Food in Myanmar – Yangon Food Tour and Burmese Cooking Course
Before we headed to Myanmar, we hadn’t heard great things about Burmese food. It was too oily. It was bland. Food in Myanmar wasn’t as good as Thai food…..The only dish people seemed to like was tea leaf salad, and I’m allergic to peanuts so that one’s out. We’re not the sort of people who like to believe rumour, so we set out to investigate for ourselves. A Yangon Food Tour and a Burmese Cooking Course in Inle Lake with Bamboo Delight Cooking School later and we found some delicious curries, great BBQ places and interesting salads.
Yangon Food Tour
Our first stop was Yangon. After exploring the old colonial streets and enjoying the South East Asian hustle and bustle that reminded us of small cities in Vietnam, we headed out for our Food Tour of Yangon. Our young Burmese guides from Yangon Food Tours, Phone and Winnie, met us by a church in the centre of the city. They both spoke great English and were really enthusiastic about their local cuisine.
First on our Yangon Food Tour was a street stall for something we had been seeing, but not yet tried – samosa salad. We have samosas in the UK. They are a popular starter in the Indian restaurants that are so common all around the country. However, we’d never experienced them in a salad.
The salad was a whole samosa, cut up, with some potatoes boiled in what looked like turmeric, chickpeas, tomato and onion. There were two types: one had a thick broth and the other was dry. They were both delicious. I can’t believe such a simple dish hasn’t made it out of Myanmar.
Yangon Tea Shops
Probably because of its British colonial history, Myanmar has a big tea drinking culture. Tea shops can be found all over and are usually open fronted buildings full of tables and chairs serving sweet milky tea as well as green tea and various snacks.
Our next stop on our Yangon Food Tour was a traditional tea shop where we sat on small metal chairs and experienced the traditional Myanmar tea along with Shan noodles and two kinds of buns. Seven layer buns are like a Vietnamese bao – a steamed dumpling filled with various fillings. One of ours was chicken, and the other red bean. Red bean in South East Asia is not a savoury filling, but a little bit sweet, kind of like a dry jam. Both were great.
Shan noodles are a traditional noodle dish from the Shan State in the south-east of Myanmar. The thick rice noodles are topped with chicken or pork – in this case, pork, in a spicy sauce. Served dry, we had to add the stock which accompanied the dish to loosen it up. We had this dish several times during our stay in Myanmar because it was really good.
Burmese Curry Restaurants
Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee was a restaurant we had actually visited the day before, through a recommendation in our Lonely Planet. When Winnie and Phone from Yangon Food Tours took us, the difference was that they knew how and what to order. In these Burmese Curry restaurants, there are trays of food on the counter that you choose from, ranging from curries to various salads. Small plates of what you choose is then delivered to your table, along with a big bowl of rice, a plate of raw and boiled vegetables, ngapi ye, a paste made of anchovies that you dip your veggies in and stir into your rice, and a sour vegetable soup. You also get a flask of green tea.
In Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee, we tried pork with black beans, braised beef, pennywort salad (a bit like watercress), morning glory with mushrooms and a tea leaf salad. The origins of the ‘Burmese food is oily’ rumour probably comes from curries like these. Made in the morning, the curries have to stand all day until someone orders them. To stop them drying out, extra oil is used. You’re not meant to eat this though, instead taking the meat, fish or veggies out of the sauce and putting them on top of your plate of rice.
After the meal, we were given a box of jaggery. Jaggery is lumps of brown cane sugar that taste a bit like honeycomb but with the texture of Kendal Mint Cake, for those of you familiar with the UK Lake District.
Stuffed full from our first three visits, we still had dessert to come. We headed to another Yangon tea shop for falooda, a bit like a knickerbocker glory. Served in a tall glass, falooda is made up of coconut milk, icecream, chunks of a kind of sweet butter, agar jelly pearls, made pink with rose syrup. It’s also got ice in it, which makes it cool and refreshing. We only needed one to share.
Although we could bearly eat another thing, Phone and Winnie wanted us to try another Burmese dessert which was for sale all over the streets. Stopping at by a man with a big metal tray, he cut up bit pieces of brown sticky rice and put it in a bag with shredded coconut. The sticky rice had been cooked with palm sugar which made it slightly sweeter with a similar taste to jaggery. We took this one home to eat later once we had room.
Our tour with Yangon Food Tours was a great way to experience the different foods in Yangon and to get an idea of what dishes to order during the rest of our trip. What we noticed was how friendly and welcoming the staff in local places were, offering us English menus and/or ones with pictures. It gave us more confidence to explore lots of local eateries and try more Burmese food.
Burmese Cooking Course with Bamboo Delight Cooking School
Bamboo Delight Cooking school is in Nguang Shwe, the small ‘town’ where most people stay when visiting Inle Lake. Leslie picked us up from next to the Mingalar Market and took us around to buy some ingredients. As we were the only two people on the course that day, he asked us what we liked to eat, and planned a menu for us. It was Black Moon Day, basically the day of the new moon, which meant the main market was closed, but some traders had set up around the market on the ground and were selling vegetables, meat and fish.
No matter how many local markets we visit, they are still fascinating. One ‘shop’ was still open, with its sign ‘Beef Shop’ in English outside. By ‘Beef Shop’ it meant a cow, cut up ready to sell. Trays of various cuts lay out in the wooden shop, with tripe hanging from the ceiling. The outside meat and fish stalls were cutting the meat and putting the offcuts to one side, where local dogs sneakily tried to steal them.
Once shopping was done, we hopped on a horse and cart to Bamboo Delight Cooking school. This may have been the first horse and cart ride we had ever taken, but it was not the last. Horse and cart is still quite a common form of transport around Myanmar. Kris sat up from behind the horse with the driver, while I lay in the back, legs dangling. Not the most comfortable form of transport, but interesting for watching the world pass by as you trot along.
At the cooking school, Leslie and his assistants helped us to prepare our dishes. Unlike the cooking course we did in Chiang Mai at Galangal Cooking School, Bamboo Delight Cooking School is outside, where you cook on traditional charcoal fires.
Our menu had six items: deep-fried tilapia fish with curry sauce, chicken with lemongrass and coconut milk, beef masala, watercress salad, roasted aubergine salad, and steamed spring onion and rice flour in banana leaves.
The tilapia fish was fried whole, as it is often eaten, so the meat inside was soft, white and fluffy. The chicken was similar to a Thai curry, but less soupy, more Indian style in texture. The aubergine was roasted in the charcoal and then peeled and mashed, to make something like a Mediterranean dish, but then crispy roasted garlic was added along with herbs. Our most interesting dish was the steamed spring onion and rice flour. The two were mixed together and wrapped in banana leaves before being steamed over the charcoal. The result tasted very much like the filling of a cheese and onion pasty or pie. The type you buy from Greggs. It was really delicious and would be great for vegans, since there was no real cheese to be seen, despite the flavour.
Cooking for a Cause.
The Burmese cooking course with Bamboo Delight was great and we learned more about Burmese food and Myanmar culture. It was a bargain at 20,000 Kyat. Leslie and his wife Sue put a proportion of all their income to their school. Every year for three months during the school holidays, they run an English school for local children. Volunteer English teachers run classes and they have built a school in their grounds with a classroom and library.
You can volunteer as teachers at the school if you have time to give – it seems to be from February to April. They also need donations of books and stationary for the students. Alternatively, just by attending their cooking class, you will be supporting their charity.
We’d totally recommend Bamboo Delight Cooking School not only to get to know more about Burmese food but also to learn more local culture, meet some great locals and give something to the community.
After our two weeks in Myanmar, we never had a bad meal. The rumour about the low quality of Burmese food was just not true. It may not be something you are completely familiar with, but it’s not hard to find out more.
You can book a Yangon Food Tour with Yangon Food Tours through their website
We contacted Bamboo Delight Cooking School using their Facebook Page