“I am Burmese. This is mine, and that means it is yours.”
The stranger who uttered these words of generosity is sitting next to me in Yangon’s bustling Chinatown, as he gestures to plates of skewered food and a bottle of whisky on a nearby table. Downtown Yangon’s 19th Street is gearing up to full swing. A street vendor approaches, hidden behind a flock of Angry Birds balloons, and competes for attention with a man selling garlands of ginger flowers. A lively night market is underway. Women wearing elegant, ankle length longyis, their faces painted with yellow-white thanaka, are selling piles of spiky rambutans and green tomatoes under rigged-up light bulbs.
‘Beer stations’ selling ice-cold mugs of Myanmar beer spill out onto the street with tables and stools. Rain on tar from the recent monsoonal downpour mingles with the spicy, barbecued aromas and charcoal smoke in the balmy night air. Unrefrigerated, fluorescently lit food stalls line both sides of the narrow street, and inside are rows of skewered food – baby corn, asparagus, tofu, mushrooms, enormous river prawns, pork stuffed with spring onions – you name it, it’s been skewered. Whole fish are marinated in a piquant, spicy marinade and grilled until the outside is blackened and crispy. It’s served with small bowls brimming with a tamarind and chilli dipping sauce – a balance of sweet, sour and fiery. After some more prompting from my new friends (the waiter is now on my case, too), I accept their hospitality and pull my table closer to theirs. Our tumblers fill again and again with whisky and beer.
It’s a fitting introduction to Yangon, where meals are designed to be shared and the ramshackle streetscape is packed with food you will definitely want to hunt down for a second taste. Yangon, formerly Rangoon, was the capital of Myanmar (Burma) until early 2006, and while it no longer holds the title (Naypyidaw has the honour), it remains the economic and culinary heart of the ‘Golden Land’.
In a country with more than 135 distinct ethnic groups, established Indian and Chinese migrant populations, and borders with China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh, Myanmar’s food is every bit as exciting as you’d expect, and it’s all on the streets of its biggest city.“We are always chasing particular dishes from particular places,” says Myanmar Times food columnist Phyo Zar Thwin, deftly shredding cabbage in her Yangon apartment. “At work, we make a list of things we want to pick up to eat. If I have an appointment at 2pm, and there is a great spring roll place on the way but it’s not open yet, my workmates will say, ‘Can you change it to later?’”
In 2005, Phyo left Yangon and a newspaper under years of strict censorship laws, where fellow colleagues had been jailed, to live in Sydney. Seven years later, at news of “positive changes” stirring, her young family returned to the streets, markets and meals of Yangon with fresh eyes. She has thrown herself into the food of her home country with renewed vigour, campaigning for a return to traditional cooking methods, without the growing reliance on MSG, and working on a cookbook documenting regional Myanmar cuisines.
Phyo’s making khauk swe thoke, or noodle salad – where cooked, cold noodles are hand-mixed with shredded cabbage and other ingredients, including ground peanuts, shrimp powder and a spicy tamarind sauce. It’s sensational, and despite Phyo’s prompts to eat more, I must force myself to stop – this is just a snack before a typical lunch of rice and curry. “Eating is a big thing here,” explains her Australian husband, John Arbidans. “You stop for lunch; you stop for dinner. And the Burmese tend to eat all day long in between – they are always grazing.”
At lunchtime, rice and curry dishes often to take centre stage. In offices such as Phyo’s and in school playgrounds, people open their three-tiered silver tiffin boxes to reveal rice, perhaps soup, and a selection of curries. “We’ll eat our own rice, but we’ll share all our other dishes,” Phyo explains. Those whose mothers haven’t packed them lunch sit roadside beneath colourful umbrellas or inside poky eateries that have an endless array of curries, vegetables, sides, dips and garnishes on display. The curries are famously oily and can often be mild, but locals will usually scoop out the meat, leaving the oil behind, and use spicy condiments to turn up the heat.
Aung Thukha, a short drive from the downtown area, is the go-to local eatery for Burmese food. “If you hadn’t been recommended to go here, you might be scared to enter – but it’s everyone’s favourite,” says Phyo. A generator hums outside to keep their many customers satiated through Yangon’s power cuts, and the hive of activity inside competes with this noise. Waiters pour bowls of clear, sour rosella-leaf soup for each customer, while an old woman slaps bowlfuls of steaming white rice onto plates. There is another counter for curries and vegetables, kept warm in pots and bain-maries. There is a salad station where ingredients are being expertly mixed by hand and a woman whose job it is to prepare colourful plates of raw vegetables for dipping into condiments. Still others are in charge of delivering the fiery tamarind sauce and refilling the green tea. It’s a slick operation and suddenly, as is the custom here, the table is crowded with small bowls coming from every direction. I finish the meal like the locals beside me with a lump of sweet jaggery or ‘Myanmar chocolate’, which you eat with a sip of tea.
I attempt to find the owner. Before long, a crowd of waitresses and customers have gathered to help, and my every word is translated along a chain of Chinese whispers to U Thein Myint, a pot-bellied man in a T-shirt that had seen better days. He is charming, and begins by writing down for me his mother’s and father’s names, U Aung Myint and Dau Thu Kha, in beautiful, curly handwriting, before telling me the story of how he and his wife started their business. “We opened a small teashop just selling Myanmar-style fried rice and tea,” he says. “We started the shop mainly for drivers, but then due to the demand, we opened a bigger place here.”
Back in the Downtown area, the golden Sule Pagoda doubles as a roundabout at the heart of the city’s grid system. “Do you like bananas?” asks Bhaddanata Dharmapala, a monk paused on a footpath in its shadows. I do. He hails a cab and then pulls a large white Samsung Galaxy tablet from within his robes to make a call back to the monastery of which he is abbot, presiding over hundreds of young novice monks. At the gates, Dharmapala shoves a fistful of kyat notes out the window to a boy who hurries along to the food carts lining the street outside. I enter the monastery to find a feast of warm unshelled peanuts, sweet and juicy ears of corn, freshly sliced pineapple, a hand of small, sugary bananas and green tea all laid out on a low table. The monks, who don’t eat after noon, sit and watch on while I eat and we talk. Novice monks curiously poke their heads in. On the polished teak floors before this fasting audience, attempting to graciously gnaw on the corn that has been thrust into my hands, I begin to understand the connection between food and social interaction in Myanmar culture.
The teashops at every turn throughout Yangon are full of old men who assert this connection. The Lucky Seven tea house on 49th Street provides respite from relentless rain and nagging wives for the trio of old men beside me puffing on Red Ruby cigarettes, reading, laughing and gossiping. The green tea at all teashops is free and refillable, but it’s the Indian-style black tea with condensed milk and varying amounts of sugar that people come to drink. Teashops are also places to go for a meal or a snack. In a stroke of genius, a selection of foods, such as samosas, sweets and pastries, arrive as soon as you sit down, and you only pay for what you eat. The specialties to order differ between shops, depending on the owner’s heritage, perhaps nan bya (naan bread) served with pe byouk, a pea dip, htamin gyaw (fried rice) and almost always mohinga, Myanmar’s iconic fish noodle soup.
“We chase mohinga all hours of the day, from start to end,” says Phyo. The city’s crumbling sidewalks are scattered with mohinga stands, with piles of noodles sitting under coloured mosquito netting on one side, and on the other, a large silver pot of fragrant fish broth flavoured with turmeric, tamarind, lemongrass, spices and aromatics, and thickened with chickpea powder. First the noodles are added, followed by a ladleful of broth, then sliced banana stem, boiled egg, coriander leaves, a squeeze of lime, crushed fried yellow split pea crackers (pe kyaw) and a generous scoop of chilli flakes. “Some mohinga stalls start serving from 4am in the morning, and by 8am the popular shops have sold out and packed up,” Phyo explains. People come from all over Myanmar to Yangon, bringing with them their regional recipe for this noodle soup, so there are different tastes on each different corner.
Monsoon rains flood the streets but the city never stops. There is a definite art to carrying an umbrella through the canopy of tarpaulins that cover the footpaths. Downtown, a young man expertly flips small pancake balls filled with yellow split peas or quail egg, known as mont lin ma yar, or ‘husband and wife snacks’, because of the way the halves are joined together. The sound of tinkling bells heralds that a sugarcane juice press is just around the corner, where you can also get glasses of htaw pat thee yae (thick avocado juice), and perhaps a plastic bag of pickled mango soaked in chilli oil. On red-and-white-striped curbs, old women sit behind large pans of golden shwe kyi, a dense semolina cake and pound roasted chestnuts into small oily pancakes. Lacy rounds of onion and prawn fritters drain on yesterday’s newspapers, ready to be dipped into tamarind sauce and eaten while still hot and crunchy. Hand-mixed salads, thoke (literally meaning mixed), are a complex combination of sweet, salty, sour and spicy, and that’s before you consider the range of textures. Everywhere is the smell I’ve come to identify as ngapi or fermented fish paste. “If you fall in love with a Myanmar, you have to fall in love with ngapi,” says Phyo, “because the Myanmar can’t live without it.”
On Anawrahta Road, Htun Lin, the manager of Nilar Biryani & Cold Drink tells me I have found “the best biryani in town.” It’s a debated title as this is just one of many eateries serving danbauk, Myanmar-style biryani, in the city’s Indian quarter. Outside, a truck pulls up to the kerb and three men struggle to carry waist-high pots of biryani across the flooded footpath into the restaurant. It is milder and more delicate than neighbouring Indian versions, but the most noticeable difference is in the accompaniments – rosella-leaf soup, cabbage salad, belachan (shrimp paste), small green chillies and garlic cloves. According to Htun Lin, the shop has been operating for 60 years, and they serve 500 plates of biryani each day. Other eateries and vendors on this stretch specialise in crispy, paper-thin toeshay (dosa), served with tamarind sauce. Shirtless men stretch out buttery paratha (flatbread) and schoolchildren tug on their mothers’ longyis for an after-school icy treat of yay kae thote, or ‘shaved ice-salad’. In the evening, a vibrant night market gathers momentum, just one of many that spring to life at various times of the day along the streets of the city.
“This is an amazing time for Myanmar,” Phyo had said earlier, reminiscing on her return home. “Life here is in your face; it’s all happening here.”
The writer travelled courtesy of Orient Express and Singapore Airlines.
The hit list
The Governor’s Residence
This luxury hotel, housed in a 1920s teak mansion, takes Myanmar hospitality to a new level. The cool air is perfumed with lemongrass and musk, the wooden floors so highly polished you can see your reflection, and the magnificent pool that swathes the property provides welcome respite on steamy days. Breakfast features local favourites including mohinga, and if you’re after authentic food in stunning surrounds, try the Sunday night curry buffet table. 35 Taw Win Rd, Dagon Township, Yangon; 95 1 229860; governorsresidence.com.
Do as the locals do – visit at lunchtime, and point out your curry of choice. 17A 1st Street, West Shwegondaing, Bahan Township, Yangon.
Chinatown barbecue and beer stations
All the stalls here offer the same winning combination of barbecued food and cold beer. 19th Street, between Maha Bandoola and Anawrahta Rds, Downtown Yangon.
Nilar Biryani & Cold Drink
Order a chicken biryani, then explore the city’s Indian quarter. 216 Anawrahta Rd, Pabedan Township.
Khaing Khaing Kyaw
This clean food centre is a great introduction to Yangon’s street food offerings. You can also sample different types of mohinga from across the country. 42 (A) Parami Rd, Yangon.
There are hundreds of teashops throughout Yangon; this chain offers a good entry point. 138-140 49th St, Botahtaung Township, Yangon.
Singapore Airlines and SilkAir operate 121 flights per week between Australia and Singapore, with 18 flights per week connecting to Yangon. Visit singaporeairlines.com and silkair.com.
Photography Sean Fennessy
As seen in Feast magazine, February 2014, Issue 28. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.