‘Have You Eaten?’: An Angry Foodie’s Portrait of Burma
It’s likely that you’ve never tried Burmese food, or even seen a Burmese restaurant.
There’s a reason for this.
Wedged between the three culinary giants China, India, and Thailand, you might expect the cuisine of Burma to be robust and fascinating, a curious melting pot of flavors and cooking styles. But sadly, considering the gastronomic mastery of its siblings, Burma is something of a black sheep; like a bubble-blowing, mouth-breathing bastard son of Asian cooking—drooling and banging around pots and pans to no discernable effect. When you’re visiting a country who’s national dish—the pinnacle of their culinary evolution—is noodle soup with vegetables, greasy fishcakes, and banana peels (Mohinga), you know your taste buds are in for a beating.
Before the British rocked up in 1824, there was no Burmese word for hello. Instead, locals would simply launch into conversation by politely asking “Sar pi pi lar?” meaning, “Have you eaten?” I imagine that if the response was, “Yes,” then the appropriate follow up must have been, “Oh, my condolences.”
Boring, unimaginative noodle soups comprise 50% of Burma’s cuisine, while another 49% belongs to boring, unimaginative curries. Most of these dishes are adulterated imports from the neighbors, but without the bold flavors of India, the spicy complexity of Thailand, or the wonderful variety of China. Instead, you get what tourist literature optimistically calls “foreign dishes with a unique Burmese twist”—that twist being horrendous amounts of oil.
The remaining 1% belongs to those dishes born of culinary inspiration that can best be described as ‘horrifying.’ I’ve cobbled together a list of my five most ‘memorable’ meals in Burma, which all appear to fall in this latter category. And while the disturbing flavors have long escaped my palette, I’m sure the trauma of each experience will continue haunting me for years.
#5: Bein Mote
Don’t be fooled, these innocent looking pancakes hold a sinister secret. Indigenous to the mountainous north and Shan State, I enjoyed a few too many of these shifty snacks at a street stall in Kalaw’s tribal market, not knowing what they were. The rich, nutty-tasting cake is made with rice flour, jaggery (palm tree sap), sugar, and… well … You can read about my fateful run-in with Bein Mote in The Wrong Pancake.
#4: A Bird?
The crumbling, colonial city of Rangoon is Burma’s culinary heart—or as I call it, ground-zero. My fourth most memorable meal occurred here while I was returning to my guesthouse, walking through a maze of street-food stalls, when a stout Bamar woman shouted out to me, “Hello sir, look!” She was pointing to a plastic tray of mangled animal carcasses, and nodding enthusiastically.
It was terrifying. How could I say no?
I paid her sixty cents, and after plunging it in a deep fryer (ensuring it was dead), she handed me what appeared to be a small bird.
It certainly wasn’t chicken—the skin was too tough, and it was quite boney—but it still tasted nice, seasoned with a mild variant of tandoori powder. It washed down nicely with a cold Myanmar Beer.
#3: Ame’u Pyot (Stinky Cow Intestines in a Bowl)
It was on a baking hot afternoon in Rangoon that I ventured into the food markets near Sule Pagoda, on a determined hunt for fried crickets or grilled insect larvae (which are served alive and wriggling, though slightly charred). I was warned that both were out of season in early February—and they were—so for the sake of my foodie adventure, I was forced to settle with Ame’u Pyot.
I quietly pulled up a stool with the locals, as the husky Indian maître dee hacked away at a foul-smelling pile of cow guts, occasionally glancing up at me. “Where do you like be coming from?” she asked.
“Where do I come from?” I queried. “I’m from the United States.”
“Ahhh…” she smiled, transferring a handful of intestines into my bowl. “Justin Bieber!” she exclaimed, and the rest of the locals nodded in agreement.
The intestines were floating in a yellowish soup, and unlike the bird carcass, I found it thoroughly horrible. It was like eating flavorless elastic bands soaked in chicken broth and stomach acid. Chewing seemed useless, so I ended up forcing it down in whole pieces.
“Mmmmmm.” I attempted, smiling as the locals watched on.
She handed me a soufflé cup of balachaung, an oily sauce made with garlic, chili, and shrimp powder. You’re supposed to stir it into the soup—a sad attempt to spruce up rubbery cow organs, an act which seems to me as futile as trying to lighten the mood at a funeral by making arm-pit farts.
The worst part came with the aftertaste, and the disturbing buttery feeling of the intestinal lining sticking to the walls of my mouth.
The sight alone stopped me dead in my tracks. Plumes of steam roiled over diners, who hunkered down on low stools around a food stall—the surface of which looked like a John Carpenter murder scene. I moved closer like a moth to the light, pulling up a chair and staring in wonder at what appeared to be some sort of Burmese fondue, except instead of French bread, you have assorted, skewered animal parts, and instead of dipping it in cheese, you dip it in a murky, boiling cesspool of grease.
For posterity, I ordered one of everything.
First was a pig ear, then a pierced chunk of animal fat. Everything after that remains a mystery; a parade of strange, exotic textures dipped in a sweet, brown sauce that lies somewhere between Hoisin and Barbecue. It wasn’t terrible.
When I picked up the last of the skewers, a homogenous, brown hunk of… something, I could no longer bear the suspense and inquired as to what I was eating.
The woman stopped what she was doing and thought for a moment, before finally deciding, “Blood-blood.” With a nod, she returned to mutilating a large hunk of gristle, leaving me to stew in the mystery.
#1: Laphet Thouq
My first attempt at ordering Laphet Touq—Burma’s most notorious dish—was a fantastic backfire. “Lapek touk,” I mumbled, and the waiter raised an eyebrow. “La… Lapak touk?” The waiter gave a confused nod, and returned a few minutes later with a cup of sweet, condensed milk. “No, no, no!” I smiled, “Lapak touk!”
“Ahhh,” grinned the waiter, and he came back a few minutes later with another cup, this one filled with what appeared to be either soy sauce or very dark, salty tea… Cutting my loses, I thanked him for the salty tea and ordered fried noodles.
I set out the next morning to resume my hunt for the dreaded Laphet Thouq, this time armed with my order scrawled in Burmese on a piece of paper. I handed it to the woman at a recommended street stall, and pulled up a short, plastic stool at one of the miniature tables. A moment later, a small glass dish was placed in front of me. It was a standard looking athouq, or ‘Burmese salad,’ which bears no resemblance to its leafy cousins found in the West. Burmese salads are a heavy and filling affair, a dense mixture of thinly sliced vegetables, nuts, sauces, and occasionally meat or seafood. What sets Laphet Thouq apart from the rest is that its main ingredient is soft and slimy fermented tea leaves—similar in texture to wet, wilted spinach or Korean kimchi. Mixed in with the fermented tea leaves are ripe tomatoes, lettuce, chickpeas, toasted sesame seeds, and crunchy, dehydrated shrimp.
Getting past its forbidding appearance, I took a nervous bite.
It was spectacular.
An incredible balance of soft and crunchy, sweet and savory, with an incredible prevailing flavor that I’d compare with pesto—but still quite unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before…
Despite my accusations of Burma being a gastronomic desert, it’s really one of the most exhilarating foodie destinations I can recommend. In our modern age of internationalism and globalization, Burma is one of the few remaining travel destinations that can offer the excitement of sampling a completely alien cuisine. So don’t let my words discourage you until you’ve tried it for yourself. Pull up a chair, lower your standards, and let the exotic, misguided chefs of Burma take your palette on a bewildering ride that you might not enjoy, but will certainly never forget.