Chef Leah Cohen gives the rundown on where to find some of the best food in Myanmar, including catfish stew, tea-leaf salad, and pineapple-avocado shakes.
Leah Cohen, the chef-owner of the Southeast Asian restaurant Pig & Khao in NYC, is of Filipino and Jewish heritage. She’s been traveling back to Southeast Asia almost annually since childhood. On a recent trip, she spent two weeks scoping out the best food in Myanmar, seeking inspiration for her menu at P&K. Cohen traveled through Myanmar’s major cities, exploring markets, restaurants, and street stalls, as well as through the countryside, cooking in the homes of local women. Here are her recommendations for eating and cooking some of the best food in Myanmar.
Bogyoke Market, Yangon
“The moment we checked into our hotel in Yangon, we headed to Bogyoke, which is also called Scott Market. Scott Market is the go-to outdoor market in Yangon. While jewelry is the main source of commerce, and you can find everything from fabrics to silver home goods to handmade plate ware, the culinary offerings are the real draw, comprising some of the best food in Myanmar. The market has several rows of outdoor street vendors lined up with tables and chairs in front, manned by the young boys of the family that own each booth. As a rule of thumb, I always pick the busiest booth to eat at, preferably the one busiest with locals rather than tourists. For lunch we ate Burmese fried rice and Shan Noodles. Shan Noodles is the most popular dish in the Shan state. The dish is comprised of rice noodles and minced pork served with or without broth. The noodles always come with pickled mustard greens. Our entire lunch cost about $2 per person. Food artisans also work their craft via pushcart, including a woman with mounds of julienned papaya and carrots, shredded cabbage, and shrimp for a papaya noodle salad.”
Bo Gyoke Rd., Yangon
“Yangon’s Chinatown is about a four-to-six-block area where you can find some of the best food in Myanmar, with an abundance of food artisans making local specialties such as roti on a giant open plancha. Sun-dried rice cakes are deep-fried in peanut oil, while giant mounds of fresh coconuts are available around the area, cracked open for patrons to eat and drink. Yangon’s Chinatown is also home to a bevy of seafood kiosks, where we picked our own freshly caught fish (on display in various buckets) and had it prepared to our liking. Offerings vary and include giant razor clams, mantis shrimp, whole fish, large prawns, and more. Other stalls offer Chinese sausage, which is hung out to air dry, and produce stands feature bitter melon, leafy greens, and bean sprouts, as well as eggplant and tomatoes.”
West of the Sule Pagoda, which is in the center of downtown Yangon
“Tea shops are where all the locals gather in Myanmar. Most shops have a TV and since the majority of locals do not own their own, the tea shops serve as a hub to watch sporting events and such. Late night, they are mostly frequented by men, while during the day they serve as a meeting place for friends to gather. While the country abounds with green tea, the tea shops also offer sweet tea, which is quite similar to Thai iced tea, though served hot. The hot red tea is mixed with condensed and evaporated milk. It gets mixed by repeatedly pouring from one cup to another in order to create a froth on the top. Mohinga, a catfish stew over broken rice noodles and banana stems, is the national dish of Myanmar, and is served in most tea shops in the morning. Fried snacks, including Chinese donuts, dumplings with sweet red rice, and Burmese-style samosas, are also typically on the menu. Unlike coffee shops in the United States, tea is rarely taken to go; patrons instead sit down and enjoy the cup leisurely.”
Anuwratha Road, on the south side of 46th Street, Yangon
Inthar Heritage House, Inle Lake
“Inthar Heritage House is built on stilts over Inle Lake. It’s part restaurant, part hydroponic garden (99% of their produce comes from the garden), part cooking school, and part Burmese cat sanctuary. Private cooking lessons ($40 per person, book one day in advance) are offered to guests and general tourists alike. Classes last about an hour and attendees are taught how to make four different local dishes. Inthar Heritage House also runs a small cooking school for local Myanmar students. Schooling is free for them as long as they work in the on-site restaurant for a year after graduating, non-gratis. Inthar Restaurant is one of the few in the area that offers a fine-dining experience, with incredible views of Inle Lake complementing some of the best food in Myanmar. We were encouraged to stroll the grounds and also check out the Burmese Cat Sanctuary. Inthar Heritage House can only be accessed by hired boats, which are abundant on the lake. On your way in or out, be sure to take a ride through the floating hydroponic gardens.”
Inpawkhon Village on Inle Lake, Shan State
Mr. Toe Restaurant, Inle Lake
“Don’t let the name fool you, this local neighborhood hotspot showcases some of the best food in Myanmar. Like everything else on Inle Lake, the large, open-air restaurant can only be accessed by boat. While you’re dining, your boat driver will also grab a bite in the back along with the other drivers, family style. All of the fish—which is mostly carp—comes from Inle Lake and has been caught that morning. We ate whole fish topped with spicy Burmese tomato sauce. Chinese artichokes, also known as crones, are stir-fried and should not be missed. Mr. Toe, the chef-owner, might be the tallest man in all of Myanmar, and is always around and friendly. Since there is a lack of gas on Inle Lake, the entire kitchen runs on flames generated from burning rice husks, which many of the restaurants get for free from the local rice farmers. Another unique aspect of dining here is getting to watch the fishermen as they stand up while rowing their boats with one foot.”
In front of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, Inle Lake, Shan State
Taung Chune Restaurant, Taunggyi
“The mountain town of Taunggyi is the capital of Shan State. Here we dined at Taung Chune, where they serve traditional Shan cuisine. The restaurant is located close to the top of the mountain, which means the views are unmatchable, but in order to get there, we had to travel up some steep and windy roads. We ate tofu fritters, rice salad with dried soya bean cake, local fried chicken (not battered, yet incredibly crispy and delicious), pork curry with banana flowers, and ground chicken wontons with the thinnest wrapper I’ve ever seen, made from sticky rice flour. Green tea is in surplus in Myanmar, and is very often offered complimentary. The fermented green tea leaves are the star of lephet thoke, or Burmese tea leaf salad, a salad consisting of roasted beans, cabbage, fermented tea leaves, tomatoes, peanuts, peanut oil, and lime. Beverage offerings at Taung Chune include pineapple and avocado shakes, along with Myanmar beer.”
Yae Hwet Oo Street, Yae Aye Kwin Quarter, Taunggyi, Shan State
First photo by Momo/Flickr; remaining photos courtesy Leah Cohen.
Want to learn more about the best food in Myanmar? Check out our feature on the country’s culinary scene.