Ma Thanegi hungers for ethnic noodles around Yangon
Excerpted from To Myanmar With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
When I am too lazy to cook, I stroll out to the shops in my neighborhood, where I can get oodles of noodles from dawn until midnight. This is one advantage of living in Yangon, the country's largest city: the availability of a large variety of noodles, some of which were previously found only in remote parts of the country. To a dedicated foodie like me, the diversity of the 135 ethnic groups of Myanmar is reflected in their food, and the noodle dishes in particular.
The majority ethnic group in Myanmar, the Bamar (Burmese), live in the central part of the country, and their two most common noodles dishes, monhinga and mondhi, battle it out for the honor of favorite. But the rest of the country's population, especially those ethnic groups living near the borders, ignore this rivalry and enjoy their own variety of noodles.
The Dawei people of the far southern coastal region prefer a noodle dish they call kut kyee kite, or "cut with scissors." As the name implies, flat rice noodles are cut, stir-fried with vegetables such as bean sprouts and steamed peas, along with shrimp, chicken, and squid, and then served with a sour spicy sauce. In this part of the country it's common to see customers bring their own veggies and other ingredients to local noodle shops and hand them over for the cook to fry along with their noodles. The last time I was in the region, I saw two male customers stroll up to one street-side noodle shop with little bags of shrimp, squid, and greens, and then take over the cooking process themselves. I asked them why they couldn't simply buy the stuff at the market, take it home, and cook it all there. It's just not the same, they told me.
There is another wonderful south coast Mon dish called kaw yay kauk swe, or "gooey noodles." Egg noodles are mixed with a rich chicken stock that is thickened with a little corn starch, making a soup as smooth as liquid silk. Bits of chicken and simmered strands of beaten egg float at the top. You eat it with a special sauce, a mixture of shrimp paste, lime juice, and some pounded green chilies. My cousin loves this dish and often makes it at home. I'm always standing in her kitchen, asking, "Can we eat now? Can we eat now?"
The Rakhaing race living on the western coastline call their noodle dish ar pu shar pu, meaning "burn throat burn tongue," and also known as Rakhaing mondhi. This is a recipe of thin rice noodles with fish flakes, served dry or in a soup of fish stock strongly laced with pepper and galangal. To make sure the dish lives up to its name, two types of chilies are added: fried, pounded red chilies and lightly cooked, pounded green chilies. I was once visiting the old Rakhaing city of Mrauk U with a friend from Australia, and before I could warn her, she took a hearty bite of ar pu shar pu and nearly set her mouth on fire.
The Kachin and Shan races, living, respectively, in the north and northeast, have some of the tastiest noodles in the country. The rice noodles of the Kachin sometimes have slivers of pickled bamboo shoots in them; the shoots can also be served separately as a relish. These noodle dishes tend to be spicier and sharper in taste than Shan noodles. The meats are usually chopped chicken or pork, whole chicken legs or wings, or pork ribs, all cooked until very tender.
Shan noodles have a milder taste, but their spicy herbs make up for it. Shan rice noodles are usually accompanied by crushed peanuts, a dash of salty pickled soybeans, and something similar to Hoisin sauce. They also have a ladleful of chopped chicken or pork cooked in watery gravy and flavored with a powdered mixture of herbs. The noodles are served with a relish of pickled mustard greens, much like Korean kimchi, but milder.
Around 1990, after peace accords were signed with various rebel groups, locals from remote regions around Myanmar finally enjoyed the freedom to travel. This brought many of them to Yangon. So it was only somewhat recently that the city's residents first discovered these varied ethnic cuisines. Now, along with more well-known favorites like monhinga and mondhi, we have the benefit of the country's culinary diversity without having to leave the city.
Noodles around Yangon
Ah pu shar pu
"Burn throat burn tongue" noodles are usually served at roadside stalls. They are not found in restaurants serving Burmese (Bamar) and Chinese food.
Happy Café & Noodles
This café serves authentic Kachin noodles. The owner grew up in Kachin State.
62 Inya Rd.
Kaw yay kauk swe
Gooey noodles are typically served in Chinese noodle shops. In the Chinatown district you will find numerous venues, including roadside stalls.
Kut kyee kite
For Dawei noodles, look for the stalls inside the compound of the Home Economics Technical School on the corner of Dhammazedi Road and Thanlwin Road, which runs beside the Savoy Hotel.
To find out more about To Myanmar With Love, go to ThingsAsian Press.
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Published on 2/13/09