the region’s spectacular seafood and our curry buzz, we ordered prawn curry at another beach shack the following day. We were successful but we were surprised to find it was a different kind of curry than the hsi pyan hin we’d ordered in Yangon. The sauce was tomato based, thin, and far less oily. Thanegi says that this style of curry – known as yay cho hin – is often used to cook fish or prawns.
It was even milder than those we had in Yangon, which was a little disappointing. Chillies are not widely used in Burmese curries, although they’re an integral component of relishes and many side dishes. But the curry was fresh, made in minutes, and full of plump prawns. The Lonely Planet describes Burmese curries as the “mildest in Asia”. Once we got our heads around that fact we embraced these subtle-spiced concoctions and didn’t look back.
A favourite dish of the trip was tea leaf salad – or laphet thouq – which consists of fermented tea leaves and a ready-made mix (sold in huge sacks at the local markets) of fried beans, peas, and garlic, toasted sesame seeds, and roasted peanuts. Dried shrimp can be added too, for extra crunch (as if that is needed), as well as thinly sliced tomato and chilli. A generous slug of oil is added and the whole lot is mixed by hand.
We ordered it at one of the beach shacks. On a scale of ten it registered a crunch factor of 9.5. It was texturally fantastic and far more fulfilling than many western salads. The food detective in me wouldn’t let up until I found someone to show me how to prepare it. I even sought out the ingredients in a local supermarket and transported a limited stash home. Stay tuned for my tea leaf salad post.
This former colonial British hill station is the starting point for treks and around the region’s hills and villages. At an altitude of 1320 metres the temperature is cool and cloud descends on the town like a blanket in the late afternoon. There is a Himalayan atmosphere, which is heightened by a network of Indian and Nepalese restaurants. Teashops with kindergarten-sized plastic tables and stools are everywhere in Myanmar, serving everything from noodles to deep-fried snacks and dumplings inherited from China, which also borders the country. In Kalaw these teahouses have a distinctive Indian flavour.
We snacked on tiny meat and vegetable samosa and nanbya channa puri (fried bread with chickpea curry) at Tet Nay Win Teahouse, which we washed down with sweet milk tea brewed in the Indian style with condensed milk and sugar. Later we headed to Everest Nepali Food Centre, which is run by a family of seven daughters. Chicken masala, potato curry and chapati created the perfect fuel-packed supper ahead of a 38-kilometre, two-day trek we commenced the following day.
On and around Inle Lake
Our two-day trek over hills, above the clouds, and across a breathtaking patchwork of farmland where red chillies were laid out dry in vast quantities was a food fest in itself. Our local guide Ouzo (“like the Greek drink” he explained) arranged our food along the way.
We lunched in the home of a local family in a village we passed through, and later Ouzo’s cook met us at a monastery where we spent the night. They prepared a dinner of taro soup, paprika chicken, stir-fried vegetables, steamed snow peas, chopped okra with egg, and peanut brittle and sesame biscuits. Breakfast consisted of omelette, slabs of toasted bread the size of bricks, cake, orange segments, and red papaya. The food was fresh, rustic, and plentiful.
Our trek ended at Inle Lake, a vast stretch of water that is flanked by mountains and studded with a flotilla of stilt villages and floating gardens. Being skippered around the lake in a motorised canoe is a compelling way to spend a day visiting pagodas, monasteries, markets and villages that have built cottage industries around trades such as weaving and silver making. Boat drivers will drop you at a restaurant built on stilts over the lake for lunch. Sticking to the aquatic theme, we opted for fish curry.
If the curries we’d had previously were relatively mild, this one – laced with green chilli seeds – was a mouth scorcher. We had to chase it down with ice-cold beers – not that we were complaining.
We stayed at a village called Nyaungshwe on the northern end of the lake where we found possibly the best meal of the trip – Shan noodle salad. The cuisine of the Shan tribe from eastern Myanmar is said to be similar to that of northern Thailand and is easy to find around the lake region.
We bought our noodles from a roadside seller who set up alongside one the main thoroughfares of Nyaungshwe – Yone Gyi Road – in the evenings. We watched as she dunked a handful of fresh noodles and some chopped greens into a pot of simmering water for no more than 30 seconds. They were deposited into small bowls along with several handfuls of condiments, including crushed peanuts and a tomato paste and chopped chicken combination. The result was a dry-ish noodle dish not dissimilar to Pad Thai in texture. We added pickled vegetables and chilli paste and mixed it all together and devoured it with bowls of clear broth.
We fed our curry craving at Linn Htet Family Restaurant another night, where we had beef curry and all the traditional trimmings (soup, blanched vegetables and challenging relishes). But the winning dish was a fresh bean salad. The Burmese do many things right when it comes to cooking, but they pull off salads particularly well.
I put it down to their use of fresh ingredients and an innovative approach. In this instance the green beans had been sliced into 1-cm thin circles that were mixed with smashed peanuts, thinly sliced tomato and onion, and dressed with lime juice and fish sauce. Golden nuggets of jaggery (palm sugar) were served for dessert.
There were many other unique food moments in Myanmar. The country’s deep-fried addiction is certainly catching and we staunched out appetites with a number of golden delicacies throughout the trip, including spring onion pakoras and gorgeous battered circles with a yellow bean stashed inside each.
In Bagan we were invited to a family’s home for a traditional lunch. Our host, who also taught me the intricacies of making tea leaf salad - fanned us sweetly as we tucked in. Also in Bagan we devoured bowls of guacamole made from avocados the size of small melons with popadom-like wafers, and discovered a taste for sour-sweet tamarind flakes that we indulged in at the end of many meals.
We also consumed buttery sesame biscuits by the dozen with tiny teacups of luke-warm, but refreshing, Chinese tea. In Nyaungshwe we ate a terrific vegetable biryani and sipped subtly spiced glasses of chai at an Indian restaurant. And in Yangon – at the crack of dawn – we walked up a small road and found ourselves in the heart of a street market where we scoffed roadside pancakes with chickpea filling and breakfasted at a local teahouse.
We left Myanmar curry dazed but with a finer appreciation of a cuisine little known beyond its own borders.