I’ve long believed that good food, good eating, is all about risk….food, for me, has always been an adventure.”
– Anthony Bourdain,
Myanmar isn’t known as a food destination — it’s not the reason people flock to the country as they would to Thailand or even Vietnam. But Myanmar should be on the list for travelers seeking an alternative culinary tour of Asia.
I’ll admit that I knew almost nothing about Burmese food before arriving in Myanmar. I figured with all the back-and-forth wars with Thailand that the food would be similar. The food was nothing like that, and that’s what made it amazing.
The climate and availability of ingredients affects the style of food — most dishes have seasonal vegetables and light flavors to help cope with the heat. Also, as the majority of people are Buddhist, there are more vegetarian options available. The dishes I sampled were colorful and had a great mix of textures. The flavors varied a bit as well — though almost everything is a curry, there’s plenty of variety of flavor and spiciness.
I cannot comment on dining around other parts of Myanmar as I didn’t get to see as much of the country as I had wanted — I only had one full day in Yangon and almost got stranded in Bagan (which wasn’t such a bad thing). While in Yangon I noticed a lot of Indian and Chinese influence in the street food and restaurants, but some of that could probably be attributed to more recent economic ties. As I ate little in Yangon though, I can really only comment on the culinary delicacies that are found around Bagan. Because Bagan is such a tourist attraction, eating out isn’t as cheap as one would imagine — much like the price of hotels in Myanmar, dining costs tend to be inflated. Of course, there are still some cheap food options, particularly around Nyaung U where more of the backpacker hostels are located.
Had I not been budgeting to avoid getting stranded in Myanmar, I would have tried more food — I was constantly tempted to order more. Most restaurants in New Bagan have set menus — you can choose a main course that comes with a few small side dishes that are mostly vegetable curries. At only around $7, the set menus were my best option for a filling meal after a day of biking.
Of course, I saved money with my hotel breakfasts, much of which wasn’t local cuisine, that allowed me to snag some fruit and bread to take along as snacks throughout the day. In the middle of the pagodas around Bagan, there aren’t many food vendors (yet), though I was offered to eat with a family cooking on an open fire as I started one of my bike rides around the area.
On my first evening before passing out for the night, I searched nearby my hotel, Shwe Poe Eain, but there wasn’t much nearby. I also wasn’t willing to walk too far along unlit streets — I wasn’t sure about safety and nighttime wildlife at the time. I also had no local currency and prices were inflated if paying with US dollars. Fortunately, a nearby restaurant was willing to serve me despite the owner’s proclamation that it was closing time (he said they still had enough food and I could be the last customer for the day). I was served a small curry dish with fish and five vegetable side dishes. The vegetables were the best part of the meal — the variety of textures and flavors were delightful. If this was my introduction to the local cuisine, I was sold.
On the day I chose to just walk along the dirt roads through New Bagan, I chose to eat at Shwe Ou (there are multiple restaurants with the same name). It’s a simple restaurant along Kayay St. I chose this one because the restaurant that the front desk staff at Arthawka Hotel suggested was packed with noisy people from tour buses. Shwe Ou was quiet and I was the only hungry customer.
I ordered two light meals — hsi gje khau hswe and Myanmar crispy bean salad. The former was a cold noodle dish with garlic oil and shredded chicken, while the latter had large fried beans, sesame paste, shallots, and cabbage. Both were delicious and refreshing for the hot, dry afternoon. The garlic in the chicken dish livened up what would otherwise be a boring dish of protein and carbs. The salad was the more impressive of the dishes as it had a great combination of crispy, sweet, and salty.
My Czech biking partner, whom I met while semi-lost on a dirt road, introduced me to the joys of dining in the open market just outside the ancient city wall of Bagan on the way to Nyaung U. She suggested a place that had been recommended by fellow travelers and guidebooks — The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant (also known as Be Kind to Animals). There are other restaurants in the area that use similar names, but this one is the original.
As a highly recommended restaurant at a reasonable price, The Moon is popular and can get crowded during peak tourist season. More than just the food draws customers to this restaurant — it’s one of the few restaurants that has a focus on decor; it’s quaint, airy, and colorful. This is also where I purchased a huge bag of tamarind flakes (an after-meal candy served everywhere that Burmese say aids digestion).
The Moon was such a good restaurant that when I ran into Klara while riding around again, we stopped off for another meal. Getting there in the evening might have been more difficult with unmarked dirt roads and few streetlights.
One of the more interesting meals I found was Irrawaddy River prawns in curry (which, of course, came with some little vegetable side dishes). I wasn’t sure what I expected from the prawns, but they were the biggest prawns I’ve ever had (I have since seen larger ones from Penghu at my local market in Taipei, and they sell for about US$40 for three). The three enormous prawns in curry were enough for a meal and the spicy curry made them that much more delicious.
The best meal I had was my final evening in New Bagan, when I knew I had enough money to splurge on a decent meal. I had seen signs for 7 Sisters and had even seen it mentioned on travel sites (though I never read any reviews of it).
The atmosphere of the restaurant certainly exceeded my expectations. Rather than the simple layout of most restaurants in town, this one was elegant — a high ceiling, open wall pavilion decorated in the local style. More surprising was that it wasn’t much more expensive than the cheap restaurants I had been dining at — my higher bill was mostly because I ordered twice as much food as usual. The waitress even warned me about ordering more; I’m glad I listened. My only complaint is that the restaurant is dark for dinner — it’s hard to even see what you’re eating, let alone take a photo to share with readers.
As a starter, I ordered fried vegetables — it was more like a vegetable tempura, but the plate was piled high. I was only able to eat half of it. My main course was a difficult choice with so many delicious-sounding foods on the menu, but I settled on a squid curry stew, which was plenty to each especially after that heaping plate of vegetable tempura.
I would have stayed out for dessert, but I had stuffed myself to the point of no return. The walk back to my hotel at least provided enough space for me to enjoy one last beer before sleeping on my final evening in Bagan.