FOOD & TRAVEL
Myanmar on a plate
A guide to Yangon's restaurants for the intrepid traveller
Yangon restaurants are, admittedly, not for everyone. Their curries tend to be oily, the service loud and there can be side effects the next day. Nor is Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, famed for its food. An old Burmese saying goes; "Mandalay sagaa, Mawlamyaing asaa, Yangon akywaa," or "Mandalay for eloquence, Moulmein for food and Yangon for boasting."
The best Burmese cuisine is to be found in Burmese homes. "Rich Burmese people don't go out to eat Burmese food, they eat it at home," says Feel restaurant-owner Soe Nyi Nyi.
Not everyone visiting Myanmar these days - an estimated 600,000 foreign tourists will visit the country in 2012, compared with about half those numbers last year - will be fortunate enough to be invited to a rich Myanmar friend's home to sample authentic Burmese fare. Many travellers, perhaps wisely, stick to hotel food, usually poor imitations of western or Chinese cuisine.
An increasingly popular Yangon-based restaurant chain among expatriates and locals is Feel, with its main outlet on Pyihtaugsu Avenue in Yangon and with eight branches throughout the former capital.
Feel also has a branch at the only pitstop halfway on the highway between Yangon and Naypyitaw, Myanmar's new capital. Feel's founder, Soe Nyi Nyi, originally wanted to specialise in western cuisine. His first restaurant, Dream, opened in 1992 and sold hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes to Yangon's upper and middle classes, a limited market.
Soe Nyi Nyi moved in to Burmese cuisine under the Feel banner only after he lost most of his Yangon-based market in 2005, when the government suddenly shifted the capital, with most of the country's civil servants, to Naypyitaw, 350 kilometres to the north.
"Most of my Dream customers were government workers. With Feel I shifted to Myanmar food to target the lower-middle class," Soe Nyi Nyi says.
The Feel outlet on Pyihtaugsu Avenue has a classic range of curries, vegetable and soup dishes which the customers point to and then have delivered to their tables on tiny plates.
One dish costs about 2,000 kyat (about $2.30 or Bt70), dear by Myanmar standards. A meal for four, with Myanmar beer, can set you back $20.
Like Thai and Chinese cuisine, the dishes are meant to be shared among dinner companions, not enjoyed a la carte.
"We make our food clean and we use quality oil - Brolio brand from Germany," Soe Nyi Nyi says. "The other thing is we keep our toilets very clean."
Quality oil makes a big difference in Burmese cuisine, not known for its healthfulness. "Yangon curries, in general, tend to be oily," notes Alfred Birnbaum, a Myanmar cuisine expert who has lived for eight years in the country. "I prefer the salads, ngapi dips, with tosaya parboiled vegetables, and various fried or simmered savouries."
"The clear soups (hinjo) that are meant to clean the palate between dishes are generally underwhelming," he adds. It's difficult to distinguish Myanmar curries, the heart of the meal, from their Indian and Thai counterparts.
"Our curries are less spicy than Indian curries and less sweet than Thai curries," says Than Than Kyin, the manager of the Danuphyu Daw Saw Yi restaurant, another Yangon chain whose original establishment was opened in 1954.
The original restaurant, opened by the now deceased Daw Saw Yi from the Danuphyu district in the Irrawaddy Delta, offers 80 different dishes to choose from.
Like most central Burmese cuisine, the Danuphyu restaurant offers no seafood, but a rich variety of freshwater fish and prawn, caught from the Irrawaddy's numerous tributaries.
"Our most popular dish is our Butterfish curry," Than Than Kyin says, citing a well-known freshwater fish.
Another popular "authentic" Burmese restaurant is Aung Thukha, in Bahan township, near the Savoy Hotel.
Cuisine from Moulmein, on Myanmar's south-eastern coastline, is famed for its seafood. Shan cuisine, from the far north, is also distinctive, closer to Thai.
"Burmese food is not easy to categorise, not only because of regional cuisines, but also due to the diversity of ethnic cultures," Birmbaum points out.
"Burma was a Southeast Asian 'Yugoslavian tinderbox' created by the British, who further complicated matters by bringing in Bengali and Gurka labourers en masse - so of course the subcontinental influences are strong."