I grew up on crossover foods in the US; that means the American version of only the most famous dishes from each region. That’s well and fine for a sample and an “exotic” dinner when my taste-buds are bored back home, but the real thing is so very, very different once I ventured out on my travels. I have found this is the case with Thai food, as well as the Middle Eastern vegetarian foods I sampled throughout Jordan. The problem with this food pattern though, is that I was left completely unfamiliar with cuisines that never made the leap across the many oceans and seas. It wasn’t until I lived in Chiang Mai for about nine months out of the past year, that I happened upon Burmese food.
Once discovered, dishes and flavors from Burma have become a passion and my Burmese friends ensured I spent my time sampling delicious dishes, salads, and flavor combinations my palate had never considered. These same friends (pretty much the GotPassport family and local expats Bessie and Kyle from On Our Own Path) prepped me with advice on ordering vegetarian food, what to eat, and how to find safe street eats for my travels earlier this year in Burma.
Actually eating vegetarian in Burma, though, was a bit trickier than sampling it in nearby Thailand because of language differences, sanitation standards, and regional variances.
My first three questions are always:
- Are there inherently vegetarian dishes in the national cuisine?
- Can I eat the fresh fruits and veggies without risking contamination from the water used to clean the food?
- Is vegetarianism understood and accepted?
We’ll cover the answer to each of these, as well as a thorough guide to vegetarian dishes, below.
Vegetarian Survival Guide to Burma (Myanmar)
Can I emphasize again how wonderful it was to sample the street food stalls throughout the country? The Burmese were friendly and fun throughout every meal, and Ana and I felt immersed in the culture packed into tiny stools, crouching and eating among the locals. This is where the conversations happened, we watched what other people ordered, flocked to the crowded places, and enjoyed the accidental orders when what we got didn’t measure up to what we expected (in fact, there are still at least three or four meals I ate for which I have no name, nor any idea how to re-order it!). Ana ate veg for a lot of our travels (by choice), but meat options abound. If you’re traveling Burma with a meat-eating friend, check out these three food guides: here, here and here.
In this guide, we’ll cover all the major areas of Burmese cuisine I managed to hunt down and find while I traveled in the country. As well as how to say vegetarian and some quick tips to familiarize with the food culture in Burma.
For the food lists, you can quickly jump to any of the sections:
Wondering how to say vegetarian in Burmese?
Thut thut luh.
Or, for another phonetic writing of it: thouq thouq lo. And some say this is closer “theq theq lo.”
The guidebook used another long-winded expression for vegetarian (something for “I cannot eat meat), but “thut thut luh” translates as “lifeless,” and when used with food it is immediately understood with absolute clarity and applies to all meat. It’s easy to say, but hard to put the sounds into the Roman alphabet, so have your first guesthouse teach you once you arrive. Note that I never got served meat when I said it, and even in this list of dishes, always order the dish, then specify “thut thut luh” to make sure that they do not add in fish sauce, shrimp paste, etc. This is not a guarantee on the shrimp paste/fish sauce, it really can depend on how well the cook understands Western vegetarianism. I will say this, I never tasted it in the dish, so if it was there it was very light…my philosophy is to do the best I can, but not to ruin my travel experience by refusing to eat foods that could have traces of fish products since it is SO prevalent in Asia.
The Simple Rules
Before we get to the photo breakdown and descriptions of delicious vegetarian Burmese eats, here are some things you should know before you go for any travelers in Burma, not just vegetarians!
- Breakfast and lunch are the bigger meals of the day; follow the local custom and eat food earlier in the day, when it’s freshest.
- Hot, fresh street food is safest (even better if it has a long queue!).
- Tap water is not safe, but the large jugs of water in front of many businesses are a unique Burmese kindness and are safe, free, and encouraged if you need a glass; they place the water curbside to help people stay hydrated in the often extreme heat!
- State your case upfront about being vegetarian, they will smile, laugh and easily acquiesce once they understand.
- Rice is the base of most/many meals. Except for in the case of soups, you’ll be served rice with almost every meal.
- Venture our for breakfast. Nearly every guesthouse serves a boring egg and white bread breakfast, the locals are eating a lot better than that if you venture to the street stalls!
- The tea on your table is free. It’s usually a fairly bland/weak Chinese tea and it’s a safe way to hydrate since it’s served hot and sealed inside the tea canisters (be sure your cup is dry though when you start pour it though).
We’re ready to get started with the food! As a disclaimer, I’m not Burmese, so these descriptions and dishes are given to the best of my ability! Once you’re there you can sample and discover many I no-doubt missed on my trip. And, if I got it wrong, or you have an amendment to what I said, let me know so I can fix it!
It’s Always Soup-O’Clock
Soup is a wonderful and usually very safe meal throughout Asia because they boil all of the ingredients just before serving the soup piping hot. If your soup is luke-warm, particularly if you are eating at an off time of the day, consider a pass (but pay for it if it’s at your table) and find a boiling-hot soup option.
Shan Tofu Soup (Tohu nuway)
I listed this dish first for a reason, I have a full-on obsession with shan tofu soup. The name is a bit misleading, because although it is made with tofu from the Shan region of Burma, the tofu is actually the thick, yellow ingredient in this dish. Ground yellow peas (or chickpeas) are ground and kept liquidy and warm throughout the day. When ordered, they flash boil thin noodles, add the liquid tohu and top with the cooks favorite toppings, including: smashed nuts, sesame seeds, parsley, cabbage, and a huge dose of ground, crunchy chili paste (unless you ask for it not spicy, then it will still come with chili, just not as much :) I love this dish so much I took several visiting travelers to taste it at the Friday morning market in Chiang Mai (I’m looking at you Christine!)
Fish soup (Mohinga)
(Flavorful but only for pescetarians…which I am not, but I tasted it anyway!)
I consider myself a flexitarian, so I sampled this soup several times throughout Burma from my niece’s dish. Though it’s a common breakfast food, we also ate it all throughout the day at bus stop food stalls. It’s not much to look at, but it is full of flavor and spices. It’s also a great warming dish if you’re traveling up in the cooler north!
Mild Tomato Noodle Soup (Shan Khao Sw, Kau Suetho, or something close)
Noodles, basic tomato paste, some crunchy fried beans fritters, and hot broth made this Ana’s favorite breakfast. We ate this daily in Hpa-an. At its most basic, it’s tomato sauce and pork, so make sure you order it “thut thut luh” to get a vegetarian version! It’s often a bit drier when ordered elsewhere in Burma, and tastes different once again when ordered in Shan State, but the beaming vendor next door to the Soe Brother’s Guesthouse in Hpa-an sold us on this delicious dish for breakfast; I think his conversation and tips went just as far as the soup in starting our day out on the right foot!
Where: Small restaurant with chairs on the street-side counter that is just next door to the Soe Brothers’ Guesthouse in Hpa-An (which is where you should stay if you visit!).
Vegetable Hotpot (Myae Oh Myi Shae)
Hotpot food stalls lined the streets of Yangon in particular, so when we were hungry we would simply walk up to these, point at the delicious veggies and spices, say “thut thut luh,” then they served a tasty steaming hot bowl of tofu, noodles, and fresh vegetables. Expat Kyle noted that: “Myae Oh” is the clay pot and “Myi Shae” is the name of the curry/sauce. And a Burmese reader emailed in to tell me that this is a popular Chinese-inspired street food dish.
Where: All over the streets of Yangon we found long tables with a family working the small fires with bubbling bowls of hot soup and vegetable.
You’ve Never Tasted Salads Like This Before
This is the part of Burmese cuisine that delights me the most. The flavors in Burmese salads are quite unlike the lettuce/leafy salads common in the west. Instead, these salads blend a range of veggies, nuts, and flavors. Combine unique textures. And then hold it all together with oils, tamarind juice, lime, fried garlic, and nutty dressings. Food handling standards are still questionable at times, so this is where it gets trickier to eat safely (since locals may wash fresh veggies in local tap water, or mix the dish with bare hands on the streets). I paid attention to where locals ate, mostly chose salads when at restaurants, and generally lucked out with no one in our group getting massively ill even once). Note that the Burmese word for salad is something along the lines of: thote, thoke, or thouq when written in the Roman alphabet.
Tea Leaf Salad (Lephet Thote)
This is a top five favorite for me and for good reason–it’s spectacular. The base of the dish is fermented tea leaves, which are a very, very strong and unfamiliar flavor at first. But local cooks mild the flavors in the with the addition of nuts, cabbage, tomato, oils, and various other bits and bots (mung beans, ginger, sesame, bean sprouts, and green tomatoes, among other things, have been known to make an appearance in various iterations of this dish. If there is a cross-over item that you may have sampled from Burmese cuisine, it’s probably this one! Of note is the fact that tea leaves are very high in caffeine, so choose wisely the time of day you consume it! Also, if you want to try it at home, I found a great recipe online.
Where: All over the country, try it at restaurants and if it’s not on the menu, simply ask because there’s a good chance that it’s on the Burmese version of the menu. :-)
Pennyworth Salad (Myin Kwa Yuet Thote)
Tart and delicious, my palate delighted at the new combination of flavors in Pennyworth salad. The dish combines the bright green pennywort plant, lime, toasted sesame, turmeric oil, garlic, tomato…the list goes on, once again, according to local flavor preference. This is a favorite of mine–please seek it out and give it a taste. If you haven’t tried pennywort before (and I certainly hadn’t thought it any more than a weed in my garden) then you owe yourself a taste!
Shan Tofu Salad (Tohu Thote)
Think of this as an inverted tohu nway Shan soup. It’s the same yellow tofu, but instead of liquid and soupy, the tofu sets firm, and is then sliced and garnished with cabbage, spicy chili paste, pickled veggies, and nuts/seeds/parsley. Really anything the local cook prefers is an accent flavor.
A Burmese reader emailed into give this context to the dish: “In Shan state, shan khao swe and tofu nway are usually eaten in the morning as breakfast. Tofu thote is eaten around noon, but only as snack, not as lunch. Even though I grew up in Shan state, I’m still amazed by how Shan people prepared their meals. They use some unknown leaves from big trees.”
Where: Inle Lake is the Shan region of Burma so this is where you can most easily find the dish. Ana and I also hunted down several Shan restaurants near the ET Hotel in Mandalay.
Ginger Salad (Gyin Thote)
A tasty treat, but not one for which I have a photo. Imagine it much like the rest of the salads in Burma, it’s shredded ginger and the ingredients added to it depend on the region and your cook’s taste-buds! If you’re keen to try this one at home, here’s a tasty sounding Burmese ginger salad recipe.
Tomato Salad (Karyanchintheet Thote)
I have a love affair with tomatoes, it goes back about a decade (before that we were fierce enemies) and now we’ll never part ways. For that reason, I adore this Burmese salad. It usually consists of tomatoes, onions, crunchy peanuts, sesame, and oily dressing of some sort. And that’s it. It’s so good with a bowlful of rice and worked well as a compliment to many of the warm foods I tried.
Seaweed Salad (Japwint Thote)
This was, admittedly, not my favorite. Though I was on the fence when I first tried it, by the end of my time in Burma I appreciated the tart, tangy salad as a compliment to the rest of my food. Give it a try, since it’s a favorite of my friend. I’m told it’s trickier to find, but we sampled this throughout central Burma, in Bagan and Inle Lake.
Fermented Bean Paste (Pone Yay Gyi)
Pone Yay Gyi is a bit regional. You can definitely find this dish in the Bagan area. It’s a thick, salty dish made from fermented soy beans usually. It’s a delicious condiment to sample with other dishes, or mix into your rice for an extra jolt of flavor.
Dinner Delights and an International Influence
Burma is blessed with a huge range of cultural influences based on its history and location. The Chinese influence is strong in the northern border regions, and many dishes and customs flowed into the rest of Burma. This is the case with Indian food and culture as well. Yangon is a haven for Indian food lovers, Mandalay as well, and small restaurants and influences can even be found in small towns all over the country. Then, beyond these influences from other countries, Burma is home to a range of ethnic minority groups with their own customs, language, and foods. In short, this list of foods is so long because the country is rich with flavors and international cuisine influences.
Stir-fried Chinese Noodles
Pretty standard fare in the tourist spots, we ordered this as a good filler that was tasty, filled with veggies, and pleasing to both the kiddos (Ana and I traveled with mom and daughter GotPassport while we were in Bagan and Inle Lake).
Noodles, Made to Order with Wide Range of Ingredients
Noodles are a staple in the Myanmar diet, right under rice as the main source of food. The Burmese severed us boiled noodles, fried noodles, noodles in salads, noodles with crunchy toppings. In short, noodles abound and the toppings and varieties about. This one is particularly tasty with fried garlic, sesame, and other seasonings.
Street-Side Chapati and Dhal
I converted Ana to what I hope will be a lifetime affair with Indian food after our travels in Burma. Mandalay was the best spot for a our street-side chapati stands. For about 20 cents we were able to get one piping hot chapati and one small dish of Indian food; on offer were: curries, dhal, vegetable, and a potato dish. We’d pick out six and go to town enjoying the flavors and fresh chapati bread.
Where: No doubt the best stand we tasted was almost directly across from the ET Hotel (29A 83rd, Between 23-24) in Mandalay.
Indian Thali, Dosa, and Biryani
Indian restaurants and options abound throughout Burma and they have the wide range of typical fare. There were dozens of restaurants in Yangon and an unlimited vegetarian thali ran about US $2 most places, with veg biryani, restaurants, dosas, and just about anything you love available on the menu. We found the best Indian food in Yangon and Mandalay, which is really no surprise since these are the two major cities. And it works out since some of the major other tourists spots you’ll likely hit have other regional vegetarian delights.
Where: New Delhi Restaurant (262, Anawrahta St) in Yangon. Thinking we would outsmart the guidebook, we asked a lot of locals for the best Indian restaurant, and they all pointed to this touristy (but so cheap) hot-spot. Down about 10 doors is a fantastic biryani restaurant as well with vegetarian biryani (though they run out by mid-afternoon!).
Snacks, Fried Foods, and In-Between Meals
The Burmese like to snack from what I could tell! There was a huge range of deep-fried, pan-fried, and street-side snacks available all throughout the day. From the simple sweet or savory pancakes on the streets of Yangon, to the more complex flavors in samosas, we never lacked for food options.
Deep Fried Veggies and Beans
These deep-fried snacks were offered with nearly every meal and were frying on the side of the road throughout the evening. The bean ones were my favorites actually, and look out for deep-fried yellow tofu at the same stalls, it abounds throughout Burma!
Fried Dough Sweet or Savory (Paleada/Palata/Parata)
Stands serving these have a range of options and pointing can work well. This is an Indian-inspired dish that resembles the roti stands evidenced throughout other places in Southeast Asia, but has more options. Ana and her friend M campaigned for one of these sweet treats each night, and though not the healthiest dessert on the planet, we loaded our dessert with bananas and everyone in the group enjoyed a few slices. The savory one, “Beq palata” stuffed with beans and fried up was a tasty dinner and makes a good option for any picky eaters (which we weren’t but Ana wanted a change-up from the soups and salads one night!). Note that you can also order “jet oo palata” (eggs with palata) and “[name of any ingredient] parata” according to Expat Kyle! :)
Where: The night market in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) had a wonderful stand, fast service and all the Shan soup stands are just next door! These are also served at most tea shops if you ask!
Beans and Red Rice (Kauk Nyin Paung)
I doubt I ever would have found this simple breakfast dish if A wasn’t with me. She was served Kauk Nyin Paung for breakfast one day, while Ana and I were served yet another helping of eggs. Her’s looked a lot tastier, so from that point on, when possible, we opted for this dish! And as a bonus, A spotted a vendor from our early morning bus too; once we knew the dish was out there, we were able to pay closer attention and find it on our own!
A Burmese reader emailed in to tell me: “Beans and black Rice (Kauk Nyin Paung) is eaten as breakfast in Shan state. People in Mandalay also eats this in morning. It is usually steamed with a special cooker in Shan state, while the Bamar people seem to cook it just like the normal rice. Steamed glutinous black rice has firmer texture, while the cooked one is soft. Shan people would consider the soft one not good, me too. Kauk Nyin Paung can be prepared with white glutinous rice too.”
Tea Leaf Salad (Lephet Thote)
Not to be confused with the actual salad that comes out mixed together, this one has just three ingredients and is served as a snack/dessert, rather than a full part of the meal. The fermented tea leaves are very tart and strong, so mix to taste with the other ingredients when it’s served to you this way!
These very, very sour plums bake out in the sun and heat, so opt for them early in the day if you’re keen to sample. The flavor is a bit more potent than I can handle, but they’re quite popular with the locals!
Fried Other Things
Indian samosas abound in Yangon. Deep fried donut-sticks were particularly easy to hunt down in Mandalay, and basically, when the craving for deep-fried struck, there were no shortage of offerings on the streets in the big cities.
Sweet and Tasty Treats
My wicked sweet tooth was beyond happy with the quick sweet options. I love portion control and that was easy in Burma since they opt for a small bite of jaggery candy, or a bowl of sweet jelly rather than a huge piece of pie/cake/ice cream like we would in the west! And when all else fails, find the fruit!
Sugarcane and Jaggery Candies Chunks
Where can you find these treats? Look for roadside stands and little jars on your table with light brown solid chunks. Then sample away, like the Chinese tea, they’re free if they’re on the table! Also, I found a home compound making the sweet sugarcane treats outside of Inle Lake, so keep your eyes on the lookout!
Sugarcane Juice with Lime
Sugarcane juice is available all over the streets of Burma. The vendor feeds sugarcane stalks through the juicing contraption, and Burma’s version of the juice comes with a generous squeeze of lime! Be warned though, this is a street treat, so avoid the ice and choose a vendor with a generally clean machine and stall!
Jellied Sweets and Coconut Milk
I’m a big fan of dessert but I steer well clear of all jellied desserts for some reason. They’re quite popular all over Southeast Asia, often served chopped, shredded, or cubed and with ice, coconut milk, tapioca, or a variety of other sweet concoctions. You don’t lack on options if you like this type of dessert!
Like most of Southeast Asia, Burma has a huge supply of fresh fruit on every corner and it’s the healthiest way to end a meal. Ana and I stocked up on bananas and clementines before a bus ride and snacked on yellow watermelon for a fun spin on a familiar treat! Fresh avocado is also fantastic in the Inle Lake region.
An Ending Note on Burma’s Vegetarian and Food Tips
To use a trite expression, I could wax poetic all day about the delicious food I ate in Burma. Thank you to the mom GotPassport (and her cooking recipe site) for her tips, advice, and guidance before, and on the ground throughout my trip to Burma with my niece. Without her translating and introducing me to some of these dishes, I would have blindly passed through regions of Burma oblivious to some of the local flavors, foods, and customs.
Being vegetarian means that I am sometimes much more conservative on my food choices than meat eaters, out of fear mostly. But that’s silly to some extent. Yes, there is sometimes a huge language gap in Myanmar. That gap is sometimes scary, but once I was armed with my term “thut thut luh” I felt pretty confident to tackle the menu with a bit more gusto than I might usually. And it paid off.
Enjoy the dishes, and let me know what I missed so I can keep a running tally of the foods I still need to try! (And so others can try them too). If I got something wrong, please let me know and I’ll make the corrections.
Now it’s your turn, that was a pretty exhaustive list, which one looks most interesting/tasty/unique to your visual taste-buds?