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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Myanmar

Historic Diet

Myanmar has always had a large number of plants and animals on its land, especially in the lowlands, and many of these plants and animals were the base of the people's historic diet. Some of these foods are still popular today and have spread from the region to other parts of the world, including the orange and some spices. However, most of the foods arrived with settlers and later with traders.

Burmese Food - Bamboo Shoots
Bamboo shoots

Most of the historic foods eaten in Myanmar are simply what could be found and scavenged. These plants generally arrived with early settlers or the winds and are foods indigenous to the greater region as a whole. Among the earliest foods to arrive were bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, kampot peppers, durian, mangosteen, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and spices including cardamom. The animal life was also diverse and again made up a part of the historic diet, although in small amounts relative to today. The animals consumed were both large, such as the water buffalo and boar and small, including most of the sea life. The fish consumed include both freshwater fish, including carp and catfish, as well as saltwater fish, including mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab.

Culinary Influences

Myanmar's diet began with what was locally available and today the diet is based on that same base, but with the addition of nearby influences. Unlike some of its neighbors, Myanmar has spent much of its history fairly isolated from much of the world and the influences come almost exclusively from neighboring countries.

Neighboring India, Myanmar has taken a great number of foods and spices from India, however today the food doesn't reflect Indian food in most cases. Spices, curries, and other foods, like naan are present in Myanmar, but none truly altered the cuisine. Where India made an impact that continues today is in the fact that India was the birthplace of Buddhism. Buddhism and to a lesser degree Hinduism and later Islam all arrived to Myanmar via India and each of these religions altered the food. The Hindus don't consume beef, while the Muslims don't eat pork or drink alcohol. However the majority is Buddhist, who have no true dietary restriction, but tend to eat more vegetarian foods than most people, a trend ever present in Myanmar today.

The second great influence on the diet of Myanmar came via the northern mountains from China. Many dishes and ingredients arrived from China and today most dishes in Myanmar reflect Chinese cuisine or dishes, although nearly all are authentically local takes or adaptations of Chinese food. Soy sauce and noodles are ever present in Myanmar today, reflections of China's influence.

Others neighbors also brought changes to Myanmar's diet, including foods from the Middle East, which again arrived primarily via India and foods and dishes from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries. Unlike in Thailand though, the food in Myanmar tends to be very mild and in most areas today is less reliant on fish than much of Thailand is. Despite this, many fruits and vegetables popular in other Southeast Asian countries are also popular in Myanmar and can be found on numerous street corners.

The only influence from elsewhere comes from the Europeans in the 1500s and the British who colonized the region in the 1800s. In the 1500s the Europeans arrived to the region, however generally bypassing Myanmar in favor of the southern water routes. None-the-less, the Europeans brought new foods from both Europe as well as the Americas through trading, which arrived to Myanmar in limited numbers. Many of these new additions were added at a minimum, but nearly all can be found in local dishes if one looks long enough. From the Americas came maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. From Europe came breads, pastries, cakes, and some dairy products, including butter and cheese. Later the British introduced new dining habits and foods, including making tea more popular among the people.

For much of the 1900s Myanmar has been isolated from most of the world as common foods and drinks found in nearly every country are only beginning to arrive in Myanmar. Fast foods, frozen meals, international brands, and even restaurants are rare in Myanmar today, but this trend may change in the near future. In 2012 many countries opened diplomatic relations with Myanmar, allowing the introduction of new foods and drinks, which has led to new competition between local brands and historic restaurants with international brands. Although no fast food restaurants currently exist (as of September, 2012), many major international brands, such as Coke® appear to be making a move to enter the market. The food scene could change dramatically over the next 5-10 years, but as of now little has changed in nearly a century.

Staple Foods

Ngapi: not a staple in the true sense, ngapi is a fish or shrimp paste used in many Burmese dishes
Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Palata: thin greasy bread also known as paratha in India
Rice: rice is usually cooked and served as sticky rice and accompanies most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Mohinga: the national dish is simply fish broth with noodles, but it comes in numerous varieties

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Myanmar is confusing at best. Due to their past with attachments to India, but being under British control, there is an odd combination of both these dining cultures in Myanmar while the country has only recently begun to open up to the rest of the world. Because of this quickly changing environment dining could be vastly different from restaurant to restaurant or home to home, even in the same city.

When meeting with locals try to arrive on time and remove your shoes before entering the house or restaurant if others have done so before you. Greet everyone upon arrival, beginning with the elders and wait to be shown a seat as elders are generally seated first and your host may show you to a pre-assigned seat.

As you sit down you may encounter a few different settings, most likely two extremes. Most people eat with their right hand and don't use any sort of dining utensil (cutlery) except in the case of noodles, when chopsticks are used. In these settings you may be asked to wash your hands prior to eating and remember to never touch any food with your left hand. However due to the British influence many other places will offer a fork, spoon, and sometimes even a knife as you are expected to dine in the more formal continental style. As you walk into a home or restaurant your host may automatically assume it is easier for you to use a fork and spoon so will offer you these items, while in other situations you are asked to eat solely with your right hand. If offered only a fork and spoon (no knife), use the spoon in the right hand to eat from and hold the fork in the left hand to push food onto the spoon, but don't eat from the fork.

When the meal arrives, the dishes are generally placed in the middle of the table for all to share; serving and eating begins in order of age and honor so don't begin until you're directed to do so by your host. You may also notice your host taking a bit of rice and placing it on the table in the absence of elders; this is a tradition in honor of those who have passed. If serving yourself, be sure to never touch the serving spoon to your plate as your plate is considered unclean.

When you are finished eating, be sure to finish all the food on your plate and in your bowl as leaving any food behind is considered wasteful and rude. Once the food is done, place your chopsticks together on top of your rice bowl or on the chopstick rest next to your plate if you have one. If you have a fork, spoon, and/or knife place these together face down on the plate at the 5:00 position to indicate that you have finished eating.

If you are dining in a restaurant you may have to go to the register to get and pay for your bill as servers will rarely bring a bill to your table (unless you specifically ask them to) as that is considered rude. Tipping is still a foreign concept in Myanmar and as few foreigners make it to Myanmar no one expects a tip. Even in high end hotels and restaurants tips aren't expected, but there are few of these in the country.

Celebrations & Events

Although Myanmar has numerous celebratory events, few have close ties to particular foods served at each. All of these events, including weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, New Year, etc., usually serve authentic Lao dishes and personal favorites for those who are being celebrated.

Drinks

Burmese Food - Coconut milk
Coconut milk

Myanmar is one of the few countries in the world without Coke, however this is quickly changing as the country is opening up and trade embargos are being lifted. Due to the long period of time with these embargoes though most international brands are only beginning to enter the country as numerous local varieties of soft drinks, coffee, tea, juices, and alcoholic beverages have been around for years. Although local soft drinks do exist, the country is better known for their coffee, which is typically served with sugar and milk. Sugar cane juice is another local favorite worth a try for the person with a high sweetness tolerance.

When it comes to alcoholic drinks in Myanmar, beer and whiskey reign supreme. Most of the available beers are regional brands, like "Tiger" and "Angkor," but the domestic "Mandalay" beer is also a decent choice. Whiskey is also oddly popular, and other hard liquors also exist, although again they tend to be local versions and are often flavored. Wine is not a commonly consumed drink in Myanmar and finding decent quality wine may be quite a challenge.

The tap water in Myanmar should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013