While people in Myanmar take great pride in their cuisine, if you ask someone for a restaurant recommendation then there’s a good chance that they will suggest a place serving Chinese food. This is partly because they worry that foreign stomachs can’t cope with Burmese food, but also because most people rarely eat at restaurants so when they do they eat Chinese as a treat. Most towns will have at least a couple of Chinese restaurants, typically with large menus covering unadventurous basics such as sweet and sour chicken. Dishes start at around K1000 (vegetables) or K1500 (meat). Indian restaurants are also popular, particularly in Yangon which had a very large Indian population during the British colonial era. In tourist hotspots you’ll also find restaurants serving Thai and Western (usually Italian) dishes.
One local tradition that has become an essential tourist experience is a visit to a teahouse. These are hugely popular places to meet friends, family or business associates over tea and affordable snacks, which, depending on the owners, might be Burmese noodles, Muslim samosas or Chinese steamed buns. Teahouses have long had a reputation for being places where politics can be openly discussed, although there have always been rumours of government spies observing. Some teahouses open early for breakfast, while others stay open late into the night.
As in other Southeast Asian countries, in Burmese food it’s considered important to balance sour, spicy, bitter and salty flavours; this is generally done across a series of dishes rather than within a single dish. A mild curry, for example, might be accompanied by bitter leaves, dried chilli and a salty condiment such as fish paste.
The typical local breakfast is noodle soup, such as the national dish mohingar (catfish soup with rice vermicelli, onions, lemongrass, garlic, chilli and lime, with some cooks adding things like boiled egg, courgette fritters and fried bean crackers). Alternatives include oùn-nó k’auq-s’wèh (coconut chicken soup with noodles, raw onions, coriander and chilli) and pèh byouq (fried, boiled beans) served with sticky rice or naan bread. All of these dishes are served in teahouses or available to take away from markets.
Noodles also feature strongly at lunchtime: many locals will have a small bowl at a street café, teahouse or food court. Various Shan noodle dishes are popular, including mì-she (rice noodles in a meat sauce accompanied by pickle). Other common dishes include various ăthouq, which translates to “salad” but rarely includes vegetables; they are cold dishes, usually with noodles, raw onions, gram flour, chilli and coriander, served with a watery vegetable or bone soup. One variety worth trying is nàn-gyì thouq, made with thick rice noodles that look like spaghetti.
Lunchtime is also when you should try Burmese curries if you’re worried about hygiene, since they are usually cooked in the morning then left in pots all day. Local people, however, would typically have curry in the evening at home. A meat, fish or prawn curry will be accompanied by rice (t’ămìn), a watery soup and fried vegetables. A great deal of oil is added to Burmese curries, supposedly to keep bacteria out, but like locals you can skim the oil off. At the best restaurants, the meal will also include a selection of up to a dozen small side-dishes, plus fresh vegetables and herbs with a dip (such as ngăpí-ye, a watery fish sauce). Green tea will usually be thrown in, as will a dessert, traditionally lăp’eq (or lahpet) (fermented tea leaves with fried garlic, peanuts, toasted sesame and dried shrimp), which is much tastier than it sounds. You may also get t’ănyeq (jaggery, unrefined cane sugar).
There are plenty of regional variations to discover as you travel: the food of Rakhine State, for example, is influenced by its proximity to Bangladesh, so curries are spicier and many dishes include beans or pulses.
Vegetarians should find it reasonably easy to find suitable food throughout the country, particularly since some Buddhists are restrained in their consumption of meat.
Tap water isn’t safe to drink in Myanmar; bottled water is available throughout the country for around K300. In many restaurants, free green tea (ye-nwè-gyàn) is left in jugs on tables and is safe to drink. In teahouses, black tea is usually drunk with plenty of milk and sugar, while coffee is almost always instant, other than in Western-style cafés.
Although there are few places resembling Western bars or pubs outside of Yangon and Mandalay, most towns will have a couple of beer stations which look like simple restaurants but with beer adverts on display and a predominantly male clientele. These places usually serve draught beer (around K700 for a glass) as well as bottles (from K1700 for 640ml), with the former usually restricted to the most popular brew, Myanmar Beer (produced by a government joint venture) and sometimes its rival Dagon. Both beers are also available in bottles, as are Mandalay Beer and several Thai and Singaporean beers, including Tiger, Singha and ABC Stout.
Mid-range and upmarket restaurants will often have a list of imported wines. There are a couple of vineyards making wine in Shan State, and it’s better than you might expect: look out for Red Mountain and Aythaya. Fruit wines are produced around Pyin Oo Lwin, while local spirits include t’àn-ye (toddy or palm wine).