Mandalay gets a bad rap from Yangon residents for many things. “It’s hot”, “It’s not safe”, “It’s too dusty”, “There is nothing to do” are just a few of the endless complaints I hear from friends and colleagues when they have to come up for work (as rarely do they come visit on holiday!)
Yet when they do come here one of the first things they ask me is, “Let’s go for mee shay.” This humble bowl of noodles has become a bit of a Mandalay staple.
I have had bosses from Yangon who would never be caught seen anywhere but the likes of Sule Shangri-La or Rangoon Tea House for a breakfast meeting. Yet when in Mandalay they’d happily pull up a hobbit-sized stool at a hot and noisy tea shop to scarf down a bowl or two of mee shay with colleagues.
The dish comes from Shan State, with Mogok’s tangy version being the original favorite. But over the years, Mandalay has put its own spin on the recipe, spicing up the noodles with a few additional ingredients.
At tea shops, the mee shay cooking stations are often located outside of the main kitchen, giving guests the chance to watch the process up close. Medium-sized rice noodles are boiled until soft then thrown in to a bowl where the chef goes to work tossing in spoons of salt, fried crushed garlic, salted soya beans and shredded meat sauce, splashing on some chili-infused oil then topping it off with bean sprouts. The final ingredient is what makes Mandalay mee shay distinctly different from its northern counterpart: a thick glob of rice flour gel.
The whole process takes around 30 seconds. But once delivered to the table, the work is not yet over as the diner is expected to mix everything together and add cilantro, sour pickled vegetables and pork cracklings to taste. The result of this intensive mixing ordeal is worth the effort – each mouthful includes a bit of sour, spice, salt and a hint of sweet. As well, the crunch of the toasted garlic and crispy pork cracklings adds a nice contrast to the soft, sauce-coated noodles.
As a mee shay lover myself, I am regularly asking my local friends where to go for the best Mandalay mee shay. It rarely disappoints. In fact, I can only think of one time I didn’t finish a bowl and that was not necessarily because it was bad but because I happened to have had a massive breakfast just an hour before.
So after months of tastings and lots of local feedback, here is a list of Mandalay’s best bowls of mee shay.
THE LEGENDARY BOWL: BA HTOO MEE SHAY
Located adjacent to Ba Htoo Football Stadium, this family-run sidewalk stall is a Mandalay institution. The cooking station is a two-man job: one chef oversees the boiling of the noodles using a large ladle to drain them in the bowls while a second spoons in the perfect mix of ingredients before grabbing a pair of metal scissors to cut strips of pork meat onto the top. The flavor is unbeatable and the portion-size perfect for breakfast or a late morning snack. (Note: I’m convinced the bowls themselves are infused with years of mee shay flavouring, as the take-away, while still delicious, is not nearly as good).
Details: Between 71st and 72nd Streets and 29th and 30th Streets; opens 9 AM until the noodles run out.
RUSTIC DELIGHT: 16th STREET MEE SHAY
Although considered one of Mandalay’s most basic, the noodles from 16th Street are widely praised as the city’s best bowl. The roadside location features a collection of plastic tables and low stools on a dirt floor with a tarp providing some shade. The mee shay is excellent, the noodles covered in flavourful sauce with ample amounts of shredded pork, pork innards and yummy morsels of chewy fat. Despite its popularity, given the dusty setting and the ‘unusual’ ingredients, this may not be ideal for visitors’ first time foray into mee shay.
Details: 16th Street between 81st and 82nd Streets; opens around 8:30 AM, closes by 3 PM.
ALL-AROUND FAVOURITE: DYNASTY TEA SHOP
Dynasty is popular with students from nearby Mandalay University who come between classes for coffee or a chat with friends. It is a little oasis from the busy, dusty streets, with potted plants decorating the entrance, neat rows of low white tables filling the inside and Myanmar classic rock music playing from morning till night. The mee shay is by far the most popular item on the menu and for good reason – U Khin Mg Shwe has been making the dish for over a decade and insists on using fresh, high-quality ingredients. What better way to start the day than a little Zaw Win Htut and a bowl of lip-smacking-good noodles?
Details: Corner of 40th and 70th Streets; opens 6 AM – 9:30 PM (mee shay only available 6 AM – 12 PM).
SOPHISTICATED NOODLES: UNIQUE MANDALAY
I occasionally have breakfast meetings that require a venue with a bit more class than a tea shop. My go-to has been Mingalabar Restaurant (71st and 29th corner), which opens early but serves what could be called ‘filler, not thriller’. Thankfully, Unique Mandalay – not to be confused with the tourist-filled Unique Mandalay – came to the rescue when it opened its doors in January. The mee shay is great and the setting – a tastefully decorated wooden building on a leafy side street – is perfect for a leisurely breakfast. And they have espresso-based drinks. Café latte and noodles? Yes, please.
Details: 70th Street between 27th and 28th Streets, 6 AM – 5:30 PM.
SPECIAL MENTION: MYAY OH MEE SHAY
Although not fitting with our theme of Mandalay mee shay, the Myay Oh variation is a popular local favorite during the rainy season and colder winter nights. This Chinese-influenced version is cooked and served in a clay pot (‘myay oh’ in Myanmar language) and features lots of vegetables with a generous serving of tangy broth.
DETAILS: Across from Aung Tha Mu Pagoda on 63rd between 28 and 29th Streets and at various stalls in the night market on 76th between 31st and 24th Streets. Opens from around 5 – 10 PM.