I ate well in Rakhine State. This was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The state’s location in Myanmar’s far west, along the border with Bangladesh, suggests a South Indian Influence. And a long-standing Muslim population seems to indicate dishes with a halal bias.
But the food in Rakhine State proved to be distinctly, well, Rakhine.
My first experience with the local food was with rakhine monti, Rakhine-style noodles. The state’s most famous culinary export (it’s available at stalls and restaurants across Myanmar), it’s a simple but satisfying bowl that combines fish from the state’s waters, and rice from its fields:
In this case the fish is the basis of the broth, which in the better versions of the dish is somewhat thick and positively spicy from the addition of pepper. Flaked fish also garnishes the dish, along with optional toppings of fish cakes, deep-fried lentil fritters, fresh and/or deep-fried shallots and a drizzle of turmeric oil. Condiments include slices of lime and without fail, a bowl of spicy green chilies, roasted and pounded into a rough paste with salt — a dish much like the northern Thai nam phrik num.
Rice is the main ingredient in the noodles, which are made via a laborious, multi-day process that appears to be the same as that which goes into making Thai khanom jeen. I got to witness the process first-hand at Mahin Kyi village, at the edge of the historical city of Mrauk U.
After soaking, grounding and pounding the rice, which, incidentally, is harvested from fields next door to ancient ruins:
the noodles are squeezed into boiling water and served fresh:
I was told that the noodles made in Mrauk U are the best; ‘They’re thinner,’ my translator explained. ‘In Sittwe they like thick noodles.’
Rakhine monti wasn’t the only dish that included nga yoke thi chik, the pounded chili condiment; it showed up in every subsequent Rakhine-style curry meal as a side. It was extremely spicy, and was served coupled with a few slices of cucumber, par-boiled greens and almost without exception, the crunchy, fragrant blossom of the galangal root:
I found many of the dishes in Rakhine state quite spicy — a noteworthy contrast with the predominately savoury, mild dishes of central Myanmar. The tart dishes were distinctly tart, and salty dishes were salty — a full-flavoured approach to cooking that, in many ways, has a lot in common with Thai- and Lao-style cooking.
Perhaps this was due to the fact that the Rakhine, like the Thai and Lao, have a seemingly vast repertoire of ingredients to choose from:
Mrauk U’s morning market was really one of the most exotic markets I’d been in Southeast Asia, and had a huge array of produce I’d never seen elsewhere, such as ta pyu thi:
a softball-sized fruit that the locals boiled until it disintegrated into a thick, sour soup, often supplemented with tiny fresh shrimp.
Particularly popular during the rainy season was ta nyin thi:
hard pods known in English as dogfruit and locally as anyaw thi. The pungent fruit is boiled until tender and served dipped in oil seasoned with a bit of salt, as part of a curry meal.
The wet weather also meant lots of fern fronds and bamboo:
Yet even during the dry season, Rakhine State is a wet place, with lots of rivers and access to the sea:
Sittwe, the state capital, which is located on an island, is also a port with a busy fish market:
Fish curries were a staple in every curry restaurant I visited in Rakhine State, and in Sittwe I had a particularly tasty one featuring huge squares of fatty, gelatinous stingray.
But perhaps the best meal I had in Rakhine State was the one prepared by my guide’s wife. I don’t have any photos of the meal, but it spanned a rich, oily chicken curry; an intensely smokey/spicy ‘salad’ of grilled and pounded eggplant; a broth made tart with young tamarind leaves; a vegetable stir-fry; and of course, that spicy chili paste.
If you’re visiting Rakhine State and require a guide who happens to have a wife who is a talented cook, consider Sittwe-based Naing Naing (+959421746111, firstname.lastname@example.org).
To be honest, I found the tea at Pan Yo Ma, ‘Flower Mountain’ (thanks, Meemalee), a teashop in central Mawlamyine, in Myanmar’s Mon State, a bit sweet for my taste.
But I was blown away by the care that goes into making each cup, not to mention the shop’s classic interior:
The old man making the tea here is the second generation to do so, and I found his meticulous approach — it takes him about two minutes to assemble a cup of tea — a vivid illustration of how tea is made in a Burmese teashop:
I counted eight steps:
1. Rinse cups in boiling water
2. Add sweetened condensed milk
3. Add evaporated milk
4. Add tea
6. Pour between two cups to cool tea and create a froth
7. Garnish with even more evaporated milk
8. Plate on clean saucers and serve
Although it must be noted that not every teashop takes this much care. Nor, thankfully, does every teashop use this much sweetened condensed milk.
Pan Yo Ma
Lower Main Road, Mawlamyine, Mon State, Myanmar
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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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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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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.
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.
Quite possibly my singlemost favourite Bangkok street dish is actually four different but nearly identical dishes using seemingly similar, but actually rather disparate ingredients, combined in ways that run a diverse spectrum from gooey to crispy. Let me explain…
Or suan (อ่อสวน) is made by frying a batter made from paeng man (แป้งมัน), tapioca flour, along with egg and oysters. The batter made from this particular type of starch tends to remain soft, sticky and stretchy — essentially the point of this dish, which takes the form of a sort of gloopy oyster pancake.
A good example of or suan is the version served at Hoy Thot Texas, a 70-year old shophouse restaurant in an alleyway in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The proprietor/chef here, an older woman who speaks Thai with an endearing Chinese accent, fries the ingredients on a wide, flat pan, intertwining the thin batter, egg and oysters in a barely-set, oily mass. It’s not an attractive dish:
and to be honest, it didn’t have heaps of flavour, but it’s indicative of the soft, squishy texture that defines old-school or suan.
Hoy Thot Texas/หอยทอดเท็กซัส
77-77/1 Trok Sai (Soi Texas, off Th Phadungdao)
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Not all vendors go that gloopy though, some opting instead for a slightly more set, almost omelet-like version of the dish. Nay So, another Chinatown old-timer, does a good example of this take (pictured at the top of this post). The or suan here is prepared and served on a sizzling hot plate, and unusually, arrives topped with a pile of beheaded bean sprouts. The hotplate continues to cook the dish even after it’s been served, and the result has all the flavours of a good or suan, but none of the gloopiness.
3/1 Th Maitri Jit, Bangkok
11am-2pm & 5-9pm
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The crispiest — and most common — version of the batter/egg/shellfish combo is hoy thot (หอยทอด), mussels and egg fried with a batter, and served on (or sometimes topped with) a bed of flash-fried bean sprouts and green onion. In English, I usually refer to the dish as ‘mussel omelet’, but have come to like Andy Ricker’s ‘crispy broken crepe’, which although it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, is probably more indicative of the way the dish is made.
Hoy thot is made more or less the same way as or suan, but here the batter is fried until crispy. The starch used is generally a mixture of tapioca and rice flours, the latter as it’s able to obtain the crispy texture associated with the dish. At Yu Huat, a longstanding stall in Bangkok’s Chinatown, they use paeng thao yay mom (แป้งเท้ายายม่อม), a type of flour made from Polynesian arrowroot, an old-school ingredient that few vendors nowadays use. The flour is allegedly combined with stock, not plain water, and the result is a textbook version of the dish: crispy and rich, slightly peppery, and topped with barely-cooked mussels:
Like all the places mentioned here, Yu Huat fries the dish in lard, but not over coals — at least not any more. “That was during grandpa’s time! It’s just too much work,” I was told upon asking.
Yu Huat/ยู่ฮวด หอยทอด
Soi Phiphaksa 2, Bangkok
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Blurring the lines even further, many of the same vendors who do the dishes above employ the same ingredients used to make or suan — oysters, egg and tapioca flour — in a dish call or lua (ออลั่วะ). In this version, the normally soft batter is fried until shatteringly crispy — similar to hoy thot — then topped with barely-cooked oysters. A great version of this dish — crispy, lardy, smokey (because here they do cook over coals) — can be got at Nay Mong.
539 Th Phlap Phla Chai
02 623 1890
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Some of the shops that do the dishes above also do one more dish that can more or less be slotted into this category. Although you’ll find no shellfish, and the dish is accompanied by soy sauce, not sweet chili sauce, khanom phak kaat (ขนมผักกาด):
fits the familiar pattern of a batter — in this case a heavy dough made from rice flour and shredded white radish — fried with egg, sprouts and green onions.
“It’s the place with all the cars out front.”
That’s how people in Chiang Rai kept describing Laap Sanaam Keelaa to me. They were right; it’s indeed popular and the parking lot was full every time I stopped by. But for whatever reason, nobody mentioned how absolutely delicious the food was.
Perhaps this was because for the people of Chiang Rai, Laap Sanaam Keelaa is really nothing special. On the surface, it’s your typical northern Thai-style laap shack: open-air, tin roof, dirt floor, an almost unanimously meaty menu, and on one visit, a mischievous goat wandering through the restaurant. Unassuming, humble and consistent, I suppose that it’s the kind of place that locals have been eating at for so long they gradually round down their impressions of the restaurant as ‘good’ or in this case, busy.
But the food blew me away, and after several visits, I’d gladly cite Laap Sanaam Keelaa as one of my favourite restaurants serving northern-style meat dishes.
On my first visit, I ordered laap muu suk (ลาบหมูสุก), northern Thai-style pork laap (pictured at the top of this post). Here, the dish is served with just barely-cooked meat (most diners appeared to opt for the raw version) and relatively little blood and offal, but quite a bit of chili and dried spice heat, not to mention an exceedingly generous garnish of crispy deep fried garlic and shallots. A immensely satisfying, balanced take on the dish.
The fish version, consumed on another visit, was pretty similar:
although drier, and with a bit more dried spice punch, ostensibly, by Thai culinary reckoning, to cover up any unpleasant fishy smells.
An order of laap arrives with an almost comically large platter of herbs and vegetables:
Now I’ve eaten northern-style laap a lot, and at this point am pretty familiar with quite a few of the herby sides, but this had me stumped. There were at least eight different kinds of herbs here — some sweet, some bitter/sweet, some bitter/bitter, some spicy/bitter — only half of which I could identify by name.
On my first visit I also ordered kaeng om neua (แกงอ่อมเนื้อ), a laap shack staple of beef offal served in a meaty stew-like broth:
The dish was deliciously rich and spicy, and mixed in among the unidentifiable organs were some tender, almost corned beef-like, joints of beef.
Another visit saw an order of neua neung (เน้ือนึ่ง), beef steamed over herbs and served with a dry, spicy dip made from galangal:
The beef was relatively tender, and the dip was spicy, smokey and garlicky, and unusually, included thin strips of citrusy fragrant Kaffir lime leaf.
On my final visit, and in an effort to try something non-meat-based, I ordered a salad of shredded mango:
I should have known better; the salad was mediocre — limp and far too sweet.
Lesson learned: only order meat. And when seeking out restaurants in the future, look for lots of cars.
Laap Sanaam Keelaa
123 Muu 22, Th Naa Sanaam Keelaa, Chiang Rai
087 173 2498
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Don’t know your sai ua from your khaep muu? Right this wrong by reading my crash course in northern Thai-style dining from the April issue of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia – click on the image above for the PDF version [transliteration typos and Bangkok restaurant recommendation not mine].
Whenever we visited somebody’s home in Shan State, we were inevitably offered green tea or water and a bite to eat. Often the snack was fruit, such as a few bananas or the watermelon shown above. Sometimes it was something a bit more substantial such as nor khom, a type of bamboo, steamed and eaten with a simple but utterly delicious dip made from ground salt, dried chili and makhwaen (prickly ash).
I really enjoyed these simple meals, which usually also involved conversation in Tai — a language I understand very little of, but love to try to figure out — as well as the chance to peek inside somebody’s home.
Perhaps one of the more interesting opportunities for the latter was in Wan Puen, a Thai Lue village outside of Mong La.
Most of the 69 families in Wan Puen still live in traditional-style wooden houses — a relative rarity, even in this area. The houses can be rather dark inside, so most socialising is done on the elevated bamboo porch, which also functions as the kitchen and laundry area:
Sitting on this porch, which was about eight feet high, provided me with an entirely different perspective on the village. I was struck by the way the tidy tiled roofs formed something of a rural skyline. That the houses were surrounded by neat fences and faced the same direction also lent the village an almost city-like element of organisation. Shattering this perception was the fact that, directly below every house was a buffalo or cow, and the messiness, sounds and smells that accompany this.
Inside, cooking was done on an open hearth; a soot-blackened rack above the fire held garlic, shallots and dried chilli. At the other end of the room, a girl watched a Thai game show on television.
After a while, when people had gone back back to doing their chores, and when my guide and our hosts were deep in conversation about the price of dried frogs — at least that’s what I caught — I had essentially been forgotten about. This casual hospitality left me free to crunch watermelon, take pictures, listen to Tai, and generally just soak up the scene.