Since Burma was quite insulated until recently, Burmese food has not had a chance to spread to other parts of the world. Like most people, we had not tried Burmese food before setting foot in Myanmar. In fact, we’re still hard pressed to find an authentic Burmese restaurant in New York, our melting pot city. Our journey around the country was also a culinary learning experience. While there are some similarities and influences derived from other Asian cuisines, some dishes we tried were quite unique and like nothing we have had before. Similar to what we found in Yangon, food in Mandalay is both delicious and inexpensive, two of my favorite things. In fact, this is where we had some of the best and most memorable food of the trip.
Burmese breakfast – Myanmar is the land of hearty breakfasts. People usually start their day off with either a steaming bowl of mohinga or a large spread of rice and side dishes, all of which are quite filling. A bowl of steamed rice is usually eaten with many side dishes consisting of pickled tea leafs, fried bamboo shoots, dried salted fish, and cured meat. During a meal, you select the protein that you want while the vegetable dishes are laid out on the table. Everything is served together so the diners can make their own choices and combinations. This sizable breakfast cost us less than a dollar.
More Shan Noodles – We could not seem to get enough of shan noodles. It was our go-to dish everywhere we went, but it was in Mandalay that we found the best shan noodle dish. The thin rice noodles are mixed with the chili-marinated ground meat and topped with fried garlic, shallots, and green onion, and are usually served with a bowl of soup on the side. This humble dish can be found anywhere, but we found that the best ones are usually served at a street stall. A bowl will set you back about 50 cents.
Other Noodles – I am a noodle girl at heart, I love all kinds of noodles, especially if they come in a hot steaming clay pot. We found this little treasure at the Mandalay night market by accident. We were looking for fruit when we walked by this busy stand full of people. Curious, we decided to join in because it looked so good. Unfortunately we had no idea what it was called and the menu was in Burmese, so we did the only thing we could do, point and order. After some gesturing, we finally got through to the server and he brought us our very own clay noodle pot. The hot spicy dish came with all kinds of vegetables and vaguely reminded me of bun bo hue, a Vietnamese dish, except without the beef.
Another interesting dish we tried was called mandalay myi shay, a regional variant of the moegoke myi say, where the rice noodles are served with chicken or pork and topped with a generous blob of sticky glutonous rice ‘glue’. It was slimy and did not look appealing initially, but once mixed in with the rest of the noodles, it actually tasted pretty good.
Curry – A visit to a traditional Burmese restaurant is quite an experience. The meal is typically centered around a curry dish with a never-ending succession of side dishes, called “thoh sayah”. The curry based dish comes with a variety of proteins like pork, fish, shrimp, beef, or mutton. After the main dish is selected, the waiter will bring out a spread of side dishes that include rice, a small bowl of soup, a plate of dried shrimp, a large tray of vegetables and herbs to be eaten with fermented fish paste. The oily curry is nicely offset by the fresh vegetables and the salty dip.
Street food – On the streets of Mandalay, we saw these heavenly bite-sized snacks. Similar to the Japanese variety, these little balls usually come with a quail egg or some mixed veggies inside. The griddle is covered in oil first then spread with a light layer of batter followed by the egg. The result is a crispy exterior with an oozy soft center. I have no idea what they are called, but they are found at many night markets or a random street corner. Three pancake things will set you back about 200 Kyat.
Hotel Rooftop – Usually we tend to stay away from hotel restaurants, preferring to try the more authentic food on the street. On our last day in Mandalay, however, we decided to take a break from temple hopping and sightseeing and spend the afternoon relaxing instead at the rooftop bar at Bagan King hotel where we were staying. The restaurant has an open concept with many airy windows overlooking the nearby mountains. They had the best ice mint tea with the added bonus of an afternoon snack spread for all patrons. The people were super friendly, they found out about Fausto’s birthday from his passport and baked him a cake.