In downtown Yangon, “street food” takes on a whole other meaning, as makeshift restaurants spill from sidewalks onto the roads. With more than 135 ethnic groups and borders shared with Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand, it’s safe to say that the cuisine of Myanmar is diverse and eclectic.
It’s also safe to call it a delicious mash-up of the spicy rich curries of India, the garlicky sweet sauces of China, and the bright herb-filled salads and soups of Thailand. There’s nothing quite like it, and Yangon is a city built for snacking. The best street food in Yangon can be found at temporary carts set up by vendors each morning, and the stews and snacks sold throughout the day represent a wide cross-section of different cultures and ethnicities.
If you like samosas, you'll swoon when they're chopped up and mixed with greens and coated in a rich broth for a spicy street snack. Breakfast often means mohinga, a piquant fish stew made with rice noodles and vegetables. Turmeric is used in everything from curries to tea, and fermented shrimp paste adds a funky richness to broths and sauces much like splashes of fish sauce in Vietnamese and Thai cooking.
It’s food worth battling the clutching heat and humidity, insane traffic, and rancid street smells in this city of five million for bites of something you can’t find anywhere else. Here are seven essential street snacks to seek out on your visit.
The unofficial national dish of Myanmar. A hearty, pungent fish broth is flavored with lemongrass, turmeric and pepper, which swirls around slippery thin glass noodles. The fish is not immediately recognizable; it’s ground with chickpea flour to make a lusciously thick stew usually served for breakfast.
The assault of flavors so early in the morning is the perfect way to start your day of Pagoda viewing. Five minutes up the road is the astounding Shwedagon pagoda, and most of the diners at Myaung Maw Daw Cho have traveled there to worship. This famous mini-chain of mohinga shops has several locations in Yangon, and for about $3 U.S. you can take home a powdered mix of the soup base.
Street vendors sell mohinga all over Yangon, but here the broth is thicker, brighter, and pungent with ginger. From a food safety perspective, worth keeping in mind in Myanmar, it's comforting to know your fish broth was at least made in a kitchen with walls. Garnish your soup with fresh cilantro and chili flakes on the table, and don't skip out on the deep-fried crackers and scallions, which make this bowl unforgettable. You'll have to get up at the crack of dawn for a bowl, though; mohinga usually sells out by 9 a.m.
Myaung May Daw Cho
118A Yay Tar Shay Old Street, Bahan
Mont Lin Ma Yar
Roughly translated as “husband and wife snacks,” these tiny bites are a visual delight. Dollops of rice flour batter are added to a large sizzling cast iron pan that resembles a muffin tin. Toppings such as quail eggs, scallions, or roasted chickpeas are added to half of the dollops, and then, like a husband and wife, the two halves are joined to make a little round cake.
The quail egg versions are the perfect breakfast food, like eating half a dozen mini egg McMuffins. While there are no McDonald's in Myanmar (yet), the best mont lin ma yar vendor is located in the shadow of Yangon's first Kentucky Fried Chicken, which opened earlier this year. Mont lin ma yar vendors are found all over the downtown area, but a particularly picturesque cart can be found on Anwaratha between 29th and 30th. Here the fried bites are extra crisp, and the quail eggs are cooked perfectly, not dry and oily like at other vendors.
Nameless Street Vendor
Anawrahta between 29th and 30th Streets, near Bogyoke Market, Dagon
19th street between Anawrahta Road and Maha Bandoola Road is Barbecue Street, where storefronts display skewers of meat, vegetables, and fish ready to be rushed back into the kitchen where they’re grilled over intense flames. Grab a plastic basket, fill it with raw skewers, and wait your turn.
Kaung Myat, easily identifiable by its bright green interior to match the label of the omnipresent “Myanmar” beer, does a particularly delicious skewer of peeled baby potatoes. Then there are delicate strands of enoki mushrooms, clumped together along with okra and broccoli, which are all marinated in the same sweet lime chili sauce. A whole grilled fish is another highlight, cut into sections you can easily peel away with chopsticks; the skin is just slightly charred and deliciously sweet. Order a whole corn on the cob and it comes back in kernels, just lightly charred, meatier and starchier than the American sweet variety. When you run out of beer, make kissing noises to get the waiter’s attention.
110 19th Street, Latha
The Shan state in Eastern Myanmar juts out to the right and shares borders with China, Laos, and Thailand. It has been a region of conflict and civil war since Burmese independence in 1948, and the influences from China are not only present in the politics, but also in the food.
Shan cuisine has dozens of variations of a simple noodle dish with a thin broth of fragrant garlic and black pepper. The region’s noodles are usually of the thicker rice variety, and they’re tossed in a sweet and spicy pepper-based sauce with bits of ground pork or chicken. The red pepper sauce is reminiscent of a Thai sweet chili sauce, but here it’s more fragrant, as if mixed with Chinese five-spice powder.
Aung Mingalar is a bright and airy restaurant located just behind Bogyoke Market with, an English menu that makes it easy to order. The sticky chicken noodle salad is exceptional. Thick rice noodles sit in a brown sweet soy based sauce and are served with a tiny plate of pickled greens and a side of a herbaceous clear soup.
Aung Mingalar Shan Noodle Restaurant
Bo Yar Nyunt Street, Dagon
Tea and Fried Snacks
The Burmese teahouse provides so much more than warm beverages and snacks. It’s a place where the people of Yangon come to share the news of the day, discuss politics, and socialize. The tea you’ll find in Yangon is thick and strong, and heavily sweetened with condensed milk and sugar, but the brute force of the black tea cuts right through the dairy and sugar.
Golden Tea has some of the best tea snacks in Yangon, which arrive automatically when you order tea. The snacks change daily, but keep an eye out for an unforgettable mini shallot samosa, or a fluffy, slightly spicy semolina fritter with corn. Try all of the snacks for just a few dollars, or leave them untouched--you’ll only pay for what you eat.
99 Bo Sun Pat Road, Pabedan
After battling the traffic zooming around Sule Pagoda downtown, walk south along the park past the beautiful red-and-yellow brick High Court building. Its magnificent clock tower is a sight to behold, and just past the High Court building is Merchant Road, where food vendors crowd the sidewalks.
The best of all these vendors is the samosa salad shop, directly across from the Myanmar Book Center on the Northeast corner of Maha Bandula Park Street and Merchant Road. Grab a seat on one of the tiny red plastic stools and watch the samosa salad master prepare your snack. Whole samosas are snipped apart with scissors and mixed with fried chickpeas, fried shallots, cabbage, and slices of potatoes. A ladle full of broth is also added to the salad, making this more of a soup than a salad. Ask for the chili flakes and prepare to be assaulted with bits of salty, sweet, crunchy, and soft, as the crispy samosa crust gives in to the citrusy broth around it.
Nameless Street Vendor
Merchant Road between Maha Bandula Park and 35th Street, Kyauktada
Dosas represent the Indian contingent of Burmese cuisine. This southern Indian pancake is made with a batter of fermented ground lentils and rice, and you can find them on many street corners in downtown Yangon. A thin layer of batter is spread quickly inside a concave metal pot over hot coals, and the back of a ladle is used in a circular motion to ensure the dosa is evenly cooked. The vendor then adds chopped tomatoes, chickpeas, less than a dollar, and you can walk away with a crispy snack any time of day.
For the full dosa experience, head to Ingyin Nwe South Indian Foods for perfectly crispy paper-thin vegetable dosas stuffed with a turmeric-rich vegetable mash of bean sprouts, carrots, and cauliflower. The highlight is the three different sambar-like dipping sauces; a pungent potato version is outstanding.
232 Anawrahta Road, Pabedan
Ally-Jane Grossan is a writer, editor, and recipe developer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find her at ally-jane.com.