Ethnic food of Myanmar conjures up a cornucopia of flavors and traditions that are now becoming easier to try in Yangon thanks to people of the different states and regions establishing eateries in the city. With the help of Myanmar Ethnic Restaurant Group and its founder, owner of Padonmar Restaurant Sonny Aung Khin, we handed over the mic to four advocates of various ethnic fares. Translation by Swan Htet.
Khin Khin San, founder of Rakhine restaurant Min Lan Seafood
Rakhine is surrounded by seas full of fish. The fish are really fresh, eaten on the day mostly just eat them with mont di or Rakhine-style rice, because basically that’s all we have. Rakhine has a simple but delicious cuisine with quality fish paste and not a lot of cooking oil. We grind up shrimp into fish paste and eat it with vegetables and salads.
Also a lot of a local type of chilli; after you taste the spice, you don’t feel too much heat. We sell it here in Yangon, and it’s the same chilli used by most people in Rakhine. They go to the market before breakfast, lunch, and dinner because it’s important to get fresh food. If I summed Rakhine food up with core ingredients it would be chilli, fish paste, and fresh fish. Maybe turmeric. Looking back to my childhood, I ate mont di and rice three times per day, every day. There were some Chinese people who sold fried noodles, and also Rakhine mohinga, which uses saltwater fish unlike in Yangon where they use freshwater fish. I’m from the middle part of Rakhine in a township called Myay Pone, where the broth in the mont di is a bit thicker than that of Sitwe’s further north. The quality of rice noodle in Myay Pone is also much better.
Myo Min Thet, manager of Myanmar restaurant Taing Yin Thar Restaurant
Burmese food is mainly eaten for breakfast, with most people eating classic dishes like mohinga or mong di. Dishes differ according to the combination of spices used in them, but in general all the dishes tend to use flour and rice powder. The food can be a bit oily for foreigners so it’s better to eat at places that do not cook it so oily. Sometimes MSG is used, too, which foreigners don’t like, so it’s better to look for kitchens that don’t use it. Mandalay and Yangon have similar snacks and meals but they taste quite different because of the local ingredients and spices. In Yangon you’ll find coconut noodles, samosas, Burmese doughnuts, paratha. There’s plenty of influences that have been tweaked to Myanmar’s appetite and culture. Most Burmese food is not too spicy or pungent, and tends to be on the sweeter side. Look at paratha: in India they like to eat it with bean curry, but here people like it with sugar.
Daw Theint, chef of Mon restaurant For U
Mon food mainly consists of steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves, a variety of salads, and of course the Mawlamyine mohinga. The essence of Mon food is created by different tropical ingredients such as banana leaves, bamboo shoots, and gourd to add a sweet flavour. These ingredients are the core of most Mon dishes. Other cuisine, like Kachin food, tastes familiar to people in Yangon so they are more likely to enjoy it, but only local Mon people seem to enjoy the strong, pungent taste of Mon food, whereas most people in Yangon don’t.
That’s why I make adjustments to some dishes, though when Mon customers walk in, I cook in the authentic style, which I picked up from my Mon grandmother. My father and grandparents were from Mawlamyine and though I was raised in Yangon I was brought up on the food. During religious and town events when I was younger we enjoyed a dish that mixed different types of vegetable curries with a main pork curry. I also loved the fish cakes: first the fish was seasoned with turmeric, then we cooked fresh coconut to get oil that we put afterwards on the fish. Finally, we cut the fish cake into pieces and garnished it with fried onions. This is the way real Mon food is made. One of the most popular desserts, arguably a necessity, is sticky rice with ground shrimp and coconut. There’s also bread and coconut curry with durian. As you can probably guess by now, coconut is a key ingredient in Mon food! Now with people becoming more aware of healthy living it’s important I cook healthy Mon food without compromising the taste.
Hnin Swe, owner of Kachin restaurant Chin Ngan San
In Kachin state we use less cooking oil than the rest of the country. Villagers use herbs from the nature around them, cooking with wood and charcoal in clay pots. Most of the food is spicy because it warms up our bodies in the chilly weather. We usually use Kachin curry powder, basil, and coriander. Fish is also a staple since we live by the river. Other go-to ingredients include taro, bamboo shoots, sweet potato, and beans. Apart from its spiciness, the fare is sweet and sour. As well as main dishes, we have lots of soups, salads, and pounded meats and fish. I love it all because we have good soil that produces organic produce with good smells and flavors. If I had to choose one dish to treat a guest, it would be steamed fish and chicken soup, done in a special Kachin way and only available in the state and at my restaurant. I’m from Kachin capital Myitkyina, but I want to promote Kachin food in Yangon. We have a delicious Kachin fermented rice dessert which we make into a milky dish with rice balls and dried milk on top, served hot or cold. Since Kachin food is very popular in Yangon now, I would like to introduce more dishes from Myitkyina. I’ve been running my restaurant for two years—first a small place in Myaynigone and then here next to Kandawgyi Lake. I love cooking Kachin food and I’m happy I’ve made it a family business.