Myanmar’s teashops are not just places to have tiny cups of sweet, milky tea or coffee, or bottomless pots of weak Chinese tea. They’re also places to catch up with a friend. They’re where you go for a smoke. They’re almost certainly a better place for breakfast than your hotel or guesthouse. And they’re where gossip is passed around, deals made and, if you believe the rumours, government spies are rampant.
Their defining element — tea — takes a slightly different form than most of us may be used to, and may not be to everybody’s liking. Teashops are where the Burmese appear to consume the bulk of their sucrose, and your average tiny mug has nearly as much sugar and sweetened condensed milk as it does black tea. The generic word Burmese for tea is lephet ye, ‘tea water’, but if you follow this by saying cho bawq, you’ll get something that’s still sweet, but that at least won’t rot your teeth. The saving grace is the ubiquitous pot of weak green tea that serves as a chaser.
Burmese teashops are also great places to eat, and the dishes served often reflect the ethnicity of the shop’s proprietor. Indian/Muslim-owned teashops tend to specialise in deep-fried snacks such as samosas or poori (deep-fried bread served with a potato curry), as well as oil-free breads such as dosai (southern Indian-style crepes) or nanbya (nan bread), the latter often served with a somewhat sweet pigeon pea-based dip. This type of teashop also tends to serve an appealing variety of South Asian-inspired sweets. Chinese-style teashops often feature lots of baked sweets as well as meaty steamed buns and yam cha-like nibbles.
Teashops — in particular, those run by ethnic Burmese — are some of the best places to dig into the world of Burmese noodle dishes. Mohinga is usually available as a matter of course, but other more obscure noodle dishes offered at teashops include oh no hkauk hswe (a wheat noodle dish with a coconut milk broth), myi shay (a Shan-influenced noodle soup with pickled tofu and pork) and nangyi thoke (a salad of wide rice noodles). Burmese-style teashops that serve these dishes are also likely to serve rice dishes such as fried rice or htamin thoke (rice salad), both great for breakfast.
Myanmar’s teashops are also noteworthy for their uniquely Burmese quirks. These include the obligatorily tiny plastic chairs and tables; for a typical foreigner, a drink at a Burmese teashop can feel like a visit to Lilliput. There’s the carefully folded synthetic cloth for communal hand-wiping. There are, of course, the ‘tea boys’, prepubescent teashop staff who race around delivering orders and responding to the squeaky kissing sound that the Burmese use to draw attention. And there are the plastic sleeves of cigarettes that decorate every table; often at a Burmese teashop, in lieu of small change, you’ll be given a couple Londons or 555s.
In Yangon, Lucky Seven is probably my all-around favourite teashop: it’s tidy, has a pleasant atmosphere and the quality of food is high. A similar teashop in the Burmese model is Shwe We Htun; the Burmese-style one-plate dishes here are great. The archetype of the Chinese-style teashop is the tidy Shwe Khuang Laung, and Yatha Teashop is your typical Muslim-run teashop. See map below for locations.
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