Vegging it out in Myanmar

When the husband and I were getting ready to travel to Myanmar earlier this year, the only thing I was dreading was the food I would find there. Or, not find. As a vegetarian, I was expecting Myanmar to be a tough place to survive in, and I readied myself for bland salads and the odd pizza, where I could find it.

But being vegetarian in Myanmar turned out to be delightfully easy. The country has a wide repertoire of vegetarian dishes, perhaps because it is culturally closer to South Asia (think Nepalese lentil curries and Sri Lankan coconut gravies) than South East.

And given that it is wedged between countries with rich culinary traditions, like India, China and Thailand, something is certain to have rubbed off. What I discovered is that despite borrowing from these kitchens, Burmese cuisine has its unique flavours.

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The magic word

Although vegetable based dishes have always been part of their diet (and vegetarian dishes are served at almost all eateries), vegetarianism as a concept is not understood in Myanmar.

But the magic word “tha tha lo” (thatalo, literally meaning ‘lifeless’ – taught by a traveller friend) opened up the doors to meat-free cooking everywhere in the country. In fact, it made sure that there was never even a hint of the fish sauce that is the bane of vegetarian travellers in South East Asia.

The Burmese thali

A typical restaurant meal that popular among locals is a spread of side dishes, including raw salads, slightly sautéed veggies and soupy curries, served with plain white rice. This was our first introduction to Burmese food in Yangon, where our guide also ordered dal on the side for us, which came coarsely mashed and lightly spiced; Indian but not quite.

She also got us small plates of green tomato and tealeaf salad, the latter with the warning that the tart taste could take some getting used to. But no, for me, it was love at first bite.

In general, we found the salads and soups so enjoyable that most meals, we skipped the main course and stuck to these.

Through our ten days in Myanmar, we never had to go seeking a pizza place or an Indian restaurant (although some mainstream cafés in touristy towns like Bagan serve Indian food as part of their menu). And to my vegetarian soul, that made Myanmar pure heaven.

Soup time

Soups in Myanmar can range from the thin clear broth derived from Chinese kitchens (used as palate cleansers and often sipped through the meal), to thick and creamy stews.

The most distinctive one is the Shan Tohu Nuway, a specialty from the Shan region in the eastern side of the country, near Inle Lake. In this soup, the tofu (tohu) is made out of ground chickpea, instead of the more traditional soya.

This mash is kept warm in a semi-liquid form through the day, and poured over the basic noodle broth, finally topped up with coarsely ground peanuts, roasted garlic, finely sliced parsley and cabbage, and for those who can bear the heat, crunchy chilli paste (in my opinion, a must).

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There is also the clear Shan noodle soup, served even at breakfast in most hotels and restaurants. Ask for the tha tha lo version, which comes with a topping of coarsely ground, thick red chilli sauce, spring onions and toasted sesame.

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Salad days

The Burmese have a special skill for taking just about any ingredient and turning it into a delectable salad. Tealeaf, avocado, ginger, lemon, pennywort, eggplant, tomato – the list goes on.

The basic ingredients remain more or less the same – the key ingredient, with crushed peanuts, roasted sesame, finely chopped onion, garlic, coriander, tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon. But each salad somehow manages to taste distinctly different.

The undisputed star among these is the fermented tealeaf salad (lahpet thok) – slightly tart and tangy with a distinct crunch, the Burmese love this and eat it at all times, including with meals and as snacks, with the crunchy bits served up separately.

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The other must-trys are the pennywort salad (Myin Kwa Yuet Thote), the spicy ginger salad (Gyin Thote) and the Tohu Thote, which has the chickpea tohu in salad form.

Main course

This area is where the culinary influences of neighbouring countries are most strongly felt.

There are a variety of vegetable curries available, including usual suspects like basic green and red curries Thai-style, Indonesian masamman curry and the more unusual ones like tamarind leaf curry.

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While these are typically served with white rice, there is also the choice of vegetable fried rice with tofu or tossed noodles.

Street food

Typical street food in Myanmar is fried and spicy, very Indian in nature: from masala dosa to samosa and bhajiya, these are to be found everywhere, and are considered Burmese.

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There are also street vendors who specialise in a particular form of dessert – definitely try the deep fried dough sweet (paleada / palata – a corruption of paratha), sprinkled with sugar, or topped with banana slices, the banana cake (napyo bao) and sticky rice ball with coconut (kauk nyinhtuh).

In general though, Burmese sweets are likely to feel too bland to Indian palates, used to the stinging sweetness of laddu and jalebi.

For those looking for a more wholesome al fresco meal, there is the Vegetable Hotpot (Myae Oh Myi Shae), available almost through the day, especially in Yangon.

Street food in the country is almost always hot and fresh, and therefore safe; follow your nose to the ones with the most locals crowding the plastic tables.

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This story was published in Conde Nast Traveller as A Vegetarian’s Guide to Myanmar – read it online for suggestions on where to eat in each major Burmese city.

Rush hour on Inle Lake

We all live in cities where we experience rush hour traffic every day – sometimes right through the day. But that is on the roads. What about rush hour traffic on the water?

So, there we were, floating peacefully on Inle Lake, after visits to a monastery complex, a silk weaving centre and a floating village, among other things (more on this in detail later). Since everything was on the water, all travel there was carried on in boats – imagine dropping by for tea at a neighbour’s house on a boat!

We had just finished lunch and were slowly beginning the return journey to the village of Nyaung Shwe, where we were based. Life was still at that time of the day, just a few fishermen desultorily trying their luck on the water, a few “gardeners” on their boats tending to the floating gardens and some boat traffic between homes.

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All of a sudden, there was a buzz on the calm waters, dozens of boats began to appear, and the air was filled with the chatter of children. A primary school – again rooted on the floating village by strong bamboo poles – had just got over for the day and mothers had come in their boats to take their children and the scene was one of complete chaos. And as with any typical end of school day, the kids could not wait to rush back home and perhaps begin playing with their friends.

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Rush

So there were the boats criss-crossing across this narrow stretch of the lake, mothers trying to identify their children and get them on to the boats quickly. It was a scene resembling a mini traffic jam, only without any honking or cursing. Several mothers had also opted to take in other children – what we ended up calling “boat pooling” – and that was the scene was enjoyed for a full ten minutes, children sitting in a quiet orderly line on each of the boats, eager expressions on their faces, ready to begin the evening’s fun.

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Boat

This was my most memorable experience from that entire day of exploring Inle Lake, and probably one of my favourite quirky travel moments.

Do you have any such unusual moments to share – please leave a comment on it.

First impressions of Myanmar

I’ve just got back from a spectacular week of travel in Myanmar, my first time in that country, although I have been dreaming about it for years now. Myanmar is still untouched as far as tourist hordes go and there is a lot of uncertainty, misinformation about travel to that country. I found my own experience smooth and hassle-free throughout and here are my first impressions about the country:

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1. Myanmar is by and large a peaceful country, and there is no cause for worry for travellers, although the military is still officially in power. That is set to change soon, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party forming government in April. There is a sense of optimism everywhere, and people seem hopeful of better things for their country.

2. The big package tour groups and backpacking hordes have not made Myanmar a stop in their travel itineraries yet, but that is only a matter of time. Go now, when the country is still fairly untouristy and innocent (and that also means no touts and beggars) – these days will not last long. I went there in the peak tourist season of January but was not overwhelmed by crowds anywhere, including the big tourist sites (compared to say, an Angkor Wat).

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3. One of the best things about Myanmar is its friendly people – they are a shy lot and prefer to keep to themselves but the minute you greet the them with Minaglaba!, they break into a broad and welcoming smile.

4. English is still not spoken everywhere freely but you should be able to get by in major tourist areas and in restaurants / hotels without a problem.

5. One of the first things that struck me in Yangon was how orderly the traffic was – absolutely no honking, no lane cutting, no rash driving – very unusual for a south Asian country! It is not so in other places, but by and large, there are no traffic pile ups or unruliness.

6. The best way to get around the country is by domestic flights – expensive but the quickest option. Roads connecting towns are not in the best condition and most trips take between 8-10 hours. Railways are equally slow, in some cases, even slower than buses. And there is no concept of self drive cars and in places like Bagan, you cannot even hire a motorbike (only ebikes are allowed).

7. Almost everyone wears the traditional sarong longyi (pronounced lonji) – the longyis for men are drab and devoid of any character while the women wear theirs like wraparound skirts, with pretty, matching blouses. Teenagers, especially boys, are slowly discovering jeans and coloured hair but in general, the attire is longyi with thanakha paste applied on the face to keep the skin cool and tan-free.

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8. Although we were warned that there were no ATMs in the country, we found them almost everywhere, especially in crowded tourist spots and inside premium hotels and shopping malls (it is another matter altogether that many of these ATMs were out of order but we always managed to find another nearby). Credit cards and debit cards are still not widely accepted except in some luxury hotels, so it is best to carry cash, either in kyat (pronounced chaat) or in crisp, new US dollars (soiled, folded, torn notes are rejected straightaway).

9. We had anticipated difficulty in finding vegetarian food in Myanmar but to our utter surprise and delight, there were a variety of options (more on this in a detailed post soon). From soups to salads and noodles and fried rice, we ate to our heart’s fill at each meal.

10. The idea way to travel around a country is obviously to take it slow and linger where you like, but in practical terms, that is possible only for a lucky few. Myanmar has several significant sites but the unmissable ones are Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay – budget to spend atleast two days in each place and you can make yourself a decent itinerary in 7-8 days.

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