I can be rather difficult to find Shan food in Myanmar’s Shan State.
At least it can do in the bigger cities or in the western part of the state, which seem to be dominated by ethnic Burmese. In Taunggyi, the administrative capital of Shan State, I only heard one person speaking Shan, and it was a day or two before I discovered any Shan food, in a stall in the city’s night market.
Daw Than Kyi serves what the Burmese call nga htamin, ‘fish rice’, long-grain rice kneaded with turmeric and topped with flakes of freshwater fish (in Shan/Tai, the dish is known as khao som, ‘sour rice’). The warm rice is kept in a cooler and to order is squashed into a thin disk, topped with the fish, drizzled with chili and turmeric oil, and sprinkled with crumbled deep-fried noodles and green onions. It’s distinctly oily and savoury, but supplemented with sides of a small dish of pickled vegetables and a very Burmese side of dhal (lentil soup), as well as optional sides of pork rinds, tiny cloves of raw garlic, chives and peppery leek roots, it becomes a dish that runs the gamut of tastes and textures.
The flavours were authentic, and the dish was even tastier than versions I’ve encountered in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, and in the more traditionally Tai areas of eastern Shan State, and other similar dishes available at the stall include wet tha chin, a meatier version involving rice steamed with chunks of fatty pork and blood in a banana leaf packet, and one with chicken.
Daw Than Kyi
Tabin Shwe Htee St, Taunggyi, Shan State
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To put it lightly, Myanmar’s Muslim community is having a tough time right now. But little of the sectarian violence that has flared up elsewhere appears to have reached the country’s largest cities. And on the surface at least, in Yangon and Mandalay, Indian Muslim culture and Burmese Buddhist culture appear to co-exist amicably: new mosques pop up next door to old Buddhist temples, Burmese diners eat biryani at Muslim-owned restaurants, call it a lungee or a longyi but men of every ethnicity are wearing basically the same skirt, and teashops continue to host a diverse clientele.
I was particularly struck by this in Mandalay. Walking along 27th street, past Burmese movie theatres, Hindu temples, mosques, Indian-run spice shops and Chinese-owned hotels, I felt like I could have been in India, or perhaps even in Singapore or Malaysia. Indeed, this cultural mix was one of the few positive impressions I had of Mandalay; I hadn’t been there in almost 10 years, yet it still seemed very much the unpleasant, sprawling, featureless city I’d recalled from previous visits.
My only other positive impression — a direct manifestation of Mandalay’s multicultural vibe — was of the food.
Indian-influenced halal food seems to dominate the restaurant scenes of the ‘downtown’ areas of Myanmar’s largest cities, and Mandalay is no exception. And one of the most memorable examples of this I encountered is the open-air stall that sets up every evening in front of Nay Cafe, opposite the Unity Hotel:
The stall is known for its chapattis, and in the back, a boy works an astonishing amount of dough in huge plastic rubbish bins. The dough is portioned into smaller blobs, which are then brought outside and divided up into small balls, which are patted and rolled out by a few women. The soft square sheets are then passed forward to a station with wood-fuelled griddles, where finally, a couple men made them into chapattis:
The chapattis were great — huge, tender and warm — perfect for dipping in the rich and oily, but not particularly spicy, mutton curry. The breads were served, straight off the griddle, as a set, and addition to the curry, there was a deliciously tart, watery tamarind-based dip and a hearty dal (lentil soup) that, unusually, seemed to have been made from beef stock.
It was essentially South Asian food, but with, perhaps, a couple Burmese twists. And eating this meal at the side of the street, watching passing Indian sweets vendors and trying to hear my thoughts over the sound of car horns and muezzin, for a moment at least, I almost kinda liked Mandalay.
If you’re thinking about hitting Nay Cafe, be sure to get there early; dishes, in particular the chapatti, sell out as early as 8pm.
Chapatti vendor at Nay Cafe
Cnr 27th St & 82nd St, Mandalay
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