Life among the pagodas
I recently had the opportunity to tag along with Yangon Food Tours for a dinner tour. It was a great experience, and I wanted to share some of it here on the blog for those of you who are curious about Burmese cuisine, and for anyone who might be interested in taking a food tour while visiting Myanmar. It was a great experience, and, as someone who lives locally, the dinner tour is totally worthwhile in terms of getting a good sampling of Myanmar foods. Yangon Food Tours is owned by some friends of ours who are involved in social enterprises targeted at reducing poverty, aiding victims of human trafficking, providing education, and creating small businesses. So not only does taking the tour mean a great meal, it also supports good work being done in Myanmar.
We met up at the edge of Maha Bandoola Park, near the Sule Pagoda, and walked through a long strip of food booths on our way to our first stop. We passed shops serving all sorts of fruit drinks, fish soup, assorted noodle dishes, and skewered meat.
About halfway down the strip of food stalls, we reached our first stop, and were welcomed with a serving of fried wontons and Shan style tofu. These were served with a dipping sauce made of tamarind and lime juice, with chili, cilantro, and sesame added. If you are not keen on tofu, don’t let the name throw you off. Shan Tofu is not made from soybeans, but from chickpea flour, and it is soft, tender, and flavorful. It has a texture similar to that of a firm custard, and when it is plunged in the tamarind juice dip, it is a treat for the taste buds. I could eat a whole plate of these by myself.
The texture of this snack reminds me of crepes, fortune cookies, and a burrito, all at once. It is the size of a small crepe when the thin batter is poured onto the hot iron, when it is cooked, the batter has a flavor similar to that of a fortune cookie, and like burritos, these gangster snacks (as they are called in Burmese) have a filling and are wrapped up and served in a piece of paper.
The gangster snack is cooked over hot coals, and under the metal lid.
The savory filling includes chickpeas, sliced greens, cabbage and tomato.
The sweet version is filled with freshly shredded coconut meat, and drizzled with syrup made from palm sugar. As it cooks, the syrup caramelizes, and combined with the texture of the coconut and the pancake, the overall result is sublime.
The fellow making our snack was really cheerful and friendly–it was great to watch the work of someone who clearly enjoyed his job.
Our third stop was for another classic Myanmar snack: the rice pancake snack. These are made with glutinous rice flour, and are pan-fried and baked simultaneously. The batter is poured into a pan and place over the heat, and the cook then adds chopped peanuts to the pancake. Once the peanuts are added, the cook flips the pancake, then sets a stove filled with burning coals atop the frying pan. The batter is not leavened, yet the pancake is incredibly soft and fluffy; I assume that the reason for this must be a) that there is egg in the batter, and b) the manner in which the pancake is cooked.
To serve, the cook slices the pancakes into bite-sized pieces with a scissors, sprinkles them with freshly shredded coconut, and puts it all into a baggie with a toothpick. I may or may not have forgotten to photograph the baggie with all its contents; these pancakes are just that good.
Samosas are a popular snack throughout Myanmar, and you can purchase them whole from street vendors in many parts of Yangon. One creative twist on the samosa is the samosa salad, which we tried next. The samosa is scissored up into small pieces, then mixed with chopped cabbage, tomatoes, mint and chickpeas and topped with lime juice. Another variation on the samosa salad is a soup, the method is the same, the only difference is that the salad has a slightly spicy chickpea broth ladled over it before serving. Both are hearty and flavorful snacks. (I know, I know, this sounds more like a meal than a snack, but if you are a Myanmar person, a meal is only a meal if it includes rice. Food served sans rice is generally considered to be a snack.)
Our next stop was the King tea shop, a short walk from the Sule Pagoda. Here we sampled some classic tea shop fare.
Dumplings. This is a Chinese snack that Myanmar folks love, and it can be found at most big teashops in Myanmar. The dumplings here are available with either pork or chicken filling, and they are served with a mild chili sauce.
The next dish we sampled is another Myanmar classic: Shan noodles. This dish is composed of rice noodles, chicken, and a mild red chili paste. (The chilis contribute more color than spice to the dish–they are quite mild.) Before you dive into a bowl of Shan noodles, you have to stir it up with chopsticks, as our guide is demonstrating in the photo above. The noodles are served with a bowl of chicken broth and spicy pickled vegetables on the side.
A closer look at the pickled vegetables. They are slightly crunchy, and are slightly spicy. They really complete the noodle dish and taste delicious when mixed into the noodles.
Finally, a cup of the classic Myanmar black tea, also available in every tea shop in Myanmar, at every hour of the day. This delicious beverage is made from a black tea that has been heated and then mixed with evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. Phone, our tour guide, told us that it can take several hours from start to finish to make a good batch of tea from dried leaves. The tea is then sweetened to order; there are over a dozen ways to order the tea depending on how sweet a customer likes it.
This, our guide Phone informed us, was the real dinner stop on this tour. Everything up till this point was really more of an appetizer. Our group weaved through the crowded streets of downtown Yangon, past busy barbershops, pharmacies stuffed with various drugs, and vendors selling fruit on the sidewalks. We turned off into a side street, and found ourselves in front of Daw Saw Yee Myanmar Restaurant. This restaurant is famous for its traditional food, and it did not disappoint.
In a shop such as this one, you select all the curries and salads you wish to eat, and they are brought out in small bowls, accompanied with a plate of rice and a bowl of sour vegetable soup for each person. The idea is to share the dishes among all the people at the table.
Beef and pork curries.
Another feature of a traditional Burmese curry shop is a plateful of fresh vegetables and a cluster of lime leaves, served with bowls of fish paste. Myanmar folks love fish paste; it goes into a variety of curries, and it is also used as a dip for fresh veggies, as seen here. If you aren’t into fish paste, the veggies make a great palate cleanser in between dishes.
Pounded fish curry.
Pennywort salad: pennywort leaves chopped fine and combined with roasted peanuts, sliced shallots, chickpea flour, and topped with sesame seeds. We also ate the classic pickled tea leaf salad, which is a combination of fermented tea leaves, roasted nuts, and freshly chopped tomatoes.
Beef curry. The beef is incredibly tender, almost the texture of canned beef. This is impressive in Myanmar, where much of the beef is tough. This beef was steamed for hours before it was finished. We also had a pork curry cooked with black beans, also very tender and full of flavor.
The spread. It is also common in Myanmar to finish off a meal such as this with hot green tea and lumps of palm sugar, which, in my opinion is a perfect way to finish such a wonderful feast.
We still had a little bit of room left in our stomachs after all of this, but not much! We made our way out of Daw Saw Yee’s and popped into a dessert shop for our final stop.
Here we sampled a popular Myanmar dessert, faluda. Faluda is found in a number of South Asian and SE Asian countries, and every place has its own variation. Here in Myanmar it is a mixture of tapioca and coconut jelly, served with a sweet syrup and then topped with a splash of milk and a scoop of ice cream. I had never tried it before, as I am often skeptical about jelly or tapioca making for a good dessert. I have now changed my mind. The faluda was absolutely delicious, cold and refreshing, and I am already fantasizing about when I can make another foray to get some more.
As someone who has lived here for over two and a half years, I was really impressed with how much local food Yangon Food Tours was able to pack into a two hour dinner tour. Phone, our guide spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable about Myanmar food and culture; his relaxed personality and his enthusiasm for food made the tour pleasant, and the time went by quickly! If you plan to visit Myanmar any time soon, I recommend making time for a food tour: the value for your money is great, and you will walk away with a well-rounded Myanmar food and flavor experience! Check out Yangon Food Tours at their website for more info.
** Note: my friends from Yangon Food Tours didn’t pay me to say these things; however they did give me a free tour and asked if I could take a few photos for them.