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Burmese Food: Where the Middle Class Dines Out

Inle Mohingha

A steaming bowl of Inle Mohingha, an Intha dish made with two types of fish from Inle Lake. Credit: Catherine Bodry

As sanctions lift, income levels rise and the quality of life improves, Burma’s emerging middle class is seeking dining experiences that take them out of the home and market. But these venues do not just appeal to Burma’s middle class, they also showcase local foods and products to the discerning traveler.

What works for locals is a window to Burma travel

Visitors to Burma should take advantage of these settings, where proprietors often have an idea of what makes a comfortable dining experience outside of delicious food, as a way to take a break from the strain of traveling while still supporting local projects.

The following are easily accessible to foreigners and offer a little slice of the life of a Burma middle-classer who dines out.

Taung Chune Food Centre,Taunggyi, Shan state

Taunggyi is the administrative headquarters of Shan state, and only a 45-minute drive from Nyaung Shwe, the tourist center at the north side of Inle Lake.

Owner Ma Myo created the “nouvelle Shan” menu at Nyaung Shwe’s Viewpoint Hotel, introducing travelers to the fine cuisine of Shan state. She opened Taung Chune in October 2012. Here, she continues her take on local ethnic varieties, such as Shan and Intha,  foods, in an upscale setting. Ma Myo notes that middle class Burmese are “looking for good food but don’t necessarily want to eat at the market.”

Her menu features Inle mohingha, an Intha version of the country’s famous noodle soup, with two types of fish from Inle Lake. Other local ingredients include wild coriander. “It smells so good!” she said. She also features a small wild aubergine and local Inle rice, which is stickier than other varieties. A house-made red banana vinegar pairs well with locally-produced Shan tofu.

Taung Chune Food Centre is at Yae Htwet Oo Street in Taunggyi.

Aythaya Winery, Taunggyi, Shan State

Also located near popular Inle Lake, Aythaya Winery is one of only two vineyards in Burma. Director Hans-Eduard Leiendecker estimates that 80% of his clientele is Burmese. “The tourism market is not stable,” Leiendecker said. “Our marketing strategy from the beginning was to catch the locals.”

View of Aythaya's main vineyard outside of Tuanggyi. Credit: Catherine Bodry

View of Aythaya’s main vineyard outside of Tuanggyi. Credit: Catherine Bodry

Wines are produced to appeal to Burmese palates, which prefer sweet and soft wines. The land originally produced Italian table grapes, and in one wine variety Hans blends those with a Muscat grape so that locals will remember the flavor of the table grapes and find the taste familiar. Leiendecker points out that Burma is a drinking country, and Burmese who can afford it find drinking wine trendy.

The traditional Burmese food at the restaurant is the most popular cuisine, though Aythaya Winery also serves Chinese, Thai and European cuisine. Newly-constructed bungalows offer views of the stunning vineyard below, a vista that is reminiscent of Old World scenes. It is a worthy visit for travelers to the Inle region.

Aythaya is located between Nyaung Shwe and Taunggyi, in southern Shan state.

Sharky’s, Yangon

Like Aythaya Winery, Sharky’s produces Western products using local ingredients. Manchego cheese, fresh yogurt and butter are showcased in a cooler, while prosciutto, “Barma” ham and other merchandise at home in a European deli are displayed in glass cases. Burma’s only certified gelato-maker makes rich gelato in flavors ranging from lemon to durian.

And nearly all of the ingredients are locally sourced. The meat comes from nearby heritage herds, the eggs are local “country” eggs, and Sharky’s showcase item is sea salt from Ngapali beach’s salt pans. Owner Ye Htut Win spent nearly 30 years in Switzerland, which is where he was trained in cheese-making and bread-baking, and also where he learned to appreciate old traditions of treating food.

Though Sharky’s opened a nearby second location, slow, hand-produced food of high quality will always be the goal.

Grab goodies for a picnic or dine upstairs on pizza or local buffalo. The main location is at 117 Dhamazedi Road, not far from Shwedagon Pagoda.

Café de Angel, Yangon

Servicing Yangon’s locals with caffeine jolts, Café de Angelis is likely the only coffee shop in the country that roasts Burmese-grown beans. The menu is ambitious for a local clientele that is solely familiar with instant coffee. All manner of espresso types are listed on the menu, including ristretto and lungo, macchiato, cappuccino, and Americano, to name a few.

Owner Wai Thein was educated in Taiwan, and upon his return to Burma in 2005 he was disappointed to discover the lack of fresh coffee there. He settled that problem by opening his own coffee shop. Farmers were already growning coffee beans in both Shan and Chin states, so when Thein opened his first café in Taunggyi five years ago, he roasted these local beans out back. His shop was successful enough that he opened a second and then third café in Yangon, where a large portion of his business is selling roasted beans and equipment, and teaching customers how to brew their own coffee.

“Locals don’t know how to process coffee,” Thein said. “The shop can be too expensive, so they buy coffee and try it at home.” Thein sells everything from French presses to espresso machines, to customers than include individuals and hotels and shops as far away as Kalaw and Bagan, towns that see a high volume of tourists. At the main Yangon café, travelers will find the rich smell of roasted coffee as well as comfortable booths and wifi.

“The future for coffee here is good,” Thein said. Burma has good, local coffee, with Arabica beans grown in Shan state and Robusta beans in Chin state.

Find Café de Angel in Yangon at No. 24 Baho Road, across from the Chinese Embassy.

Top photo: Inle Mohingha. Credit: Catherine Bodry

Zester Daily contributor Catherine Bodry is a travel writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. Though she loves her state, she spends winters in Asia. Her work appears in many places, including BBC Travel, AOL, Lonely Planet guidebooks and Trail Runner Magazine. When she’s not gallivanting around the planet, she can be found picking wild berries, or in her kitchen attempting to recreate Asian dishes from her travels.