The clichéd “absence makes the heart grow fonder” mantra popped into my head this week when I thought back on my months in Mexico earlier this year. I have clocked one entire month living stateside, enough time to start the stir-crazy feelings as I dream of my cute little single-speed bicycle in San Pancho and the evenings on the beach. Then I kick myself, remember to stay present and grateful, and I head out for dinner-dates with friends and movie-dates with my nephews—were in stitches for two hours during Despicable Me 2.
So, though there are moments when travel pangs hit me, this November marks the end of my fifth year of long-term travel and these handful of months I spend at home each summer have taken on a rhythm I like. And more than like, they leave me with a profound sense of gratitude that I am able to so freely move between the worlds of long-term travel and home. As I noted in past recipe posts (which are also becoming my more stream of conscious update-y posts even though that was not the original plan), a goal throughout 2013 is to focus on fusing the foods and flavors I experienced on the road over the years and combine them into simple recipes that channel the flavors, while also simplifying and healthifying (totally a word, I swear) the recipes.
Which brings me to this week’s recipe. Keeping with last month’s theme, I offer up another black bean recipe. My reasoning is two-fold, it’s sometimes hard to find ways to add beans into more traditionally American meals (even I don’t know what I mean by that … mac and cheese, hot dogs?), and because if you made the sweet potato tacos then you may have a surplus of beans and this is pretty much the best lunch option ever. It’s easy and quick as a lunch option, and really the entire point for sharing this recipe is to share my favorite cooking find—garlic toasted tortillas.
You see, my favorite taco shop in San Pancho had the most delicious tacos in town and I just couldn’t figure out why the outside of the tacos tasted so good. I asked Jerry for his secret, and though they do not specifically add the garlic/butter combo I recommend in this recipe, I surmised that the grill took on a very strong, baked-in garlic flavor by my evening visits. Fair warning, you may never go back to the more traditional version of slightly warmed, soft tortilla dishes.
Lunchtime Bean and Pepper Quesadillas
This is a quick prep and can be done in just 15 minutes if you’re a quick chopper of vegetables. It also has the added benefit of create your own toppings if you’re keen for that too. While it’s always a good time for guacamole, I opted for a simple mashed avocado, sour cream, and tomatoes on this one. This dish would feed two people (I ate mine in taco form later that night). My favorite part is the garlic buttery outside, it makes the flavor pop, so don’t skip that! And if you’re up for a more complicated garlic butter, this woman describes the process here.
1 stack of tortillas Olive oil or butter 1/2 can of beans (drained and rinsed) 1/2 white onion (diced into large chunks) 1 bell pepper (bonus points for fun colors, diced into large chunks) 1/2 a serrano pepper 1 small clove of garlic (minced or pressed) a couple hunks of your cheese of choice (sliced thin or shredded) Finish with: sour cream, guacamole, diced tomatoes, or sliced lime.
Sauté onions and half the garlic on medium heat for 3-5 minutes in a with 2 tbs butter, then add the bell and serrano peppers; cook until the onions are caramelized and peppers are soft (another five minutes-ish). Add the black beans, stirring until they’re warm; then set skillet aside side. In a skillet (or griddle if you’re feeling fancy), add a good chunk of butter and the rest of the minced garlic and heat that mixture to on medium for two minutes. Add one tortilla and top with cheese, then scoop the filling onto the tortilla. Top with another tortilla and cover, cooking on medium for 3 minutes and then flip it over. Remove when both sides of the quesadilla are crispy, golden brown from the oil/garlic combo. Slice it up, add toppings to taste and serve with a lime slice.
Soon I’ll post a recipe for the swoon-worthy plantains I ate in Panama. My friends here at home are pretty adventurous, so I promised them a mixed-bag dinner of flavors I’ve been jonesing for of late. :)
Fusion foods are the new “it” thing in my life. A travel purist approach would be to make recipes of my favorite dishes from actually traveling in these places. And sometimes that’s the case, but there are other times when the fusion of flavors I love from other places need to meet my current cravings. And in honesty, if you take a sifter to the various reasons I found myself completely unable to gather the will to cook true Mexican, left in your sifter is this fact: for the love of all things tasty, please no more cheese.
That’s a phrase I never thought would utter from my lips because I whine so much about the lack of cheese when I travel in Asia. But—and it’s a big but—the default food for a vegetarian in Mexico is a cheese quesadilla. If you’re lucky they have a toppings bar with salsas and beans, if the gods have seen fit to shine their light down upon you, your quesadilla might come out with mushrooms too as a little extra umph. But at the end of the day, it’s really just cheese and tortilla.
There are other Mexican dishes happily made vegetarian if you’re in the right spot, especially in the big cities like Mexico City and even nearby Puerto Vallarta. In a small town however, it’s a rather limited choice of restaurants. Compounding the issue, in my last weeks living in San Pancho, Mexico the entire town seemingly evacuated, expats and Mexicans alike. High season on the coast is November through April when the weather is dry and cool and the small towns dotting the coastline near Puerto Vallarta hum with activity. All the restaurants are open and Mexican families drive to the coast for days and weeks at a time to sell their foods and handicrafts to the tourists. And the lure though, is that throughout high season the town retains its Cheers-like setting “where everybody knows your name.”
Things change abruptly come May. I waxed poetic about the slow, friendly pace of life in my little town, but by the beginning of off-season in small-town Mexico tumbleweed drifts lethargic down the streets like an under-budget Western. Restaurants shutter their windows for the summer, and though everyone still knew my name, this vegetarian traveler found herself facing the choice between yet another quesadilla, or instead trying out fusion dishes that would bring together flavors from the vegetable market, the ever-present cans of frijoles negros, and the Mexican staples I already had on my shelves.
And thus you have this weeks recipe inspired by Mexico, but not something you’re likely to find while traveling there (but easy enough to cook in a hostel kitchen).
Simple Sweet Potato and Black Bean Tacos
After Pintersting for ideas and looking at the Mexican staples in my kitchen, I decided to combine the sweet potato and black bean as a way to add healthy elements to the dish since the Mexican vegetarian tacos are often boring. I also had some gorgeous blue tortillas left over, so I used those. This dish made a quick dinner and took about 20 minutes to prepare start to finish and all cooks in one pan. Of note is that when I made leftovers the next day, I paired it with the guacamole recipe from last month (which was a Pinterest sensation) and it gave the left-overs a nice oomph.
1 stack of tortillas 2 medium-large sweet potatoes (scrubbed and cubed) 1/2 can whole black beans (drained and rinsed) 2 tbs olive oil (butter will work too, though not as healthy) 1 red or white onion (diced) 1 large clove of garlic (minced) 1 tbs seasoning (cumin or chili) Finish with: sour cream, parsley, sliced lime, spicy pico de gallo, avocado (or guacamole).
Sauté the onions and garlic for roughly five minutes on medium heat until the onions go opaque and fragrant. Add to the pan the sweet potatoes and seasoning, as well as several tbs of water, and cover. Cook the sweet potatoes over medium heat until they are tender when poked with a fork. Add the black beans, stirring until they’re warm. Heat tortillas, then assemble, and add toppings to taste. Serve with a lime slice.
This is a simple one that’s easy to double for bigger families, or make as a solo traveler in a guesthouse (I made it again in Costa Rica while waiting for my dad and Ana to arrive!).
For the past four months, I have lived in San Pancho, Mexico in a studio apartment that, while small, has a stove-top, pots and pans, and the ability to cook. After four-and-a-half years on the road, this is the first time I’ve slowed down enough to shop at the local markets and then bring those flavors home. With a full kitchen, I’m using local vegetables and spices to recreate my favorite traditional dishes. Naturally, I started with a dish that seems crazy simple on the surface, but it offers a lot of nuance when you dive into the recipes: guacamole.
When I lived in Southeast Asia, I ate out for every meal. While street food is both cheap and delicious, it’s difficult to gain insight into how a nation combines flavors to create distinct cuisine. Cuisines around the world combine the same basic flavors in a different way to create a flavor profile unique to a country, culture, or region. For this reason, I take cooking classes in every country as I journey around the world. My mini cookbook collection has flavors from Thailand, dishes from Laos, Tibetan momos from Nepal, and sumac-flavored Jordanian salads. It’s a grand thing to take the class, but then to also adapt those dishes to your own palate and tastes. For Mexico, I have various cookbooks for vegetarians, but now that I’m in the country, it’s time to test out recipes and learn more about how Mexican flavors work within the country’s most popular dishes.
I’m dedicating my time in Mexico to learning the flavors of Mexican foods. This current cooking obsession is in self-defense too, because there are few vegetarian options in my small town. There are only so many cheese quesadillas a girl can eat.
Instead, I hunt down the ingredients at my local vegetable stand and markets. Then, I use these base ingredients to create vegetarian versions of the enchiladas, soups, and tacos everyone else enjoys.
Traveling vegetarians have a hard time finding healthy, balanced meals, so with the time and kitchen space here in Mexico these past months I decided to give it a go on the simple dishes. I look to the markets and restaurants to find food that is 1) simple enough to cook even in a hostel kitchen and 2) relatively healthy and 3) tasty enough to prepare for friends and family back home.
Added to that, if you know me well then you know I can rant for hours about food quality and the evolution of our food industries. Yet, I only occasionally talk about food here on ALA, even though acquiring food thrice times daily is a huge part of the traveling experience.
So let’s talk food, specifically, guacamole.
Guacamole is a dish that gives full focus to a fruit I love and eat in some form nearly every day: the humble avocado. I have an ongoing love affair avocados these days (and a Pinterest board dedicated to the food). In Mexico, avocados are affordable and they work as an amazing addition to most anything in life. A medium ripe avocado in Mexico runs about 5 pesos, or rather 40 cents. The woman next door is an avocado whisperer. She runs a vegetable shop, so I tell her what I want an avocado for—smoothie, guacamole, or sliced on the side—and she digs through the stack to find one perfect for that task. This translates into just overripe for the smoothie, under-ripe for the side slices, and perfectly ripe for guacamole.
Creating the perfect guacamole is one of the first tasks I assigned myself when I rented my apartment earlier this year. I live next door to the best produce shop in town, it’s just a few shops down from the tortilleria. I have fresh chips and ingredients nearby, so creating the perfect guacamole recipe was my new mission. I asked others, I tested other recipes online, and after months I have concluded that these two recipes take care of every potential guacamole need.
How to Make the Perfect Party Guacamole
My friend Guy is a talented filmmaker at Planetary Collective. He lived in San Pancho for a couple of months while their team finished editing the trailer for their beautiful documentary about the story of our interconnection with each other, the planet, and the universe. In my murmurings about guacamole, Guy announced that he had created the best guacamole recipe known to man, and since that’s a challenge I am willing to test people on, I asked him to make it!
Guy hosted a Mexican night complete with elotes, fish tacos (for the carnivores), and his famous guacamole. After trying it, I had to agree with him, it was incredible—creamy with a strong kick and a light smoky flavor. And while delicious, there is no way I could eat the entire bowl because it burns after too long (in such a good way). I conceded to him that this combination was pretty close to the holy grail of guacamole. This is now my go-to as a taco topper or party dip. It’s just spicy enough that no one at a party will hog the guacamole, but all will sing its praises. :) Guy graciously shared his carefully honed recipe.
Ultimate Party Guacamole Recipe
3 avocados 5 cherry tomatoes 1/2 red onion (finely chopped) 2 medium chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (de-seeded and minced) 1 serrano or jalapeño peppers (de-seeded and minced) 1 bunch of cilantro (de-stalked and chopped) 1 lime (juiced) 2 tbsp agave syrup salt and pepper to taste
If you’re in a place with iffy water, soak the tomatoes, cilantro, and peppers in a disinfecting solution. Mash the avocado until creamy, add the rest of rest of the very finely chopped ingredients; top with a pretty tomato sprinkling.
How to Make a Quick, Everyday Guacamole
This second one is mine and is super simple—only a tad spicy, it’s chunkier, limier, and a go-to quick fix hearty enough to make a lunch for one. I make this twice a week as a meal.
Here in Mexico, the local guacamole has far more lime (and chili) than most versions back home. Many of them are also served as a liquid, not that scoopable guacamole we think of at the local Mexican restaurant. For that reason, I emphasize that this is my version of a lunch guacamole, which acts more like a salad guac than a traditional guac. There is a taco-stand avocado salsa here as well. It’s a completely different texture—liquid and meant for spooning onto tacos — and isn’t intended as a chip dip. This is a good recipe for authentic, liquid taco-stand guacamole. And to understand the range of spiciness, this article elaborates on the differences between habanero, serrano, and jalepeño peppers. Flavor-wise I generally prefer serrano, but all would taste good here.
Ultimate Everyday Guacamole Recipe
2 medium avocados (I use the small, Mexican avocados) 1 medium vine-ripe tomato (diced) 1/3 red onion (diced) 1 small garlic clove (minced) 2 limes (juiced, or replace one lime with 1/2 tsp of lime zest if you really want to kick it up a notch) 1 or 2 serrano peppers (de-seeded and minced) cumin and salt to taste
Cube and lightly mash the avocado with a fork, you want it still pretty fairly chunky, then simply add in the rest. Some people add mayonnaise, crema, or sour cream to their guacamole. Any of these additions are delicious, if less healthy. They will also change the color of the guacamole, and they make it creamier, with a smoother flavor.
Additional Guacamole Resources
If you’re an avocado lover like me, then you might want to check out these cookbooks and avocado tools.
Absolutely Avocados: This amazing cookbook has guacamole recipes from all over the world and integrating spice profiles from a range of diverse cultures. You will never get bored making guacamole when you can just page through and find a new take on a well-loved dish. Best yet, most of the recipes are pretty easy and don’t include too many crazy ingredients, so it’s truly easy to use on a whim.
Taco! Taco! Taco!: The Ultimate Taco Cookbook: Three exclamation points is about how enthusiastic I am about tacos, and this cookbook is a good start for anyone trying their hand at homemade tortillas and creative taco fillings. (And since Mexican food is not vegetarian-friendly, vegans should look to Vegan Mexico for great recipes with that zingy combination of flavors unique to Mexico).
Extra tools: Neither of these are necessary, but I use a Mexican molcajete when I prepare my guacamole, and back home I have an avocado slicer, which saves a good deal of time if you are preparing avocados often!
Last weekend, I had one of types of experiences that keeps me traveling all these years. And there are elements of it that won’t convey well as I share the hour I spent with a taco stand family from the interior of Mexico, but its the pieces of their story, the new information about their culture that gave me an unexpected window into the lives of the people who surround me each day.
Though it started as just lunch, the fun that my open, earnest questions brought to the encounter reminded me that curiosity—the need to find out more, find out why, how, and the story behind something—is a central part of the travel experience and can transform a place and a people.
When I sat down at a pop-up-taco stand across the street from my apartment, I was mostly leading with one thought: “feed.me.now .”
Minutes later, with a cold agua fresca de jamaica and a potato, mushroom, and cheese taco taking away my single-minded focus on obtaining food, I pull out of my self-focus and strike up a conversation with the grandmother who was peering at me with open curiosity and a glint of humor as I ungracefully tackled my taco (it was not pretty: sauce dripping down my arm, chunks plopping onto my plate, and me attacking my food like a half-starved dog).
This taco stand was new; in fact I had only seen it open for the past two days, taking up the corner outside of a dusty, unused storefront that hadn’t seen love in a good decade. San Pancho is tiny town and the arrival of new food sources is not to be taken lightly. Putting my mediocre Spanish to use, I began to ask questions. The first thing I had noticed before dispatching with my lunch was the blue corn tortilla—so pretty and the only place in town serving them. So I asked the grandma where they source their corn.
Turns out, the taco stand was only in town for three days and the family is from the deep interior of Mexico but came to San Pancho, a beach town, for the long weekend and to perhaps make some money since the tourist trail is thinner in other regions of Mexico. As we talked more, the daughter chimed in as she continued to pat, press, and fry fresh blue tortillas. The corn came from their own fields and this is really the only type of tortilla they ever eat as a result.
We talked more and I made my way over to her prep table, pointing at things and questioning her about their use. When she could tell I was genuinely interested in the process (I think my request to paparazzi her as she molded the pale blue dough tipped her off), her entire demeanor opened up and she shifted her task from making tortillas to instead walking me through the process of making tortillas.
There is a tortilleria here in town with a huge machine capable of processing hundreds of plain white corn tortillas, but it was her handmade process that fascinated me: the milky blue dough that transforms into a dark navy disk as it fries on the grill.
The street stand was empty of others, so the daughter walked me through the process for fresh corn tortillas, even pulling her son into the mix.
The process for making corn dough, or rather masa de maíz, has not changed since ancient times, and is quite simple. The large, mottled blue and yellow corn kernels soak for a few hours in lime water, which loosens and softens the kernels. They are then fed through the grinder, turning them into a soft and mushy pile of dough that can be dried and stored, or used immediately exactly as is to make delicious, fresh corn tortilla rounds.
The son was thrilled to show me the process … do you see, do you see how thrilled he is?! As much as I joke, he was happier than he looks, each time I raised the camera he got serious and “official” looking.
He was a good teacher too, and even gently chastised me as I took a turn on the grinder. Apparently my grinding wasn’t steady enough and I was making the corn the wrong texture … the young boy’s assessment made his grandmother hoot with laughter. In fact, her guffaws were the backdrop for the entire lesson as she watched me photograph each part of the process. I no doubt looked a little silly to her since it’s as natural as breathing to this family, and even something as simple as turning a crank flummoxed the gringo. :)
The taco stand is a family affair and as more hungry people arrived, I contented to sit next to the grandmother once more and chat with her as they prepared a stack of fresh tortillas for me to take home. She was a funny lady and my only regret is that my questionable Spanish meant I only understood about 70% of her stories. But even though I tried to smile and nod through it, to piece together elements as best as possible, it was five minutes later that I realized she knew I wasn’t catching it all. (And here I thought myself a good actress!)
I bagged my hot tortillas, curiosity sated and feeling happy to have learned so much on what started as merely a quick run for lunch. Then grandma called me over for one last piece of advice. She said, “I’ll slow down now so you understand. You take these home and they will last one week. After a week, the ones that are left, you be a good girl and you fry them up. Not too hard for you to do I think? You just fry the old tortilla very crispy, then add-on some sour cream or avocado, and [insert yummy noises now].”
And with that advice, she shooed me away so she could help her daughter serve the newcomers.
And so, it is with that kitchen wisdom that I will now leave you as well since I think it’s pretty handy advice for the old tortillas that always end up sitting for months at the bottom of the fridge (you know you probably have some in there now, don’t deny it). It’s tasty and these served me as a yummy snack for several days in a row.
Living in Mexico these past months has meant a rekindled love affair with salsa, spicy food, and cheese. For all the reasons to love Southeast Asia, and there are many, while traveling the region I often missed the flavors and variety of cheeses I have long loved—travelers in Southeast Asia for any amount of time become painfully aware that it’s a cheese-less journey over there (in part because many in SEA are lactose intolerant, so they have no dairy culture). And so, with my decision to jump continents and live here in Mexico, I have also jumped tastes, flavors, and history too.
I traded the curries, soups, and noodles of Thailand for the tortillas, quesadillas, and tacos of Mexico. This new culture means a new history shaping the people I meet and the foods I eat each day. I live next door to the tortilleria in town, a friendly shop offering fresh corn tortillas and deep-fried chips; the soft tortillas are made fresh all day and waft scent through the streets as I pass on my bike.
I pass tortilleria every time I leave my apartment, and I glance in and give an easy wave and smile to the gruff (but sweet) man running the shop; and each time my thoughts move to the food history that makes that shop a cornerstone in this community. Tortillas are the foundation of nearly every dish I eat here, and the history of the corn tortilla dates back hundreds of years—corn itself as a cultivated crop dating back to 3000BC even.
But this daily bundle of joy that I hunt down all over town, the humble taco, must have its own a start point in history. I wanted to know why modern convenience hadn’t yet stomped out the fresh tortilla makers, and why it’s a fruitless journey to locate a crunchy taco shell even though I (and I suspect many of you too … unless it’s really just me …) associate crunchy shells and an almost-spicy cheese sauce with Mexican tacos.
The truth though, is that many of the modern ingredients associated with tacos: the lettuce, tomato, and beef, are thanks to that top US-based dining establishment known as Taco Bell. I kid you not, modern tortillas gained wide-spread favor outside of Mexico thanks to this fast-food chain. Much like the fusion Italian food and flavors into the US, when Mexican migrants came stateside in the early 1900s, they brought their foods, including the taco, but had to adapt to the ingredients available in the US markets and shops. And in an odd twist of fate, Mexican foods were considered a low-class until Glen Bell founded the fast-food chain, merged traditional flavors with the ingredients and foods accepted by mainstream America, and brought us the modern taco.
But one of the major changes? Since soft corn tortillas are meant to be served within hours of preparation, American fast food dictated that we fry them up so they can sit on a self for months and still taste good. I did a #facepalm when I read that bit.
And that would be why crunchy taco shells don’t pass as a blip on the radar here. Instead, just soft, fresh rounds of tortilla rolled into humble creations—the word taco referring to most anything rolled inside a tortilla (so they say, but yet we also have: enchiladas, chalupas, and quesadillas as distinctly different creations … but that is for another day).
Though it’s a Mexican street food, the taco is a source of pride for some vendors who deliver beautiful works of art to my table.
Truly gorgeous pieces of food that make me happy every time I decide to venture out for food instead of launching into a new cooking a new disaster; I’m determined to share some recipes in the coming weeks since I have a full kitchen here, so I have been testing out easy dishes in an effort not to be a kitchen klutz forever (if you’ve ever seen me dice an onion you know what true anxiety feels like).
However, until I find something I can successfully create, I head to the streets of San Pancho for fresh and pretty tacos from the restaurants and vendors.
Since I’m traveling solo, I have a lot of time to ponder the humble tacos placed before me, and I’ve spent long sessions with Le Google to find out more about when, how and why tortillas transitioned into handy vehicles for propelling veggies, salsa, and cheese (and meat for the carnivores) into my mouth. A history professor with a love of food shares the best explanation on the subject; he says the taco was likely born from necessity in the 1800s by poor silver miners, and spent the next 100 years spreading through tiny towns and street food stalls throughout Mexico. Pilcher’s longer piece in Guenica magazine makes a fascinating long read on the subject and traces the influences of the Spanish on indigenous Mexican foods and when and how they merged over the centuries.
I feel more connected to the food and people when I understand the origins of some of their food culture. It’s one thing to go every day and sample these creations, but I love knowing what chances of history and globalization brought this dish to fruition.
In short, it was humble beginnings for tacos, a food I assumed was born alongside the tortilla, and my own country played a role. Which takes us to now, and my efforts these past two months to consume many, many tacos. My town here is tiny, and that means there are few places left that I haven’t sampled, but with new salsas and toppings at the ready, the Mexican taco experience is different each time. More Mexican foods and culture in coming weeks, and hopefully a few good recipes too!
The sum of my past travel experiences infuse every aspect of my life, like the echoes of memories I have written about in the past, my food journey is ingrained in me now as well. Much of my traveling centered on Asia over the years, and my taste-buds craved the fusion of flavors, sour lime mixed with a sweet sauce and the kick of spicy chili gently burning over your palate—Thailand. Or the toasted bread, tart yogurt and aromatic curries—India. The Indian food I sampled over the years still calls to me and is one of the single strongest reasons returning to India is on my shortlist for future travels.
But I find myself in Mexico now, and this was quite by design. After years of spicy flavors and pungent scents permeating my days in Southeast Asia, I wanted the fresh vegetables, tortillas, and tastes of Mexico. And it is this love the range of flavors that has me now choosing my taco stands based on the range of salsas offered on their toppings table—if I can artfully combine a mild but chunky pico with the thin, red, and incredibly hot salsa, top it off with diced onions and frijoles, well then life is good here in Mexico.
But as is always the case, those echoes pull to the surface cravings of the flavors of Asia, and when my friends here in San Pancho hosted a Thai food potluck night I dutifully took to my kitchen (I am endlessly happy to have a full kitchen, something my apartments in Southeast Asia never came with!) to make one of my favorite Thai dishes, yum kai dao, a spicy fried egg salad.
The dish is tasty, pretty (hey, presentation matters), and easy to prepare and once I successfully pulled it off, I thought it behooved me to share it. I am not a good cook (I get regular flashbacks to my cooking failure that was moutabel, an eggplant dish I loved in my Jordan travels), so if I can make this dish I give you a firm promise you can too. Now, no promises on the state of your kitchen afterwards (I had oil splatters on every surface—floor, stove, sink, coffee pot) but it was hit, everyone at the potluck was in love, so I share in the hopes that you too can enjoy a little Thai flavor in your life.
I chose this dish because it contains each of the key areas of the palate Thai foods are supposed to hit on—sweet, salty, spicy, and sour—and it’s simple to prepare. I have to keep stressing that because a complicated curry is beyond me, but this is perfect. The four areas of taste in Thai food really intrigues me a lot, and I made a study of them while I lived there because the food-travelers surrounding me often talked about the history and development of these foods within the context of Thai culture. The complex blending of flavors in many Thai dishes is not arbitrary, and I think that’s why those of us who like finding ethnic restaurants seek them out—other cultures have cultivated their taste-buds differently, and so sampling their dishes is truly like travel itself. It’s immersive. You can’t escape the range of flavors and they speak to a country’s history as much as the temples and language. Though I love Mexico, I welcomed a chance to travel back to Thailand for the evening. And so …
An Easy Recipe for Vegetarian Yum Kai Dao
I am no master chef here, but I adapted a few recipes I found on the internets, substituted to make it vegetarian, and then made a bit up as I cooked to make it similar to what I ate while I lived in Thailand!
Main Ingredients: 4 large eggs 1 red or white onion (sliced super thin) 2-3 tomatoes (wedged, see photo) coriander/parsley (a small bunch, chopped up) oil for deep frying optional: rice if you’re serving as a meal
Ingredients for Dressing: 3 tbsp soy sauce (calls for fish sauce but then it’s not vegetarian, so I substitute) 4 tbsp lime juice (squeeze it fresh!) 4 tbsp sugar (I successfully used a bit less, but sweet is a cornerstone of Thai food, so don’t skip it entirely!) 1 small garlic clove (crushed finely—this is not in the traditional recipe but helps enhance since no fish sauce) chili to taste (calls for fresh but I used dried and it was tasty)
Preparation: Add all the dressing ingredients together into one bowl, I added a lot of chili to the mix and let it sit and soak in the dressing while I chopped and cooked the rest of the ingredients and then took out half the chili’s so I didn’t blow the socks off of the potluck guests. Add chili to your taste—sadly, the first time Ana ate this dish in Thailand it came out as it is traditionally preparation, incredibly hot, and she would never go near it again. So when you’re cooking, spice it up to your own tastes, but know that it’s supposed to be a very spicy dish. And for the soy sauce, there are better workarounds for this if you have access to them (some Asian stores sell a tamarind paste mixture to sub for fish sauce), but my improvised version worked well enough for me.
Slice and dice your tomatoes, onions, and greens while your dressing is sitting (and soaking if you too added chilies).
Deep fry the eggs in very hot oil. You must have enough oil in the pan (an inch at least) to submerge the entire egg. Cook until the eggs are crispy on the edges, fluffy, and the yolk is fully cooked (a great tip I read online that worked is to constantly spoon the hot oil over the top of the egg so it cooks quickly and evenly on both sides). Let the eggs cool a bit and then cut them into large chunks (I also used paper towels to wipe off the oil, but the recipe definitely doesn’t call for that).
Toss everything together and serve. When I ordered this in Thai restaurants, it is served with a bowl of white rice, which I always desperately needed to cut the spice, but I have seen it served sans rice too.
And that’s it!
I brought this dish (I doubled the recipe) to a potluck last week here in Mexico and my friends gave me rave reviews (and not just flattery because they cleaned the bowl down to the last wedged tomato).
Have you tried this dish before or will you give it a go?! If you’re keen to try it, I promise that if I can manage to pull it off, you can too :)
I grew up on crossover foods in the U.S.—American versions of a country’s most famous dishes. These foods provided “exotic” dinners for my taste buds back then, but a decade of long-term travel taught me the real thing is so delightfully better. Thai food tasted better when I lived in Chiang Mai, and the Middle Eastern vegetarian foods I sampled throughout Jordan offered sensational flavors. But what about cuisines that never made the leap across oceans and seas? It wasn’t until my nine months in Northern Thailand that I happened upon delicious Burmese vegetarian dishes. Who knew traditional Burmese cuisine would have so much to offer vegetarians?
Once discovered, dishes and flavors from Myanmar are my passion, and Burmese friends ensured that I spent my time sampling delicious dishes, salads, and flavor combinations my palate had never before considered. I loved Burmese dishes so much that I booked a trip to Myanmar, and my Burmese friends prepped me with advice on how to order vegetarian food in Myanmar; what to eat in Yangon, Inle Lake, and other places; and how to find local safe street eats.
How to Survive Myanmar as a Vegetarian
Actually finding vegetarian food in Myanmar proved trickier than eating in nearby Thailand because of language differences, sanitation standards, and regional variances. My first three questions when traveling to a new place include:
Are there inherently vegetarian dishes in the national cuisine? Yes! Burmese cuisine offers beautiful fresh salads and a couple of bean dishes you can count on as vegetarian.
Can I eat the fresh fruits and veggies without risking contamination from the water used to clean the food? Yes and no. Sanitation standards have improved in recent years, meaning at restaurants many fresh salads, tomatoes, and other easily-contaminated vegetables are safe. That said, eating uncooked fruit and vegetables that lack an outer layer you can peel away (think bananas and oranges) do pose a risk in Myanmar.
Is vegetarianism understood and accepted? It is accepted as an extension of the country’s large Buddhist population, given that some monks and locals partake in monthly rituals where they abstain from meat (and a few non-meat items). Outside of this, however, fish and soup broths and other things of this nature are not widely acknowledged as nonvegetarian.
Can I emphasize again how wonderful it was to sample the street food stalls throughout Myanmar? The Burmese were friendly and fun throughout every meal, and my niece Ana and I felt immersed in the culture as we packed onto tiny plastic stools, crouched over our dishes, and ate among the locals. This is where our best conversations happened. We would watch what other people ordered, flock to the crowded street food stalls, and enjoy 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 Myanmar with a meat-eating friend, check out these general food guides here and here.
In this guide, we’ll cover all the major areas of Burmese cuisine I managed to hunt down and find while traveling in the Myanmar. I’ll also include a thorough guide on not only how to say vegetarian, but how to communicate the concept of vegetarianism in the local language, and some other quick tips to familiarize you with the food culture in Myanmar.
For the food lists, you can quickly jump to any of the sections:
How do you 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 understood with absolute clarity and applies to all meat.
This phrase is 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.
Also note that 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 on eating vegetarian while traveling 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. If you’re vegan, this should generally work for much of your travels as well since dairy is not prevalent in the region, but note that the phase doesn’t exclude eggs, honey, or things of that nature from your Burmese dishes.
The Simple Rules of Eating Burmese Food
Before we get to the photo breakdown and descriptions of delicious vegetarian Burmese dishes, here are some things any travelers in Myanma should know before going, not just vegetarians!
Breakfast and lunch are the big meals of the day. Follow the local custom and eat food earlier in the day, when the food is 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 out for breakfast. Nearly every guesthouse in Myanmar serves boring eggs and white bread for breakfast—the locals are eating a lot better than that if you venture to the street stalls! (And their breakfast is vegetarian!)
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 the tea).
We’re ready to get started with the best Burmese vegetarian food! As a disclaimer: I’m not Burmese, so these descriptions and dishes are given to the best of my ability. I did consult extensively with a Burmese friend, and her input shaped this post. Once you’re in Myanmar, you can sample and discover many dishes that I no-doubt missed on my trip.
Burmese Vegetarian Soups
Soup is a wonderful and usually very safe meal throughout Asia because they boil 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 cook’s 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.
Fish soup (Mohinga)
(Flavorful but only for pescetarians, which I am not, but I tasted a bit of my niece’s just to understand the flavor of this beloved dish!)
I consider myself a flexitarian, so I wet my mouth with this soup several times throughout our time in Burma from my niece’s dish. Although it’s a common breakfast food, she 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!
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 Myanmar, and tastes different once again when ordered in Shan State, but the beaming vendor next door to the Soe Brothers 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: The 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, although also consider that Soe Brothers 2 is not in the same location but a bit nicer!).
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. They will not assume that you want a vegetarian version of this Burmese dish, so you absolutely must specify!
Best Burmese Salads for Vegetarians
This is the part of Burmese food that delights the most. The flavors in vegetarian Burmese salads that I sampled across Myanmar are quite unlike the lettuce/leafy salads common in the west. Instead, these salads blend a range of veggies, nuts, and flavors. They 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.
Burmese Tea Leaf Salad (Laphet Thote)
This is a top five favorite for me and for good reason—it’s spectacular. And it’s reliably vegetarian food no matter where you travel in Myanmar. 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 crossover 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. :-)
Pennywort Salad (Myin Kwa Yuet Thote)
A delicious pennywort salad. I never managed a good shot of it since I was usually too busy inhaling it to grab a proper photo! Ingredients vary but include onions, pennywort, nuts, and oily dressing.
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 was one of my favorite vegetarian salads in all of Myanmar—please seek it out and give it a taste. If you haven’t tried pennywort before (and I certainly hadn’t thought of it as any more than a weed in my garden) then you owe yourself a taste! Check out this recipe to try and make one at home.
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 chickpea-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. This dish is reliably served vegetarian and vegan no matter where in Myanmar you sample it.
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 prepare their meals. They use some unknown leaves from big trees.”
Where: Inle Lake is the Shan region of Myanmar 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 vegetarian and vegan salads in Myanmar, 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 reliably vegetarian and vegan Burmese dish. 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 bowl full 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 Myanmar 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 the Burmese friend we traveled with for a week. I’m told it’s trickier to find, but we sampled this throughout central Myanmar, in both Bagan and Inle Lake—like many of the salads on this list, it’s reliably vegetarian and vegan no matter where you travel in Myanmar.
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.
This Burmese food is reliably vegetarian and vegan no matter where you travel in Myanmar—it’s also a great way to ensure you’re getting protein.
Best Vegetarian Burmese Dinner Dishes
Myanmar 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 Myanmar. 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, Myanmar 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 a Burmese friend of mine and her daughter while we were in Bagan and Inle Lake). Not inherently vegetarian—you must specify.
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. They could include most anything as a topping, so specify you’re vegetarian or vegan.
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. Go to town with chapati and dhal as the Indian community understands vegetarianism and this is reliably safe (for vegans too) all across Myanmar. The dhal and Indian flavors also offer a nice change after since there aren’t always a ton of hot Burmese foods to sample.
Where: No doubt the best chapati street foods we tasted was at a stand 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 Myanmar 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 else you love also 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 and vegan 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 Myanmar! No meat is sneaking in here, these are reliably vegetarian and vegan no matter where you travel in Myanmar.
Sweet or Savory Fried Dough (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 Emma 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! :)
Like some of the other snacks mentioned, this is a good one since you can customize the ingredients with eggs or beans, and you watch it made to order, so you know it’s going to come out perfectly vegetarian or vegan.
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 vegetarian breakfast dish if my Burmese friend 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, our friend 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 (Laphet 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, not 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! This is it’s reliably vegetarian and vegan.
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 (for health safety reasons). The flavor is a bit more potent than I can handle, but they’re quite popular with the locals! The flavor is so strong that this is more of a fun treat than something you will likely fill up on while traveling Myanmar.
Fried Other Things
Indian samosas abound in Yangon and make a great vegetarian food there. Deep fried donut-sticks were particularly easy to hunt down in Mandalay. Basically, when the craving for something deep-fried struck, there was no shortage of fried vegetarian offerings on the streets in the big cities. Of course, some fried offerings have meat—so always ask!
Sweet and Tasty Burmese Treats
My wicked sweet tooth was beyond happy with the quick sweet options. I love portion control and that was easy in Myanmar 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 Yangon—and throughout much of the country, really. 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 in general, but I steer well clear of all jellied desserts. These are a hard pass for me. But they’re popular all over Asia, and are served chopped, shredded, or cubed—then with ice, coconut milk, tapioca, or a variety of other sweet concoctions layered on top. You don’t lack on options if you like this style of dessert!
Like most of Southeast Asia, Myanmar 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.
Food Tips to Survive Burmese Food
To use a trite expression, I could wax poetic all day about the delicious food I ate in Myanmar. Thank you to the my Burmese friend for her tips, advice, and guidance. She proved invaluable at helping me better understand Burmese food culture before, and on the ground throughout my trip to Myanmar with my niece. Without her translating and introducing me to some of these dishes, I would have blindly passed through regions of Myanmar oblivious to some of the best 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 vegetarian Burmese 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 correct it!
Planning Your Myanmar Travel
How to Plan the Trip
My guide to backpacking Southeast Asia provides and entire section of planning travel in Myanmar, and if you’re traveling through Thailand, I have an entire free guide with advice gleaned from my more than year of living there. Myanmar is also a country that changes quickly, so online guides usually have the latest information for pre-trip planning. Once you’re on the ground though, the internet infrastructure is still lacking in many ways, so use the Lonely Planet print guide to best navigate.
Make Responsible Travel Choices
Despite the U.S. lifting of sanctions in 2011/2012, Myanmar is plagued by human rights issues. Please, please read up on these before you leave and ensure you understand how to travel better—travel in a way that your money supports local people. This is a completely download on how to travel responsibly in Myanmar.
When I entered Myanmar with plans to stay for a month, I had no idea I had picked up a diarrheal illness in Laos. Turned out, Myanmar did not even sell the only medicine that would have treated it, so I was left downing oral rehydration salts every day to combat it until I could get treatment in Thailand. Had this been more serious, I would have needed a medical evacuation. For that reason, I highlyrecommend using travel insurance for the duration of any trip to Myanmar. Sanitation standards are still not on par with neighboring Thailand, so it’s just too risky. I recommend World Nomads (here’s why). And I also shared essential tips for staying healthy on the road.
Bests Reading on Food & Culture
There is no denying I am a big fan of Burmese food. It’s also surprisingly easy to bring home some of the best flavors. These cookbooks best capture the flavors of Myanmar; and the cultural reading in the books helps better understand the relationship between Burma’s food, history, and politics.
Vegetarian Mohinga recipe: Traditional mohinga contains fish, but this vegetarian version is absolutely delightful. A family recipe shared by Cho Chaw, who is also the author of hsa*ba Burmese cookbook.
Burma: Rivers of Flavor: A beautiful cookbook that not only explores the delicious foods of Burma, but the culture as well. I met Naomi, a James Beard award-winning author, on my travels in the region. She has a wonderful perspective on how food and culture meet and used that to infuse recipes, stories, food, and culture into one gorgeous book.
I like to fancy myself a citizen of the planet…I go places, I see, I do, I eat and I learn. And on the eating front, I take cooking classes in new places with the forever hope that someone eventually imparts in me the skills it takes to cook anything beyond a truly awesome American salad (now those I am good at!).
You see, my humble beginnings set me up for the woeful failure of a cooking experience I will soon share. My mother, for all that she did give us kids, it surely wasn’t talent in the kitchen. When I flashback two decades in my personal foodie history, images of me gagging down garbage soup float to the surface.
…and for the uninitiated who didn’t have the extreme pleasure of growing up in a large family, garbage soup is the term for adding the leftovers of every, single, thing, in the refrigerator to a big pot with a bland soup base before feeding it to your hungry masses (and then the cook (mom) is amazed by how quickly everyone’s hunger dissipates long before the bowls of soup are empty…).
Never one to accept personal failure without a real effort first, I take these cooking classes all over the world (Tibetan momos in India, traditional foods in Laos) and they lull me into a false sense of comfort that I can actually cook. You see, a cooking class is a magical place; each cook-in-training is often given a Martha Stewart-esque cooking space decked out with precisely the tools needed to make the dish. If you need a sifter, great, it’s there…steamer tray? Yep. An open flame? Copy that, they have a beauty of a device right there on your table.
Then the class starts and each tiny porcelain bowl holds your pre-measured ingredient as you follow along with the teacher and dump, mix, heat, flash fry and garnish. It’s good fun.
And you know why it’s fun? Because the food turns out beautiful! Like dishes in a magazine.
Let’s revisit the moutabel story now. Moutabel is a very popular eggplant mezze dish in Jordan and it’s quite similar to baba ghanoush, a favorite dish on Middle Eastern menus world-wide. Moutabel ingredients include: roasted and mashed eggplant, tahini, lemon, and olive oil. Simple enough right?
On my Jordan travels, the Tourism Board sponsored a cooking class for me at the Beit Sitti cooking school in Amman because I mentioned I enjoy learning to cook. The class was so lovely; wide marble counters and a steady supply of lemon and mint drink as we prepared and cooked moutabel, makloubeh, and knafeh (all three dishes explained in my vegetarian guide to traditional Jordanian foods).
I gobbled down the flavorful moutabel with fresh pita bread and noted to myself that this was a dish my parents would love…I resolved to cook it when I returned home to share a piece of my Jordan travels.
I tracked down tahini, purchased my eggplant, lemon, and garlic and got straight to work after returning home this past summer. The entire time my taste buds salivated at the prospect of tasting this dish after months separated from the creamy texture and smoky eggplant flavor.
After the garlic mincing, lemon squeezing, and eggplant mashing my masterpiece was ready. I even artfully sprinkled the olive oil to imitate the restaurants throughout Jordan because, you know, presentation is half the battle!
What I won on presentation though, I lost completely on the other end. I sampled and raised an eyebrow….why did it taste like that? Maybe not enough lemon?
With dutiful purpose I extracted the other half of my lemon from the fridge and generously squeezed more juice into the dish.
Gah! No! Crap, now there was too much tahini so I over-corrected with yet more lemon.
By the time my dad came into the kitchen ready for my much-touted masterpiece I was pouting…
Failure. Not an epic failure, both my parents humored me…my mom’s not a hypocrite so she stayed mum about anything off-tasting, and we all munched our way through the entire dish.
I giggle at the thought of attempting this again…I will at some point because I love the dish and think I went wrong by not roasting the eggplant for long enough…who knows though!
It’s worth noting too that I loved my cooking class in Jordan; Beit Sitti was such a fun evening with just the right combination of cooking and relaxing banter as the class prepared the traditional foods. My shortcomings as a solo cook (maybe I over-salted it?!) have never once stopped me from enjoying learning from the professionals in each new country because I love seeing the process behind a country’s foods, even if I sorely lack the skills to replicate that process ;-)
Any great cooks out there? Do you take cooking classes as you travel or have any epic foodie failures to share?