Have Appetite, will travel

Sandwiched between India and Thailand, Myanmar boasts a worldly cuisine with a complex flavor profile.

Good news keeps streaming out of Myanmar: April 2012’s elections resulted in a parliamentary seat for Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, and President Obama made a historic stop in the country in November, his first foreign trip post-election. It’s not just the political shift that has turned the southeast Asian country into this year’s most buzzed about destinations. Plugged-in travelers are discovering the cultural riches of Myanmar, like the temple-strewn fields of Bagan, the ancient capital of Mandalay and the on-the-water gardens of Inle Lake.

Foodies, too, are eager to explore the country’s relatively unknown cuisine, which is the topic of Naomi Dugan’s beautiful book “Burma: rivers of flavor,” Published by Artisan in September 2012. Myanmar’s geographical location, sandwiched between India and Thailand, makes for a varied cuisine with lots of curries, as well as seafood- and noodle-heavy dishes. Many of the most famous dishes originate in the tiny kitchens of the street-food stalls sprinkled across the country. Mohinga, a hearty fish stew, is a typical breakfast dish.

Many travelers rush through the former capital of Yangon in favor of cultural destinations like Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, but Myanmar’s largest city gives a great taste of the contradictions and colors that make up the country. It’s worth spending 2-3 nights here, especially if you can get a room at the serene Governor’s Residence. Here are three Yangon restaurants that offer a good introduction to the complexities of Burmese cuisine.

Kha-Yae-Bin Road Yangon
(near The Governor’s Residence)
(95 1) 538-895
Sit in the garden-courtyard, lit up by lanterns strung in the trees, of this restaurant that’s hailed as the best for Burmese cuisine (the menu also features a large Thai selection). Start with some of the many delicious small-plate dishes, including grilled eggplant, pickled tea leaves and winged bean salads before ordering curries (don’t miss the butter fish and tofu versions). Burmese cuisine is not overly spicy; instead, diners are given tiny dishes with chilies and dipping sauces to adjust to their liking. Padonmar is in walking distance to the Governor’s Residence.

Mandalay Restaurant
Governor’s Residence

35 Taw Win Road,
Dagon Township Yangon
(95 1) 229-860
The fine dining restaurant at the Governor’s Residence has a supremely romantic garden setting and a menu that features a good mix of Western and Asian dishes, including an extensive selection of typical Burmese dishes, like Lephet Thoke (pickled green tea leaf salad); Mohinga (curried fish soup with noodles) and Kyet Thar Hsi Pyan (a curry of chicken and corn).

85-87 Thein Byu Rd Yangon
(95 1) 295-224
Phyu Phyu Tin, the owner of this charming restaurant around the corner from The Strand, was one of the first restaurateurs to introduce the notion that Burmese food (normally eaten on the street and an elevated dining experience can coexist. It’s a great spot for trying a host of local dishes, as well as Thai and Laotian cuisine. The airy dining room with comfy wicker chairs and a soaring ceiling is a welcome respite from the hot, crowded streets of downtown Yangon. After your meal, don’t miss the Helping Hands boutique upstairs; it’s a wonderful fair trade shop that carries lovely accessories and gifts.

Travel TIP
There still are no ATMs in Myanmar, so all money has to be brought. You cannot change kyat ahead of arrival, so bring lots of your own currency in crisp bills. The crisp factor cannot be overstated. If there’s even a slight tear or imperfection, locals will not accept the bill.

It’s good to know that the money exchange at the airport actually has some of the best rates but only for big bills; i.e. a $100 bill gets the best rate, with lower bills getting incrementally lower rates. The rate at your hotel will be fixed but not as good as the one for the high bills at the airport.

Hardly any businesses accept credit cards (and the luxury hotels that do add a 10 percent service charge).

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