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It can be hard for vegetarians with itchy feet – take it from one who knows. ‘Vegetarian’ is often loosely understood (and mostly misunderstood) the world over. Having been veggie for a long time, I’ve racked up more than a few unfortunate experiences.
Even armed with a phrase book and advanced research, vegetarian dishes for me abroad have included: vegetarian gazpacho liberally sprinkled with tuna in Spain; chicken broth in France (“don’t worry, we took the bones out!”); vegetable mezze topped with a whole fish in Croatia, beady eyes looking up accusingly; and ham served with just about everything in Cuba, despite “sin jamón” protestations. A restaurant in a rural US town (without a single veggie option) would only serve me french fries rather than cook their pasta without chicken…
…and don’t even start with the (€5) black coffee I ordered in Paris that arrived as a milky latte they refused to replace.
But I have had many many more good experiences than bad and, often with the help of a sympathetic vendor, it is possible to have culturally rich food experiences in new countries without eating meat, fish or dairy products.
Vegetarian and vegan in Burma (Myanmar)
Often, where Buddhism leads vegetarian food follows, and 98% of the Burmese population are Buddhist. Although there are plenty of vegetarian options and the concept is understood, bear in mind that Buddhist monks in Burma do eat meat. Burma (Myanmar) borders India (the holy grail of vegetarian fare) and many meals are influenced by Thai and Chinese cuisine (sometimes including mock ‘meat’ if that’s your sort of thing).
How to say vegetarian in Burmese?
The jury’s out on how exactly to pronounce vegetarian in Burmese, but phonetically it’s “theq theq lo” or “thut thut luh” (“lifeless”), say this when you order in restaurants, and use it as a question at markets. Exercise caution, meat stock and fish paste is considered “lifeless”.
Vegans: Good news! Dairy products are not a big staple of Burmese diets.
Curries, soups and stews
I’ve grouped these together because there is a bit of a crossover. Unlike Indian curries, Burmese curries are more akin to a stew and are delicately flavoured. Veggie options normally have a tomato and aubergine base, and may contain tofu or okra.
While not technically Indian thalis – and definitely not named as such – the small complementary (and often complimentary) dishes that accompany curries are the best veggie options and give you the chance to try a bit of everything. Be clear about your preferences at the beginning, and double check when they bring the plates out.
Cast aside preconceptions of sad looking lettuce leaves and tomatoes that have seen better days, salads in Burma have some of the strongest flavours in Burmese cuisine.
The most popular is lahpet; a salad made up tea leaves, pickled cabbage and tomatoes, and crunchy nuts. The flavour isn’t for everyone, but give it a go, it’s often a surprise favourite amongst Burma first-timers. Other options include fruity salads that contain papaya or mango, or bright green pennywort salad. Fresh, healthy, delicious and vegan, win win win.
Shan State noodles are heavily influenced by Thai food with similarly fragrant sauces – they include pork or chicken, but can normally be ordered with Burmese tofu instead; made from chickpea flour and yellow split peas. Noodles are sometimes dry and served with a small bowl of broth on the side.
Note: Unfortunately the popular mohinga dish (noodle soup often eaten at breakfast) is made with a fish sauce.
If there’s something Burmese cuisine embraces, it’s oil. Deep-fried goodies include samosas and poppadoms, fried rice and vegetables, crunchy tofu, poori, corn fritters, and battered gourd.
Samosas are often provided alongside a cup of tea. Note: Tea may have condensed milk in it, vegans ask for it black.
Look out for:
Mont Lin Ma Yar – Back to the frying… these petite batter pockets are fried and contain chickpeas or egg
Kebabs – Not your chip shop suspicious-looking-brown-slices variety. Look out for skewers of veggies and watch them crisped over a flame in front of you
Dosas – These delicious savoury pancakes (made with lentils and rice) originate from south India. They are packed with potato and other vegetables and served with a variety of dips.
Note: As a rule when travelling, if street food has a queue, much the better – a quick turnover of food is a good sign. Pack some patience.
There are lots and lots (and lots) of food markets across Burma selling the freshest produce. Can’t say veggier than that.
Desserts in Burma aren’t sickly sweet like those of its closest neighbours. Expect a combination of coconut, semolina, raisins, and fruit. Deep-fried (of course) bananas are delicious, and as a fruit, they’re also a healthy treat, right?
It’s safe to say vegetarians and vegans won’t go hungry on their holidays to Burma (Myanmar).
Here are some handy resources I check out before jet-setting:
– Local guides and tour leaders – A person who knows the area will be the ultimate oracle. If you don’t happen to have a friend to show you around in Burma (Myanmar), team up with a local guide or tour leader – they have tried all of the restaurants, so you don’t have to.
– The Happy Cow app and website are frequently updated and can be a plant-based person’s best friend. I’ve found some of the best restaurants on the app (often tucked away down unassuming streets that you may never have otherwise discovered).
– TripAdvisor can be hit and miss – it did once throw up a steak place as a veggie option – but searching for vegetarian within reviews of a rated restaurant is a good shout.
– Guidebooks – Some guidebooks refer to recommended restaurants with vegetarian options (Lonely Planet is a good one for this).
– InsideAsia Tours – With plenty of vegetarians on the team, we’re always here to help. Our list of favourite vegetarian restaurants in Burma (Myanmar) is also included in our trip info packs.
If all else fails… I normally take a packet of biscuits wherever I travel. They are particularly welcome on long journeys when there might not be the opportunity to pick up snacks, or hikes and stays off the beaten track. But as you can see, tummy grumbles aren’t likely in Burma.