There are a lot of myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings about Myanmar — and that’s without even touching on the touchy topic of politics or even the “correct” name of the country. Suffice to say, the “Union of Myanmar” is a diverse country composed of many different states, and within those regional divisions are dozens — over a hundred, actually — different ethnic groups, all possessing a slightly different culture, cuisine, style of clothing, and language. Shan, Kachin, Wa, Karen, Intha, Bama, Pa-O, Padaung, Mon, Naga, Chin, and Rakhine are only a fraction of what can be found.
The cuisine found in the country is also a diverse and multi-faceted thing, so much more than the stereotypical oily Burmese curries and greasy fried rice dishes that most travelers expect to find. Noodles dishes such as monhinga, ohno kauk swe, and mondhi are great choices for breakfast. I often find that one bowl is not enough! There are also a wide variety of savory soups (everything from lentil and pumpkin to gourd and roselle leaf) and salads to sample. The salads, in particular, are some of my favorite treats, sometimes a meal in themselves. But don’t go thinking the salads are mainly composed of iceberg lettuce or some other drab ingredient. Among the many creative concoctions, my favorites include the famous fermented tea leaf salad, ginger salad, tofu salad, tomato salad with peanuts, and the leafy pennywort salad. There is even a spicy rice salad that I’m quite fond of eating for lunch.
If you are ever invited to a meal at someone’s house, do yourself a favor and accept the invitation. I’ve found the home cooked meals to be among the best ones I’ve had in the country. But one warning: your hosts will insist that you sample everything on the table and gorge to point where it feels like your stomach is going to explode (try not to think about that hilariously gruesome restaurant scene from the Monty Python movie). Thus is Myanmar hospitality!
On my most recent trip, by far the best meal I had was at a rural village school near Nyaungshwe in Shan State. The village was celebrating the third anniversary of the school’s founding (I’ll be doing a separate post about this school next week) and they held a special lunch for the donors after the morning ceremonies were over. The vegetarian spread they served us was incredibly delicious. I’m not sure who prepared it, or even where it was prepared (there is no electricity in this village!), but it was as close to a food orgasm as I’ve ever experienced. The very next day I was invited by my friend Ma Pu Su to her house for lunch and she dazzled me with another awesome spread of salads and fruit. She’s talking about offering a cooking class to our travel clients, and I think she should go for it. She definitely knows what she’s doing in the kitchen.
If you are travelling in Myanmar, throw away that useless Lonely Planet book (okay, rip out the maps and keep those) and start sampling as much local cuisine as you can. Personally, I think Shan State has the best mix of food, although I have a soft spot in my heart (and stomach) for those Mandalay noodles. And people wonder why I looked fatter when I returned to Bangkok!