Burmese Cuisine: Indian for Breakfast, Chinese for Lunch, Beer for Dinner

I entered Myanmar knowing practically nothing about its cuisine.  I had promptly forgotten everything I had read in the Lonely Planet, I hadn’t bothered to look anything up on the internet, and I hadn’t gotten up the gumption to search out a preview at the Burmese market in Bangkok.  All I knew is that I had had some nice noodles on a visa run up north in Tachilek, and that I had had some nice samosas and other Indian treats on a visa run down south in Kawthoung.  What the heartlands would hold, I hadn’t a clue.

Given everything we hear about Myanmar in the news – stuff about corrupt and repressive government, forced labor, ethnic and religious conflict, and widespread poverty – it would be reasonable to expect food that’s simple and uninspiring.  Then again, Myanmar’s also a gigantic country, bigger than any other in Southeast Asia, stretching all the way from tropical beaches in the south to the mountains of Tibet, with plenty of plains in the middle.  Considering that it’s also nestled there smack-dab in between India, China, and Thailand, it’s safe to wager that there’s been a lot of interesting culinary exchange over the centuries.

I found the result to be incredible.  I’ve loved trying and documenting the food just about everywhere I’ve been (some countries more than others, of course), but I’d have to say that Myanmar has officially taken the cake.  Perhaps I only think this because heat and exhaustion made every mouthful there a miracle, or because in general I was kind of giddy the whole month with the joy of having only one mission: survive until the other border.

Obviously, I made it.  Find the stuff the fueled me below.

Preview

(photos courtesy of Chris Buchman)

For about a week before entering Burma, we couchsurfed with Yun (rear and center) and his family and pet bulldog (in my loving grip) in Mae Sot, a city technically (and infrastructurally) in Thailand but with culture and population largely Burmese.  While there, we mostly ate whatever amazing Thai veg food his wife cooked up or bought for us from the market.  On about our sixth day, though, we finally got off our asses and headed to a local charity restaurant that employs Burmese refugees and puts the proceeds towards children’s education.

Entree 1: La Pe Tok.  Myanmar’s national dish, and a food I miss more than perhaps any other I’ve tried on the road.  Ingredients include pickled tea leaves, shredded cabbage, tomatoes, fried onions and garlic, roast peanuts, fried lentils, and sometimes a few other pulses or some dry baby shrimp.  In my humble opinion, it’s the most perfect food ever.  Part raw, part probiotic, part protein, part grease, pungent and crispy and slimy and rich and salty all in perfect measure.  A serving of this (or two, or three) with a plate full of rice is more than enough fuel for few hours of cycling.

 

Entree 2: Samosa Salad.  It seems the Burmese invented this little trick long before I did it in my own kitchen: make a nice, healthy salad and then chop a bunch of greasy fried stuff into it.  In this case, samosas stuffed with seasoned peas and potatoes.  Wonderful, but I don’t think we every actually spotted it in Myanmar.

  Entree 3: Potato salad.  Not too different what you’d get at home.  Also good, but also not so common in the motherland.  Maybe it was on the menu because the restaurant catered mostly to the foreigners living in Mae Sot (of which there are plenty, since there are so many NGOs there working with refugees.)

On the right: Roti!  Finally, some non-rice carbohydrates.  Thank you Indian Muslims for bringing these to Burma, and thank you Burmese Muslims for bringing these to Thailand.  Or at least to the border town.

The Burmese Versions

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Given our limited vocabulary (Minglaba = hello, Teh Ta Lu = vegetarian, Suhbae = bicycle, Sakaunde = delicious, La pa ye jan = hot green tea, zipolle hotel bemalle = where’s a cheap hotel, la de! = beautiful, the end), we wound up eating La Pe Tok pretty frequently.  Probably not as frequently as we had ice-cold draught beers, but pretty frequently.  Sometimes even at the same time.  This one was laden down with sesame seeds, and extra oily.  Yum.

(Photo by Chris Buchman)

This one was a little less oily and also included some dried shrimpies.  Not exactly my favorite flavor, but they do make it a little more chewy/harder to wolf down.

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(Photo by Chris Buchman)

Another one, this time heavy on the fried fava beans.

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Don’t skip on the peanuts.

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At countryside restaurants with no English menus, La Pe Tok was our go to dish, and also the one that waiters tended to suggest when we told them we wanted something vegetarian (in Burmese, “Teh Ta Lo,” meaning “without the taking of life”).  In towns where tourists stop, we sometimes found other salads.  This one was some sort of diced nettle.  Decent, but the protein to veggie ration is clearly far too low.

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Tomato salad.  Nice for a change but…I think I’ll be needing a La Pe Tok or two on the side.

Bep-byu

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One thing that almost every country I’ve traveled through seems to have in common is that breakfast is my least-anticipated meal of the day.  In China, street vendors sell hot tofu soup, and in Thailand you can sometimes find amazing porridges, but just about everywhere else it seems that the locals don’t differentiate much between breakfast, lunch, and dinner; they just eat rice, veggies, and a little meat over and over again.  Despite having lived in Asia for going on a decade now, my stomach’s still not content with rice thrice a day, so I got into the habit of stocking up on baguettes, dumplings, sweet potatoes, donuts, and whatever fruit I could so that in the morning I’d have something satisfying to eat.  In Burma, no need!  They’ve got roti and an awesome chickpea dish just about everywhere.

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The tandoori oven that gave birth to the above non-greasy roti.  A wise cyclist stocks up on a whole potful of these to keep him going throughout the morning.

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Doughy bread = instant energy, mushy beans = long lasting energy.  Efficient, delicious…and sometimes as cheap as $0.10 per roti.

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The pan-fried version, slightly oilier.  Not my first choice, but who can complain when there are chickpeas and garlic on the table?

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The oily extreme.  Still beats donuts.

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Shop-bought bep-byu, homemade pico-de-gallo, intercontinental awesomeness.

Set Meals

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Our please for Teh Ta Lo were usually met with La Pe TOk, but on occassion, they would result in a smorgasbord reminiscent of rice, veggies, salads, and who knows what.  Usually, La Pe Tok was featured.  Dream come true!

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Refreshingly raw veggies, including one strange bitter herb-seed at 12 o’clock.

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A particularly Burmese way of doing noodles – boil them, remove them from the water, let them cool, and make a noodle salad with them later.  Feels way healthier than your standard Chinese noodle fry.

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I’m pretty sure that this is one of the few (maybe only?) times that we were served tofu in Myanmar.  Good and all, but I’d much rather have my beans whole.  Long live Bep-byu!

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Our daily afternoon group meal time was always a joy.  Particularly when it was followed up by group tea time, group hammock time, group ukulele/guitar time, and then one more group tea time before we hit the road again.

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Not bad for $1, eh?

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Not sure what to do with the raw eggplants, but the rest I’ll take.

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Mysterious veggie paste, tasted mostly like spice and ginger.  I had three bowls.

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Pickeld bamboo shoots.

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Some other misc. vegetable, unknown but totally delish.

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At a restaurant so nondescript that we couldn’t even tell if it had been running at any point in the last five years, my request for “some rice and vegetables, anything vegetarian” turned into this behemoth.  La Pe Tok, of course, and also a fermented soybean soup, lightly steamed cabbage with tofu, some green beans, and other stuff I can’t remember.  (It’s been nearly two months).  Funny thing is: Minsung ordered a fried rice, so all this stuff was FOR ME!  Still less than $1.50.

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Slightly slimmer pickins at a restaurant really in the middle of nowhere – 25km of mountains and/or dirt roads on either side.  Still managed to get bamboo pickles, fried eggs, rice, eggplants, soup, and

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Fried soy beans and onions, yeah yeah yeah

(photo by of Chris Buchman)

In Monywa the set meal to end all set meals.  Raw veggies, a sauce I don’t remember (it’s been two months), crushed red peppers, lightly sauteed okra, beans, more greens, another salad, and some DIY La Pe Tok in the middle.  Plus two differerent kinds of soups, all for…$0.50.  Should’ve stayed another day.

Indian

I feel like I’ve already showed more than a month’s worth of calories, but I’ve only just scratched the surface.  I mean, I’ve hardly even mentioned the Indian food…

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What the heck?  Dosas?  These pancakes made of fermented, ground, and re-fermented rice and pulses are from south India and are pretty tough to find in the north…what the heck are they doing here in southeast Myanmar, at least 6,000km away by road?

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Dosa with Idli (same batter, but steamed into a puck rather than fried on a griddle).  Also served with savory sambar, rich coconut chutney, and salty pickles.  $0.20 per plate!

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Not afraid of eating with their (right) hands, at an Indian joint, on the street, in Myanmar.  World nomads, baby!

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Another Dosa version – this time, the “masala dosa,” stuffed with potato curry and folded up.

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North Indian-style Thali.  Dhal, potatoes, cabbage, something else, pickles, papad, rice…free refills on all of it.

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Another Indian favorite: Puri, teeny little deep-but-quick-fried breads that magically balloon up in the oil.  Definitely not the healthiest thing you could be putting in your body.

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Much better are these grilled chapatis.

Snacks

Yup, there’s more.

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Minseong with one of those foods that we just can’t ignore – deep-fried onion pucks.

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Our favorite non-intoxicating refreshment, fresh-pressed sugarcane juice.  No artificial additives, no plastic bottles, no megacorporations, and here in Burma, it’s often pressed by hand crank rather than gasoline power.  They even let you do it yourself if you want.

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Inch-thick buckwheat(?) muffincake with coconut and little seedlets.  Another candidate for best breakfast food ever.

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Hard to compete with sweetened sticky rice topped with roasted coconut shavings, though.

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Also hard to compete with little balls of fried chickpea batter, aka falafel a la Burmese

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Then again, bananas in sticky rice wrapped in leaves are a classic oldie-but-goodie.

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Then again again, what can beat street noodles?

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Mix of egg noodles and flour noodles, dressing of some sort of oil, chickpea flour, scallions, and a spoonful of MSG that I was too late to block.  Instant satisfaction.

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Also nice with cilantro and a crushed lentil cookie on top.

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Due to time constraints, we didn’t get to do as much roaming through the markets as we usually would, so we didn’t get to spot Burma’s most “exotic” edibles.  Like whatever these are.

Fresh Fruits

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Making an effort to balance all that snacking with some healthy stuff.  Like Durian!

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Creamy, stinky, slightly fetid…they say it’s an “acquired taste.”

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These two have obviously done some “acquiring.”

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Notice the perfect correlation between the number of mangosteen “cloves” in the actual fruit and the number of leaves on the little clover on the peel.  Coincidence?  I think not.

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Cyclists love bananas.

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But what they love more is fist-sized mangos.  Especially when $1 buys you ten of them.

Last but not least: Beer Halls!

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I don’t know anything about how it happened, but for whatever reason, Burma is most certainly Southeast Asia’s Beer Heaven.  Who knew?  Almost every town has at least one joint where you can pop in and order 500ml or so of liquid relaxation, served in a frosty mug, for $0.50 if you’re lucky, $0.60 on most days, and $0.70 if it’s ABC Stout.

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Brands include Myanmar, Mandalay, Mandalay Extra Strong, Dagon, Dagon Extra Strong, and the aforementioned ABC Stout.  Not being a beer expert, all I can say is that none of it was bad.  Chris, who has tried many a Seattle Microbrew, and Mirek and Katja, who originate from the original beer heaven (i.e. Eastern Europe), also approve.

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The child labor makes me a little uncomfortable, but at least he’s not working at a roadside quarry like lots of the women and children I’ve been seeing here over the last week in northeast India.

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Hooray for kegs!  No piles of bottles out back, no broken glass in the streets, no injuries trying to pry bottlecaps off with your teeth and eyesockets.

Then again, from an environmental and ethical point of view, all that stuff is probably pretty small-fry considering that the grain isn’t local, most likely isn’t organic, and isn’t going to feed hungry people.

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Then again, you can say that or something like it about cola, packaged fruit juice, ice cream, or just about any other non-water beverage.

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Plus, if you finish your riding, hotel-finding, and showering a bit late, there’s chance that the beer hall is the only restaurant still open.

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They even have some nice veggie dishes.

Two a night helps you to:

a) let your muscles relax after a long day of cycling

b) get another liquid into your body other than water, of which you’ve already had 5 liters today and can’t stand anymore.

c) pack in a couple hundred more calories than you could manage with solid food, leaving you with a nice paunch, ensuring that you won’t run a calorie deficit and start consuming muscle matter.

d) fall asleep in tiny, poorly ventilated hotel rooms with fans that work less than sporadically.

e) enjoy quality time with your fauxbo crew!

Burmese food, we salute you!  Looking forward to the day when we meet again.

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7 Responses to Burmese Cuisine: Indian for Breakfast, Chinese for Lunch, Beer for Dinner

  1. Anonymous says:

    You fat fucker im so jealous

    • Michael Roy says:

      Try as I might, I couldn’t put on even a single gram despite eating all of this and more. Guess I ought to thank the 1500km and 120 degree heat!

  2. wd says:

    Awesome post. There’s a burmese restaurant near my work so I’ll have to check out some of these!

    • Michael Roy says:

      Must do. I doubt you’ll find the Beb-byu since it’s kind of a breakfast-only street food, but there’s no way they won’t have the pickled tea leaf salad. Eat a second one for me.

  3. Andrew Jackson says:

    Hi Mike! Good to read – looks like some great food and experiences..but does it beat Korean food?