Cuisine in Myanmar has been influenced by the cuisines of China, India, and Thailand but is characterized by extensive use of fish products like fish sauce. Myanmar cuisine has retained unique preparation techniques and distinct flavors, and there are many regional variations of “standard” dishes. Seafood is a common ingredient in coastal cities such as Sittwe, Kyaukpyu, Mawlamyaing (formerly Moulmein), Mergui (Myeik) and Dawei, while meat and poultry are more commonly used in landlocked cities like Mandalay. Freshwater fish and shrimp have been incorporated into inland cooking as a primary source of protein and are used in a variety of ways, fresh, salted whole or filleted, salted, and dried, made into a salty paste, or fermented sour and pressed.
Myanmar cuisine also includes a variety of salads (a thoke), centred on one major ingredient, ranging from rice, wheat and rice noodles, glass noodles and vermicelli, to potato, ginger, tomato, kaffir lime, lahpet (pickled tea), and ngapi (fish paste). These salads have always been popular as fast foods in the country’s cities.
The country’s diverse religious make-up influences its cuisine, as Buddhists avoid beef and Muslims pork. Beef is considered taboo by devout Buddhists because the cow is highly regarded as a beast of burden. Pork is avoided by nat worshippers, as nats are believed to be averse to pork. Vegetarian dishes are also common, especially during the Buddhist Lent (Wa-dwin), a three-month Rains Retreat, as well as Uposatha Sabbath days. During this time, only two meals (i.e. breakfast and lunch) are consumed before midday to observe the fasting rules (u bohk saunk) and abstinence from meat (thek that lut, literally ‘free of killing’) is observed by devout Buddhists.
Indian influences are found in Myanmar versions of dishes such as samosas and biryani, and Indian curries, spices, and bread such as naan and paratha. Chitti kala or Chettiar (Southern Indian) cuisine is also popular in cities. Chinese influence in Myanmar cuisine is shown in the use of ingredients like bean curd and soya sauce, various noodles as well as in stir-frying techniques. As in neighboring Thailand and Laos, fried insects are eaten as snacks.
Mohinga is a dish of rice vermicelli with fish gravy (orange in color) and is usually accompanied by coriander and with chili powder. Its taste can range from sweet to spicy and is usually eaten during breakfast. It is considered by many to be the national dish of Myanmar, and is widely available throughout the country, albeit in slightly different styles in different regions.
Onnokauswe is a dish of thicker noodles in a thick soup of coconut milk. Often added is chicken, and it has a strong taste and odor. Laphet thote is a salad of fermented tea leaves and a variety of nuts. It is commonly mixed with sliced lettuce and is eaten with rice. The dish originally comes from Shan State. Mee swan is a Chinese dish of noodles in a broth, served with herbs and little meat.