The Burmese love their noodles, and in addition to the Chinese-influenced noodle dishes that are found everywhere in Southeast Asia, in Myanmar, you’ll also discover a uniquely indigenous repertoire of noodles.
Unlike Thailand’s noodle dishes, Myanmar’s have an almost total lack of sugar, and ingredients such as chickpea flour, turmeric oil, deep-fried garlic and toasted sesame provide the dishes with a distinctly savoury profile. Unlike their counterparts in Vietnam, the emphasis is typically on the noodles and seasonings, not meat or herbs, making Burmese noodle dishes generally quite heavy and hearty. The Burmese also have a particular fondness for ‘dry’ noodles, that is, with broth served on the side. And variety of deep-fried crispy garnishes show an appreciation for texture that one doesn’t generally encounter elsewhere.
It can be a bit overwhelming, so in an effort to explain the different varieties, here’s a guide to some of the more ubiquitous noodle dishes that you’ll find only in Myanmar.
Nangyi thoke (နန်းကြီးသုပ်)
This dish takes the form of thick, round rice noodles served with chicken, slices of fish cake, par-boiled bean sprouts and slices of hard-boiled egg. The ingredients are seasoned with a couple tablespoons of chickpea flour, an almost equal amount of MSG, salt, turmeric and/or chili oil, and are served with sides of pickled greens and a bowl of broth. A nearly identical dish, mounti (မုန့်တီ):
omits the eggs and is served with thinly-sliced shallots. The pair are quite possibly the most savoury of Myanmar’s already savoury noodle dishes, and over the course of my most recent trip to Myanmar, became my favourite.
Shan hkuak hswe (ရှမ်းခေါက်ဆွဲ)
Shan State’s most famous dish takes the form of thin, flat rice noodles in a clear, peppery broth with marinated chicken or pork, garnished with toasted sesame and a drizzle of garlic oil, and served with a side of spicy/sour/sweet pickled vegetables. Compared to most other Burmese noodle dishes, it’s relatively bland and simple, but is still satisfying and delicious. A ‘dry’ version, in which the broth is served on the side, is also common.
Myanmar’s unofficial national dish consists of fine, round rice noodles – similar to the Thai khanom jeen — served in a thick, somewhat herbal fish- and shallot-based broth, often supplemented with the crunchy pith of the banana tree. Optional toppings include sliced hard-boiled egg or akyaw, deep-fried crispy veggies and/or disks of lentil batter.
Ohn-no hkhauk hswe (အုန်းနို့ခေါက်ဆွဲ)
Thought to be the inspiration for the northern Thai khao soi, this Shan dish unites thin, pale wheat noodles, a mild coconut milk-based broth, shredded chicken, slices of hard-boiled egg, a deep-fried crispy garnish and a conservative drizzle of chili oil. Like khao soi, the dish is often served with sides of sliced shallots and lime, although unlike that dish, and unusually for Burmese noodles, no pickled vegetables.
Tohpu nwe (တိုဟူးနွေး)
Literally ‘warm tofu’, this dish is similar to shan hkauk hswe, except that the clear broth is replaced by a thick porridge made from chickpea flour. The mixture is supplemented with chunks of marinated chicken or pork, a drizzle of chili oil, and sides of pickled veggies and broth. It’s not an attractive dish, but if you’re a fan of savoury flavours, you won’t mind.
Myi shay (မြီးရှေ)
Thick rice noodles (the same as those used in nangyi thoke and mounti) are served with chicken or pork and par-boiled bean sprouts, and brought together via a generous dollop of sticky rice ‘glue’ — actually the uncooked batter used to make the noodles. A regional variant, mandalay myi shay (မန္တလေးမြီးရှေ):
is usually served with pork, and comes with sides of deep-fried crispy bits (in this case croutons made from fried bread), pork offal, and two types of pickles. Both versions are seasoned with turmeric and chili oil, and come served with sides of pickled veggies and broth.
Bai sach chrouk — rice and pork — is the name of Cambodia’s favourite breakfast dish, as well as a convenient description of what it entails: thin slices of meat served over rice.
It’s the simplest dishes that are often the most complicated, but I’m going to posit that this is not the case with bai sach chrouk. The dish seems to be sold on just about every corner in Phnom Penh, but I suspect that one would be hard-pressed to find a truly bad version. Conversely, I received blank stares when I asked people for the city’s most famous bai sach chrouk vendors. I suppose that it’s one of those rare dishes that generally operates to a single standard, one that’s simple, consistent and delicious.
But of course there’s more to bai sach chrouk than this.
Starting with the meat. Many vendors marinade the pork, which this being Cambodia, usually means a pleasant mild, balance of salty and sweet — typically a combination of soy sauce and palm sugar, with perhaps some coconut milk. The important thing is that the the sugar contributes to a nice caramelisation and charring, and in the case of coconut oil (or pork fat) dripping and igniting the flames, a pleasant smokiness. The meat is usually grilled until it’s pretty dry, and some vendors compensate for this by topping the dish with couple tablespoons of the marinade, sometimes supplemented with minced pork.
Rice, the other essential ingredient, is also unique. Bai sach chrouk is usually served over short, broken grains of rice. Phil Lees suggests that this is probably just a characteristic of the cheap rice used by most vendors rather than any conscious culinary decision. He’s probably right, but to my mind at least, this minor detail has become an integral aspect of the dish, much like how a real Maine lobster roll is only served in a split-top bun.
The element that takes bai sach chrouk beyond its name is the sides. The dish is almost always served with a bowl of broth, typically nicked from the adjacent noodle vendor, and a small dish of pickles. The latter are generally made with cucumber, carrot and daikon, and are slightly sweet, but I’ve also encountered other versions, including a deliciously tart one made from shredded mango and slices of pungent ‘fish mint’ (Houttuynia cordata).
The final and possibly most important thing worth noting about bai sach chrouk is that it’s a breakfast dish, which in Cambodia — a country of early risers — means that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody making or eating it after 8am.
Bai Sach Chrouk
3 cloves garlic, crushed with the flat side of a cleaver and peeled
5 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons palm sugar or dark brown sugar or honey
2/3 cup (150ml) coconut milk
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
14oz (400g) lean pork loin, thinly sliced
Combine the garlic, soy sauce, sugar or honey, coconut milk and black pepper in a shallow dish and mix well. Marinate the pork in this mixture for 1 hour.
Grille the pork over medium heat or roast it in a 400F (200C) oven, turning regularly until it’s dried and starts to caramelise, about 15 to 20 minutes. Cut into strips and serve with rice and pickled vegetables [see recipe below].
1/2 cup (125ml) rice vinegar or white vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
6 tablespoons sugar
1 carrot, peeled and sliced into thin strips
1 daikon radish, peeled and sliced into thin strips
1/2 cucumber, peeled and sliced into thin strips
3 cloves garlic, peeled, left whole
3 bird’s-eye chili peppers, coarsely chopped
3 sprigs coriander leaves (cilantro), roughly torn
Combine the vinegar, salt and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Combine the vegetables, garlic, chilies and coriander leaves in a bowl. Pour the vinegar mixture over the vegetables and marinate in the refrigerator overnight. Store the pickled vegetables in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid in the refrigerator.