Yangon Street Food
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, MEET James Brown. Walking the streets of Yangon with this guy at your side is like being handed the keys to the city — a godsend if, like me, it’s your first visit to Myanmar, a fascinating country newly accessible after decades of seclusion.
“My man!” A passing Caucasian in a business suit high-fives my guide as we pause to inspect a pile of deep-fried crickets.
We’re making our way down a street food alley, shaded by a canopy of umbrellas from the still blistering late afternoon sun. To the right and left, locals are perched on stools at low tables, sipping, slurping, munching on delectables purchased from vendors lining both sides of the street. It’s a sight you’ll see all over Yangon, where life is lived as much on the pavement as in the magnificently crumbling colonial buildings that date from the period when Rangoon (Yangon) was the busiest port in the British Raj.
“Don’t eat the quail eggs in your first week,” cautions James as I eye some miniature pancakes being flipped on a portable hotplate. “Also lettuce and cane juice. These things can upset your stomach if you’re not used to them.” This is the kind of advice I could use wherever I travel.
But no such worries with the Gangster Snack from the next stall along. There’s no Made Man at the stove — perhaps it’s his granny whose whipping up a thin rice flour crêpe on a griddle, topping it with shreds of cabbage and carrot, beansprouts, green onion, boiled chickpeas and crisp fried soybeans. Garam masala, hot chilies and a squirt of oil go on top then she folds the thing in two and hands it over in a square of greaseproof paper. It’s hot, spicy, crunchy, fresh and very filling — just what a guy who’s been up all night needs, according to James.
Next we stop for samosa salad, an impressive mash-up of chopped, deep-fried samosas and falafel mixed with boiled potatoes, chickpeas, tomato and shredded cabbage, sprinkled with turmeric and salt, and doused in tamarind sauce. Chickpea broth is an optional addition. I try both wet and dry versions — “with broth” winning by a slender margin.
We follow a line of little girls dressed in pink robes and carrying silver bowls making their way from shop to shop down a side street. They are novice nuns, collecting alms. Orange robes are worn by monks, who are everywhere in Yangon. If you get up early enough, you can watch them walk in procession each day at dawn, making their way toward the golden spires of the Shrewedagon pagoda, the city’s most famous landmark.
Yangon’s best known culinary icons are Shan noodles, Mohinga (a fish noodle soup) and Lahpet Thoke (fermented tea leaf salad). Naturally, James knows where to find the best example of each. We duck down an alley and dodge traffic to reach King Tea House, an unassuming café in a ramshackle colonial building with a tree sprouting from an upstairs window.
“Is there a menu? “I ask, as the servers seem to be taking orders telepathically. “It’s on the wall,” says James, pointing, “but everyone knows what’s on a teahouse menu. They’re all the same.”
But not all the same when it comes to Shan noodles — a bowl of sticky rice noodles topped with ground chicken, sesame seed, green onion, soy sauce and mustard greens, served with a clear chicken broth. Tourists usually head for a different establishment that’s listed in the guidebooks, — they don’t know what they’re missing, says James. We also sample a pork curry at King Tea House and a dessert made from black beans and palm sugar.
Next up is Pennywort Salad, ordered in a neon-lit cafeteria, with a pot of tea to wash it down. I love the freshness of this dish — a tangle of cabbage and pennywort laced with peanuts and red onion, mixed with crispy garlic, lime juice and sesame oil. It’s so good we sample another version further down the road, this one with tofu and gourd mixed in and a zingy dressing of tamarind, garlic, chilli and coriander.
I’m feeling pretty full but we’re on the move again, James weaving expertly through the traffic, fielding more high fives (clearly he OWNS this town) to an alley where street food carts are setting up shop as the night closes in and the lights come on in a city that apparently never sleeps. Here we’re trying more pancakes — stuffed with bananas, peanuts and coconut.
Although I’ve been pacing myself, three hours in I’m truly stuffed. But to end the evening, there’s dessert at Inwa Cold Drinks & Confectionery, an old-school bakery café and a household name in Yangon. The specialty of the house is a magnificent concoction of sticky rice, sago, gelatin cubes, tapioca, cendol (rice flour noodles), white bread and icy cold, sweetened coconut milk.
I’m thinking of asking James if he can push me back to my hotel in a wheelbarrow but before I can get the words out, he leans across the table and says “This is the end of the tour but I can add some more places if you’re still hungry.”
Bless you James Brown, you may just be the hardest working man in the street food business.
PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Shan Noodles; Streetside hotpot; Sausage vendor; Samosa Salad — dry version; Yangon’s historic district.
Gangster Snack on the griddle; Kitchen in a truck; Beautiful bunches of grapes; Making samosa salad; Fried cricket stack; Fritters; Historic downtown Yangon; James Brown; Locally grown corn.