Rangoon (now officially called Yangon) is the largest liveliest city in Burma (aka Myanmar), and a great introduction to the whole country. I travel on my stomach, using my camera to take notes. You could call me a student of food as an aspect of culture. I hang around markets and tea shops, eat frequently and taste everything, and slowly I get an idea of how the local food culture works … I’ve been deeply engaged with Burma for the last four years, doing research for my book Burma: Rivers of Flavor, so of course I want to spread the word. And Rangoon’s a great place to start.
Burma shares borders with Thailand and Laos, and also with India, China, and Bangladesh. There have been culinary influences from all directions, but the food of Burma is distinctive, with regional variations that reflect the diversity of peoples living there: Bamar, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Karen, Pa-O, and more. And Rangoon is the best place to get a sampling of the various culinary traditions in the country. Also it has great street food at all hours of the day.
Eat mohinga (noodles with fish broth and a great selection of fried crisp toppings) out on the street in the morning; choose a busy place where the food is fresh and the broth hot and steaming. Try Kachin food one night at Myint Sone, a restaurant on Baho Road opposite the Chinese Embassy (closed Sundays); I love the pounded beef, the fish curry with fresh herbs, in fact every dish I’ve eaten there. Eat shwe daung kao swe at Osaka, a hole-in-the-wall on Bo Myat Tun Street, open 5 am to 5 pm. Snack on the crispy fried snacks, the rice crepes, and the noodle salads, that are on offer at small street stands around the city. At tea shops try bei-nan pyar (flatbread with cooked chickpeas) in the morning and fresh-made paratha in the afternoon.
Food markets everywhere. The food market that runs south from the Kali Temple on Anawratha Road down to Maha Bandoola Road is an intense place with fish, meat, vegetables, implements and rice, all on sale in the open air. Smaller neighbourhood markets are also fun and often easier to navigate and photograph. Look on a map of Rangoon for other markets and then make them your destination; they’re a good place to head in the morning. I love Yegyaw Market in the east end (off Bogyoke Road at 49th Street), but there are many others.
Another must-visit is the Bogyoke Market, also known as Scott market, for textiles, pearls, handicrafts of all kinds, antiques (including old wooden and lacquerware bowls, spoons, mortars), and more. Many stalls don’t open until after 10 am; the place shuts down at 5 pm, and it is closed on Mondays.
The hilltop temple complex called Shwedagon isn’t a food destination, but it is the heart of Buddhist Burma, alive with worshippers at all hours, so for me it’s a must see. Be sure to wear loose “modest” clothing (no short shorts or bare tops) and be prepared to take off your shoes and socks, for everyone’s feet must be bare. I like to be there either in the early morning, when it’s calm and peaceful, or just around sunset, when it’s liveliest and the light is beautiful.
Best food souvenirs
You’ll find traditional hand-crafted utensils such as iron ladles, coconut scrapers and wooden spoons, in the food markets, not out on the street but hidden away in the covered market section, so go poke around. There are treasures to discover. And look in Bogyoke Market for antique bowls, etc. Buy some laphet (fermented tea leaves) at a market to take home with you for making your own version of laphet thoke, Burma’s famous tea leaf salad.
How to get there
Rangoon is the entry place for all travel to Burma; there are flights from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, and various cities in China, as well as from India. NOTE: Get a tourist visa in your passport before you go.
Sorry if it seems like I’m tooting my own horn, but your best resource for getting a handle on the foodways of Burma before you go is my book Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Artisan, 2012).
Photography by Naomi Duguid
Don't miss Luke Nguyen's Greater Mekong on Thursday at 8pm on SBS ONE as he explores Myanmar.