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Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Burmese culture is its rustic and regional food scene. This is what I realized over meals during a seven-day Trafalgar tour led by Burmese travel director, Nyein Moe. A local guide who has traveled the country, Moe facilitates insight into Myanmar’s varying cuisine.
Our first stop was Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. It is impossible to go a day in Myanmar without an introduction to the nation’s widespread tea culture. Tea consumption is a Burmese way of life, where teahouses, rather than bars, serve as the social gathering place for Myanmar’s citizens.
“People from different walks of life meet at teahouses,” Moe said. “There is loud music and noisy conversation about business, the love of sports and the heyday of Mandalay.”
We visited one of the newest teahouses in Yangon, the Rangoon Tea House, which is outfitted in a chic, modern decor with floor-to-ceiling windows. The teashop serves green and black tea, the style most commonly served in Myanmar. There are no condiments on the table, as the local way is to drink the tea plain. The exception would be la phet yay, a popular brewed black tea from the highlands of Shan state traditionally served with sweet condensed milk. Yay nway chan, weak green or black tea called “Chinese tea,” is made of free leaves and twigs thrown into hot water and is usually provided free of charge.
Interestingly, tea in Myanmar is not only sipped, but also chewed in the form of laphet thoke, or “tea leaf salad,” usually found in the countryside. Intrigued by the concept of eating tea, I ordered the savory dish, which is prepared by layering tea leaves with sesame oil, peanuts, garlic, dried shrimp, coconut and ginger, and then by leaving the concoction to infuse and ferment. The dish is a ubiquitous condiment on the Burmese table and a must-try for the curious culinary explorer. Still hungry, I also tasted mohinga, Myanmar’s national dish, a hearty rice-noodle and fish soup.
Additional culinary delights in Yangon can be found at Sharky’s, an organic market and restaurant. The owner, Sharky, became tired of running a nightclub in Geneva and now brings organic and Western food to Yangon by mixing local resources and Western tradition. There are wholesome selections for sale in the market, such as sea salt from the Indian Ocean, handpressed olives, cold cuts and Myanmar cheese that is made from buffalo milk. If you decide to pop in, the market offers a tasting of some of these local specialties.
On day three, we headed to Bagan, a destination where agriculture plays a major role in the lifestyle. Lunch was at the Sarabha restaurant, where the popular dish is a vegetable soup with carrots and green beans. This is considered a luxury to the locals in the area, as carrots are expensive to import to this region.
The highlight of my trip was visiting Inle Lake and having lunch at Inle Heritage House. The boutique accommodation consists of only six bungalows perched on stilts above the water and surrounded by the lake and the property’s own organic garden. Locals from the Intha village make up the friendly staff and are employed to teach tourists how to cook Intha Myanmar food, from Intha-style green bean salad with roasted peanut powder to fish soup with roasted rice powder. I also prepared fresh mint leaf and Shan-style chicken curry with potato. The cooking classes use vegetation from Inle Lake’s floating gardens, which, according to Moe, are cultivated by some rather unique farming methods.
“The floating gardens are created by piling weeds and compost on long poles fixed to the lake floor,” Moe said.
With neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, the region does not lack for food worth trying. And Myanmar is no exception.