musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘myanmar food’

Kuala Lumpur Scenes

In any city I visit, I like to spend a lot time just walking around and absorbing the feel of the place. In addition to how it looks, each place has a different vibe, even its own unique smell. The scenery can also provide plenty of contrasts; modern buildings or run-down shacks, parks or ponds, museums or markets, mosques or pagodas, games of football or a single child playing marbles. It all interests my wandering eye.

Kuala Lumpur doesn’t boast much in the way of magnificent scenery and there aren’t many older, historic buildings to gawk at, but they do have plenty of impressive skyscrapers (the famous Petronas Twin Towers being the obvious highlight), a forest preserve that gives the city green space (the bird and orchid parks are quite nice), and some areas full of street food vendors. KL is also easy to navigate thanks to a very good — and affordable — commuter rail system, including an inner city monorail and several subway lines.

At my hotel one day I overheard two employees speaking Burmese. I surprised them by striking up a conversation in Burmese. The young man told me that he was from Yangon and the woman hailed from Mandalay. I told them I had visited Myanmar the previous month. In fact, I still had photos on the memory card in my camera, so I showed them some of the images; Pindaya Cave, monks amuck in Mandalay, pagoda ruins in Bagan, and other scenes. I asked if there were any Burmese restaurants in the area near our hotel, and they told me that indeed there were. They directed me to one large restaurant, just a block from Central Market. I found the restaurant easily enough, thanks to a sign written in Burmese. Stepping inside I felt like I was back in Yangon or Mandalay.  There were huge colorful wall murals of various natural and historic sites around Myanmar. Burmese pop music was played in the background. There was even Myanmar Beer on the menu! Pretty damn cool to find this little Burmese oasis in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

For breakfast that morning I ordered a hearty bowl of monhinga, along with a cup of Burmese style tea. The food was good and I enjoyed speaking with the waitress in Burmese. I don’t get many chances to speak the language when I’m in Thailand so it’s always nice to practice with someone before it’s time to go back to Myanmar. I returned to the restaurant the next night and before I had even ordered the same waitress told me that they were out of monhinga. I hadn’t planned on eating that for dinner anyway, so I had a hearty bowl of Shan kauk swe noodles. And outside the restaurant there was yet another touch of Myanmar: a guy rolling up packets of betel nut and selling them at a little wooden stand.

Food Bliss

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!


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