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!
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 very delightfully different. Thai food tasted better when I lived in Chiang Mai, and the Middle Eastern vegetarian foods I sampled throughout Jordan offered flavor sensations. 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 the delicious vegetarian dishes offered within traditional Burmese cuisine.
Once discovered, dishes and flavors from Burma/Myanmar have become a 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 the foods so much that I decided to book 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.
Actually eating vegetarian food in Myanmar, though, was a bit trickier than sampling it in nearby Thailand because of language differences, sanitation standards, and regional variances. So when prepping for eating vegetarian or vegan in Myanmar.
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.
How to Survive Myanmar (Burma) as a Vegetarian
Can I emphasize again how wonderful it was to sample the street food stalls throughout the 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:
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.
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 likely won’t inherently cover exclusion of eggs, honey, or things of that nature.
The Simple Rules
Before we get to the photo breakdown and descriptions of delicious vegetarian eats in Myanmar, here are some things you should know before you go for any travelers in Myanmar, 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 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 the tea).
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. I did consult extensively with a Burmese friend, and her input fully shaped this post. Once you’re in Myanmar, you can sample and discover many dishes that I no-doubt missed on my trip.
It’s Always Soup-O’Clock
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 food, so you absolutely must specify!
You’ve Never Tasted Salads Like This Before
This is the part of Burmese food that delights me 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. 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. 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 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 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 some protein.
Dinner Delights and an International Influence
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.
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 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 (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, 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. 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 fried vegetarian offerings on the streets in the big cities. Of course, some fried offerings have meat—so always ask!
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 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. 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 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.
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 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, 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 highly recommend 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.
As a vegetarian traveling to a new country, I face a few extra challenges and considerations. While I wouldn’t out-right skip a destination because of food, the pecking order does change if I know I can eat well once I’m there. So when I read the invitation from the Jordan Tourism Board about a sponsored trip to the country, my initial thoughts circled like vultures around every tidbit of Middle Eastern foodie information stored in my brain.
A few quick keyword searches online and bam! I had my answer—all systems were a go on the foodie front, Jordan offers dozens of dishes consistently cooked vegetarian and the country is touristy enough to easily communicate the concept of vegetarianism.
We all but shoved these moist mounds of joy into our mouths. I couldn’t help but think, “Where have these fat round dumplings been all of my life? How have I not had this concoction of vegetable greens, onions, and seasoning exploding over my taste buds until this very moment?”
That was a good day. My best foodie day in China, actually. Sadly, it didn’t go well from there.
There’s only one other country in the world where I was as hungry and frustrated as China, and that was Bosnia back in 2009 when I lived off of spinach and cheese bureks and my twice-daily shiny green apple from the supermarket.
A routine forms when you hunker down in one place, when you pick a spot and decide “hey, I’m going to live here; not just travel through, but live here.” Is it safe to admit I thought the routine and normalcy would still elude me? Coming to Chiang Mai was the next leg in my wanderings; I didn’t realize that the entire pace of my life would slow back down into a routine.
I’ve been in near constant motion for more than two years; my months home this fall were a break of sorts, but even then I was busy bouncing between busy state capitals, countless couches, guest bedrooms, and even a floor or two as I visited friends and family around the U.S.
I was still on the roller coaster adventure of perpetual travel.
I have a home. A really cute one too. I have an address and rent, my trusty backpack is shoved deep in the corner of my room from lack of use and the street vendors near my house smile and wave out of familiarity.
I have a routine.
Curious emails have begun to flit into my inbox:
What do I do here every day? Why Chiang Mai? Is it what I expected?
This is the first time I’ve stopped and actually lived somewhere outside of the US.
And I like it, a lot. There’s a community here in Chiang Mai; friends, food, and decent wifi are the constants.
And yet it’s not what I expected entirely either. The normalcy makes it easy to float through days in a routine without paying close attention to what’s happening…and then sometimes very little actually happens. Sadly that has included work; I get distracted by the food, people, and culture maybe even more regularly than I did on the road. Now that wifi and work aren’t challenging (easy connections, tons of time on my hands) less seems to get done.
But then again, that’s partly why I came here, just to see what it’s like to live somewhere else. So I can report back to you now, people over here live in routines too.
I’ll appease those wondering souls concerned about what it’s like to live here in Chiang Mai. It looks something like this…
A day in Shannonland, Chiang Mai Edition:
4:30a – The smell of frying garlic from the restaurant next door suffuses the room and I dream of food. 6:30a – Wake up! The sun’s up, the birds outside compete in a loud and aggressive morning chirping contest and I’m hungry enough to eat an entire garden (don’t feel like the “hungry enough to eat a horse” analogy fits?!). 8a -12:00p – Ponder the Thai National Anthem as it blares through the street speakers around town at 8am every day…then work. The internet is only good in the morning at our house, so it’s a Western breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit, and work. 12:00p – Scoot over to the veggie lady’s buffet nearby for a spicy lunch with an assortment of tasty and convincing fake meats; their complete mastery of seitan here in Thailand is, in a word, delicious. 1p-6:00p – Thank the heavens for the 99baht ($3) coffee and wifi buffet – a few afternoons each week I buffet it up for hours and hours. 6:30p – Team Chiang Mai (all the expats in town) meet for dinner a nearby night market so we can all find our favorite foods (that way the rest of the team isn’t forced to eat at veggie restaurants all the time). Then it’s a free-for-all for the rest of the evening…sometimes a local festival, other days just chatter over drinks.
Blissfully normal, right?!
I came here for the ability to hunker down and maintain a work schedule while still abroad and in a different culture. And I’m welcoming a routine and framework for my life. I like it. And I love the smiles of recognition and genuine warmth from the locals I encounter on a daily basis.
So, why Thailand for this first foray into expat-ism?
Because establishing a mini-life and routine here in Chiang Mai is an adventure of its own and I wanted to see if I like it. My roomie and I navigate the street food stalls with expertise – we cobble together a mish-mashed dinner from our favorite street food vendors. An ear of corn from the grinning lady at the edge of the night market, a wave to the man selling chopped fruit.
The nods of acknowledgment and smiles makes it a bit like the Cheers sentiment. I like it here because “everyone knows my face” (not so much my name, I’ll admit, we haven’t gotten that far yet ;-).
Everyone here is living their lives too, they have their routine and for the first time in a long time I’m slipping into a routine with those around me, fitting my life into my surroundings, and the familiarity of food I know, a constant culture (less chance of embarrassing snafus like my roomie’s recent “May I fart?” debacle).
This venture into a more sedentary nomadism is, well, progressing. I can’t yet decide if I’ll pick back up traveling or move to another place…who knows?! Still figuring that out.
Any burning questions for me? The next post in the series I’ll share the costs of living here in Chiang Mai, arguably one of the more appealing reasons I moved her too!
My 15 hour long layover in Taipei may not have been enough time to settle in and truly explore all that Taipei, Taiwan has to offer but it’s plenty enough time to eat!
There were moments where the Asian culture shock was creeping up but the familiar pace of a city extinguished a lot of the potential angst. Instead of focusing on being lost throughout the day I followed my nose along the streets of Taipei, allowing the locals on their lunch breaks to dodge around me as I poked my nose into all kinds of treats.
Some were suspiciously meaty and avoided. But a busy street food cart perched right on the corner of a busy sidewalk caught my eye. The muffin pan-like cart top took about one minute to produce a whole steaming hot treats filled with mysterious fillings.
The man pours what looks like pancake dough into the holes. The woman scoops in your chosen filling. More dough. As the lunch snacks briefly cooked the well honed dance of movements between the duo working the street cart never faltered.
The long queue of locals flowed with swift ease and stood as a testament to these tasty and simple treats.
When my turn came I put the first glitch in their process and both of them smiled indulgent if harried smiles as I indicated through pantomime my choice of two pancakey-things filled with a thick red bean paste and a third with sweet creamy custard.
These eats got me through my hike to Taipei 101 and before my street eats had fully digested dusk painted itself across the sky and the Shilin Night Market beckoned.
To be truthful the entire point of the Shilin Night Market trip was to spend as long as possible wandering food stalls sampling foreign treats with name’s I knew not then and know not now.
I found that Taipei was like so much of Asia, even to many of the locals the street eats are incredibly affordable and families converge on the street stalls for their nightly dinner as well.
Sweet treats weren’t far either and with a small crowd around these fried milk balls I was intrigued enough to try a stick of the burn-your-tongue-hot sweet cream coated in batter.
It makes me chuckle to think that for all that the rest of the world laughs at the US for deep fried ice cream and snickers bars, we’re not the only ones take odd concoctions, coat them in batter and drop ’em a vat of grease!
For the record, they were tasty as expected and I munched them rapidly as I ran from the beginning rain and back to the metro terminal.
The spicy mingling of scents when you step foot into the India is among my favorite memories of my months in South Asia. Before traveling across India on my round the world trip, I had backpacked through Southeast Asia. And although the food there is tasty, India is paradise of flavors for a vegetarian. The food selection in the country is incredible. The country offers hundreds of traditional dishes, and all vary from north to south. Each region has unique dishes and a unique suffusion of flavors.
Walking through the Indian cities, my nose would lift to air like a puppy, catching the scent of savory curries, fried dough, and spicy chai tea. Then I would follow the scent and find the crowd of locals around a tasty street stall chai stand, or a piping hot samosa ready to find it’s way into my hand. I have a deep love of Indian food in every form, so I was in vegetarian foodie heaven. Much of the country is primarily vegetarian — it’s only the far north that really adds meat into the diet. For the first time in my life, I walked into a restaurant and I could eat every dish on offer. Usually, when I eat at a restaurant back home in the States, there is a token salad or pasta on the menu, but even then it’s often a dish that I can order without the meat.
India is different, the entire subcontinent has designed a cuisine intended to taste delicious without meat. There’s no fake meat substitutes and never a need to add extra salt and spices. Each region of India offers a smorgasbord of options. With that in mind, I could never fully cover all the dishes available. Instead, I’ll fun down my favorite eats that I found on my trip. I traveled from Mumbai to McLeod Ganj, stopping along the way. And while I did eat at South Indian restaurants on my travels north, I haven’t had the pleasure of eating exclusively in that part of the country. Let’s dive into my favorite Indian Dishes—if you’re looking for a more comprehensive list, this is explainer on ordering in Indian restaurants is a good start!.
Vegetarian Food Guide for India
Indians deeply understand the concept of vegetarianism, this will not be an issue for anyone traveling through the country. Veganism is a bit different — most Indians consume a large amount of dairy through their yogurt drinks and the paneer cheese. That said, many menus are clearly marked with ingredients and it is easy to avoid the handful of dishes that feature paneer, and all of the yogurt drinks are off limits.
Another boon to the vegetarian traveler is the prevalence of English throughout India. Because of the British colonization and Great Britain ruling over India until the mid-20th Century, English is widespread. Poor and rural areas may not have 100 percent English fluency, but in many of these places the food on offer will certainly be vegetarian, so you’re in the clear.
With vegetarianism spread so widely throughout the subcontinent, there is no need to offer a survival guide to Indian food. The majority of the dishes come vegetarian first, and meat is added only for those tourists and the select few eating chicken or some such. Cows are off-limits (they are sacred in India), so you’ll never worry about finding unexpected beef in your food. With survival covered — you can always find vegetarian food — let’s instead think of India as a tasting ground for amazing vegetarian food. Let’s dive right in, here are my favorite dishes and treats from traveling throughout India.
The Indian Thali
My hands-down ultimate recommendation for a tourist in India —particularly if you’re only in the country for a few days — is to try the Indian thali. At the right establishment, this dish will rock your world. It’s a sample platter, and which curries and dishes depends on the restaurant’s speciality. The thali often comes themed to the region you’re visiting — so you might eat a sample platter of foods from Kerala and the south if you’re eating at a South Indian thali restaurant. Sample these widely and don’t hesitate to
If you have time, visit a thali-specific restaurant, it makes all the difference. I visited the Natraj Lodge in Udaipur and it is the best thali I have ever eaten. For those sampling a thali for the first time, they are often served on a metal tray filled with several metal dishes. Servers circulate the room and fill up your dish as you eat. Each dish is tiny, but the thali is bottomless so think of it as a chance to sample all of the flavors and then fill up on your favorites. The dishes on offer vary, but includes a smattering of dishes like dhal, a paneer dish, something with chickpeas, a potato option, etc. Then they toss onto the plate a handful of onions and lemons, a scoop of rice. and a fresh chapati. Most Indians eat this dish (and many others) with their fingers, so if you don’t have silverware on the table then tear pieces of the chapati to tear and spoon food into your mouth. If you just have rice, the proper technique is described here. Extra tip: Pay attention! They rapidly refill your plate as they circulate the room until you tell them to stop.
South Indian Dosa
So, with all of this sampling and taste testing for six weeks through India, I have several favorite dishes: tomato aubergine curry, palak paneer, and bhel puri (it’s the crunchy – I love the crunch thingies!).
Cousin H (also a vegetarian – how ideal was that!) was mildly obsessed with the South Indian dosas – and when they’re good, they are incredibly tasty. I like them. Not a favorite, but they’re pretty unique.
The key to a dosa is the incredibly thin and crispy layer on the outside and the one drawback is that you can sometimes only order dosas for dinner (what about every other time of day?!). Inside is any combination you choose – traditionally very potato based.
Note the small white creamy side dish – this is the light and cooling coconut paste used to alter the flavor of the dish or cool your palate after a particularly spicy bite!
Curd, Lassi, and Dairy
The dairy in India is phenomenal. Most restaurants receive a daily delivery of fresh curd (I know this because I am an early riser and often had to wait for my breakfast until the delivery of fresh). Curd is essentially a type of yogurt, what differs is mostly the way the milk is processed into yogurt and which strains of bacteria remain after the process.
Curd and Yogurt Fruit salad and curd is a treat in India. The fruit is tasty and fresh and the yogurt is pretty amazing in tandem. Although I have always loved dairy, it was my time in India that kickstarted my use of yogurt and curd in so many different ways. It’s easy to start the day with protein-packed yogurt, then add it to pasta sauces for an evening dinner. One note of caution, however, be careful eating raw fruits anywhere in the country. In fact, completely skip unskinned apple and grapes — these are often contaminated with the local water supply and will be a fast way to get a parasite.
Cucumber Raita Indian food also makes use of curd as an accompaniment to spicy dishes. A dallop of a curd in a side dish cools burning taste buds, or the best addition is the cucumber raita. This traditional side dish is often served in a tiny bowl with the meal, and it’s diced cucumber and yogurt mixed into a refreshing concoction. It’s also easy to make, and this cucumber raita recipe would be tasty for those looking to infuse the flavors of India into the kitchen.
Lassi Drink The lassi is a staple of the drink in the Indian diet. Although this drink has crossed over to Indian restaurants in the west, it’s definitely not just a tourist import. I watched families, couples, and chatting men slurp down a delicious yogurt lassi drink with their meals.
One reason the lassi is so well-loved is due to the digestive properties of yogurt. All of that good bacteria is a powerful and needed force against the contamination issues rampant in the country. For other travelers — especially vegetarians who may be eating more vegetables and fruits than others — I recommend using dairy as a preventative measure in your diet when traveling the country; it helps keep the GI tract in good working order.
And really, the lassi is an easy addition to any meal; it’s no trouble at all to order one of these! I most often opted for the traditional and refreshingly simple “sweet lassi.” But then a rare find in Pushkar produced the Makhania lassi; it’s infused with saffron extract, almond extract, cardamom, and rose. Then it’s topped with cashews, pistachios, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and a sprinkle of coconut. My mouth waters at the memory. In fact, I have made it using this Makhaniya Lassi recipe back home and it’s stellar. Plan on sampling these drinks widely and try the unique and fun flavors offered in various regions and cities.