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SE Asia Report Part 1 Myanmar

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Not much on Chowhound about Myanmar so this will be new to most. First, be aware that the infrastructure outside Yangon and Mandalay is sparse. But that doesn’t mean the chow is scarce. Initial investigations suggested that the food was likely to be disappointing – sort of a cross between Chinese and Indian – but the worst of both. Fortunately things are much better than that.
Most hotel rates include breakfast, and Westerners are likely to be served a ‘standard’ breakfast: eggs, toast and coffee (or tea) with sweetened condensed milk (or even worse, sweetened condensed non-dairy creamer). The bread is disastrous – all the texture of Wonderbread, with none of the flavour! I think they feed the yeast with palm sugar (cheap and plentiful) and the bread takes on this distinct sweet flavour. Just awful. But the eggs are OK. I recommend you take your courage in both hands and ask for Mojinga (or Mohinga) for breakfast, which is what the locals eat. It’s sort of a rice vermicelli soup that is mildly spiced and excellent.
We started in YANGON, and our first meal turned out to be the best of the trip – maybe because our expectations were pretty low. This was at Theik Di Shin, 331/353 Anawrahta St (corner of 1st St). This was in the heart of the city and is frequented mostly by local tour guides and their individual customers (no tour groups). Obviously upscale, and remarkably tasty cuisine (menu available in English). We always try things that are not common at home, so went for the Eel Curry (which occasioned much amusement – we found out later that it is reputed to have aphrodisiacal properties – but this is only a chow review). Other than the small bones/ligaments this was a superb dish. The curry contained many distinct flavours rather than being just a melange and was medium-hot overall. We also had Roselle Soup (a leaf that is used widely in Myanmar – but this version was the best we tried), Pennywort Salad – excellent fresh salad ingredients, all crunchy. And a Mushroom and Watercress vegetable dish. The latter was almost buttery and rich – surprising as we hardly saw butter at all on the trip. Cost for two was K13,000 (about $17 US, including beer). We were taken to this restaurant by our local guide, and after we discussed the meal, he strongly recommended the Green Elephant in Mandalay as being the finest Burmese restaurant in the country (see below). Our next meal was at Sabai, Sabai a Thai restaurant at 232 Dhama Zedi Road, Bahan (suburb) Yangon. This restaurant was touted as the best Thai restaurant in Myanmar and had recently received an award from Where Magazine as the best restaurant in Myanmar. We had Long Beans with Kaffir Lime Leaf (excellent – fresh), Fried Catfish with fried pork skin and crispy basil leaf (OK but skip the pork which was like bullets); River prawns (3 large prawns – priced per piece and slightly overcooked) and a lentil coconut dessert (best avoided). Total cost K15,000 ($20US) and OK but wouldn’t return. Also frequented by tour buses.
Then on to BAGAN (hint: if you fly insist on a window seat). This is tiny and spread out because of the distribution of amazing temples. The first meal (again a local tour guide recommendation) was Green Elephant Riverview (no address – but Bagan is so small that every taxi/pedicab etc will know it – obviously it’s right on the river – actually high up overlooking it). This is an amazing setting with a spectacular view, only marred by the number of flies/mosquitos (which of course are everywhere near the river). But each table gets its own ‘fanperson’ who stands there swatting them away. The tables are separated by white screens (silk?) but you have a choice of seating in the open air or under a tent. This is fine dining and they recommended a set lunch. Because we wanted to try different things I ordered a la carte, while AmuseGirl had the set lunch. But when they saw that I was ordering alternatives in the same style (e.g. different soup, different curry) they actually gave me the same price as for the prix-fixe (a nice touch as it worked out cheaper). So we ended up with four small curries (Pork with Mango, Beef with Black Bean Paste, Chicken, and Fish); Two soups (Gourd, and Myanmar Sour); Watercress and Gourd Tempura (properly crispy when served but soggy later); Green Beans and Peanuts (a superb dish – the title doesn’t do it justice, with spices, chilis and different textures) and a vegetable stir fry of Tomato, Carrot and Fresh Cauliflower. I have to comment further on the cauliflower – this is far from being my favourite vegetable but the version in Myanmar is full of flavour and has a great crunchy texture. The local variety is small (about the size of a baseball) and only vaguely recalls the version we get in North America. When in Myanmar eat the local vegetables – especially the cauliflower! For the quantity (and quality), this was a bargain at K16,000 ($20 US). Not quite as sophisticated as the Theik Di Shin, but our #2 meal overall in Myanmar. Our other meal in Bagan was at the restaurant recommended in all 3 of our guidebooks Sarabha Gateway (at the Tharaba gateway on Bagan-Nyang U road). All 3 said it served Burmese/Chinese/Thai food. WRONG! It’s a Chinese restaurant, although, when asked they did serve some basic Burmese dishes not on the menu – including a pork curry that was tough. We had an appetizer of fried cashew nuts that was excellent, and they finally convinced us to try the daily special (we declined initially but I suspect that most of the menu was for show, rather than being available). The special was ‘snow mountain chicken’ and we left most of it. Tasteless (other than MSG). Cost K10,000 ($12 US).
We stayed at the Bagan Thante hotel – and it had the best breakfast on the trip. Excellent mojinga Soup and croissants (a treat after all the crummy bread).
From Bagan we were driven to Mandalay. If you do the drive there’s an excellent restaurant in MYING YAN, (which is just over half way), right at the Mandalay end of the town just before the Golf Course sign (never saw the golf course, but the sign is just after the restaurant) the Lucky Star. Simple but excellent Chinese food. We had Malaysian Fried Rice; and Fried Pork with Dried Chili. A touch greasy but otherwise perfect. Bursting with flavour, and they even put a candle on the table for us – cost around $5.
In MANDALAY, we saved the recommended Green Elephant for last. One of the standard tours is to Amarapura, Sagaing and Ava. Try and arrange this to have lunch in Sagaing at ‘Pan Wa, East of Myo Ma Market, Old Tan Lay St, Sagaing’ (that’s the official address). It’s worth the trip to what we dubbed the ‘Curry Kommisar’ (with apologies to Seinfeld). This is definitely the ‘Chowhound find’ of the trip. Maybe not the best meal, but certainly the most memorable. The owner (whose English is passable) is passionate and tells you what you will eat! A lady from an adjoining table excused herself to go to the washroom. She was greeted on return with “ You WILL wash your hands over there” (motioning to a basin). There’s no menu and we were offered Mutton and pork curries (also chicken and fish) – as an aside, sheep were hardly seen in Myanmar; mutton can refer to either sheep or goat. Also each table received a basket of fresh veggies and leaves - but each basket contained different combinations – seeing things in others we didn’t have we indulged in several swappings to get green mangos and lemon leaf. Also included were four chutneys of varying heat; tomato, corn, fish paste with lemon, cauliflower with peanuts. The curries were excellent. The spicing was clearly different in the mutton and pork – the latter being much sweeter overall. We commented on the excellent spicing and, for our troubles, were now offered two more alternatives – Water Duck and Venison (both curried) and these also had entirely different spicing. Bones made the duck a little precarious and the venison was patchy – some tender and some tough, but the spicing was excellent in both. We were told that the venison was kept ‘hidden’ as the restaurant had been written up in a Japanese travel book at 700K per serving and it now cost K1200 (prices had gone up) and the Japanese tourists insisted on the price in the book (not that I really believed the story, but we’re only talking about 60 cents difference anyway). We actually were comped the last 2 curries (not sure why) but the total cost for two was under $10 (K7000) and would still have been under $12 without the comping. And the décor of this place is kitschy to the extreme. Pictures of Buddhas, Scenic Views, Genghis Khan, British generals and, of course, Brazilian Soccer players.
Back in Mandalay, the tour books again all recommended the same restaurant Lashio Lay on 23rd St between 83 and 84. If you go, be aware that a copycat restaurant has opened on the same block. The town of Lashio (in Shan state which is where the hot and spicy dishes come from) has two parts Lashio Lay (Little Lashio) after which the restaurant is named and Lashio Gyi (Big Lashio) which is the name of the competing restaurant. But as the address (for both) is “23rd St. between 83 and 84” it’s the address that’s featured most prominently at the pretender Lashio Gyi.
Having confused you all by now, it’s disappointing to report that the esteemed Lashio Lay was very disappointing. To the left as you enter are a series of pots and dishes on a steam table. You point to the dishes you want and are then shown to a table (you may have to share). We had: pork with chilis, chicken with dried chilis, mixed vegetables, Roselle soup and rice. Both the rice and the veggies were soggy – probably to be expected from a steam table. The Roselle soup was bland and the pork and chicken dishes were adequate, but unexciting. I’ve never been a great fan of steam tables and this meal confirmed that status. Cheap enough (didn’t note the price) and large portions. But I don’t see why this is so widely recommended.
The final meal in Mandalay was the recommended Green Elephant. It became clear that this was the same ownership as the Bagan Green Elephant Riverside, although the menu was about 50% different. Again we started with the green bean salad with peanuts. Superb, as before. For the first time we found on the menu one of the classical Burmese dishes we had read about. Fermented Tea Leaf and Ginger – served with 5 side dishes/chutneys/spices. These included fish with chilli and lime (excellent); dried venison with fried peanuts (reminded me of biltong); garlic and onion (very dry but tasty); coconut rice.
We also had another Classic dish Somtan Shan – a sour soup including tamarind, veggies and several twig based spices that made eating the soup an adventure. The restaurant is also gorgeous, despite its back street location, with lanterns hanging from bamboo stands and tables set wide apart for privacy and very formal service. We also had our own personal mosquito coil under the table.
This is classic Burmese cuisine – a little strange to our western palates. The fermented tea was just strange – interesting but not lip-smacking, and the soup required fishing out various twigs which encouraged slow sipping rather than full throated enjoyment. A good meal and I’d probably go back and choose different menu items. Cost K21,000 (about $27).
Then on to KALAW up in the mountains. The Royal Tea House where we had an unending pot of tea and about a dozen pastries for under $2 was remarkable value. Craving bread, we tried the Everest restaurant which served an OK chapati. The mutton (goat) curry was barely passable and the rest of the meal dismal. The restaurant was entirely tourists, no locals. Cost for two K4000 ($5).
Then drive to Inle Lake via PINDAYA. Lunch at Memento Restaurant, Cave Road, Pindaya. Definitely for tourists by the coachload. But food was not bad. Grilled butterfish. Crinkle cut French fries (the Kalaw area is the only area we saw with potatoes – we craved these by now); chicken curry with onions and potatoes. The menu also included spaghetti! K6100 ($7.50).
In INLE LAKE we had been booked into a resort and were pretty much trapped there so ate at the lodge(Hupin Khaungdaing). Tea on terrace (free!). Roast pork with red peppers and Chicken Fried Vermicelli (Chinese style). Passable K6500 ($8).
Then back to Yangon for the last supper. We had planned a more romantic meal at Le Planteur (French-Swiss restaurant (recommended by foodfirst when we posted for recommendations). BUT, when we got there it was closed – permanently (and fairly recently by the look of it). Because it was fairly late, and our language skills were limited, we had to make a swift decision and chose to go to the Green Elephant in Yangon (it’s in the suburbs on the main road that leads to the airport). So this meant our third Green Elephant – this one the original and less ornate than the other two. The upstairs was full of tour groups, so we sat downstairs, which was more pleasant anyway. Again the menu was significantly different from the others although some dishes were duplicated. Again the string beans with peanuts. Just as excellent as the other two versions. Crispy Catfish Fingerlings with chilli, garlic etc. Tiny whole fish – you eat the whole thing as the bones are so soft. Worked well with the smallest, but some of the larger ones needed deboning. Duck Vindaloo – not bad, but not a Vindaloo (much too mild) – perhaps a Tikka Masala. K15,000 ($20) – and the weakest of the three green Elephants.
Then on to Thailand (see Part 2).

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    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Afraid not - but there were a few braw bricht moonlicht nichts!

    2. Thanks for the wonderfully informative post. It's just the kind of thing that makes reading Chowhound rewarding.

      You piqued my curiosity about mohinga, so I went fishing with Google, and immediately landed a great catch: a charming history of Mohinga. Be sure to also check out the mohinga recipe link in the sidebar. It's a profusely illustrated tutorial on making mohinga by the staff of the Yangon YWCA.

      Link: http://www.yangonow.com/eng/culture/f...

      1 Reply
      1. re: Gary Soup

        That recipe is precious! Especially this part:

        "*Women are not tired to do so, because they can make a chat about their husbands while they are extracting the bones."

        Thank you for that link.

      2. Thank you thank you thank you, for a fantastic report! But Le Planteur is closed ... that breaks my heart. Easily the best French/western, and the most romantic setting, in SE Asia. Don't suppose you had word of any other places like it that we might check out in Yangon?

        1 Reply
        1. re: foodfirst

          No, it was our last night and we didn't land back in Yangon until 7:00pm so rushed out for a 'romantic' dinner to end that portion of our trip. So we had to find a substitute fairly quickly that was known to our driver. He actually asked a couple of locals if they knew what had happened, but they only confirmed it was permanently closed (as opposed to closed that day). We had checked that it was still in the current phone book but hadn't called ahead.

        2. g
          Granges Boris

          I had great plesure reading your report on Internet but kindy note that Le Planteur restaurant in Yangon has never been closed with the exception of the Myanmar new year in April for a week every year. We do operate daily for lunch (12h00 to 14h00) and dinner (19h00 to 23h00). I guess you have visited an other place. We are open without interruption since 1997.

          Regards,

          Boris Granges

          1 Reply
          1. re: Granges Boris

            That's good news.
            Is it possible that you are closed on Sundays (which is the day I was there)?
            I recall the restaurant as being on the corner of a driveway, with metal bar gates. I think the driveway led to a hotel.
            Was I at the right place?