Swollen Like a Shady Magistrate: Chowing Down Burmese Style

U Po Kyin, the diabolical antagonist of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days is described as a man “so fat that for years he had not risen from his chair without help”. Frequently beset by pangs of hunger, he gorges on “a huge bowl of rice and a dozen plates containing curries, dried prawns and sliced green mangoes”. And that’s just breakfast.

“All his meals,” we are told “were swift, passionate and enormous; they were not meals so much as orgies, debauches of curry and rice.”

I can’t blame the scheming magistrate. Burmese food is fantastic. According to Lonely Planet, it “suffers from … a rather unjustified rap”. From whom, I’m not quite sure. The curries can be oily, and the ubiquitous fermented fish in all its guises – oil, sauce, paste, dried paste – does feature a little too often for my liking, but the staggering variety means you’d have to try hard not to find something to tickle your fancy. Within individual ethnic cuisines there’s already sufficient diversity, but when you factor in the delectables on offer from the myriad indigenous groups, it’s a gourmand’s paradise.

Orwell’s description of market wares is the jumping off point for this New York Times piece on Burmese food, but the passage is not representative. Rankled by his almost schizophrenic love-hate relationship with his adopted land, our antihero Flory is on a high here as he tries to impress the object of his affections with descriptions of exotic “heliotrope-coloured prawns the size of lobsters, brittle dried fish tired in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams”.

Elsewhere, the hate portion of the equation takes hold as Flory bemoans the “pretentious and filthy food” prepared by cooks who “can do anything with food except make it eatable”. In fairness, it seems that he is referring to local takes on European food. “All European food,” he whinges, “is more or less disgusting – the bread is spongy stuff leavened with palm toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong”. Many long-termers in Taiwan will sympathise with that latter description.

Burma is filled with such kind, gentle, warm people that it would seem churlish to hold their food in higher esteem than their hospitality. It’s a close run thing, though. What follows is a look at some of the grub(s) I tried on a trip to Burma with my son over the Lunar New Year break. It’s not a systematic presentation of the items, but rather a patchwork culinary assault, mirroring the haphazard way I went about stuffing my face. I’ve done my best to provide a description and as much background as I was able to dig up.

Felix gets stuck into the potato curry. Going anti-clockwise from that dish, the veggie mound is a tea-leaf salad using lahpet (fermented tea leaves). Other ingredients include peanuts, sesame and tomato. Like quite a few Burmese ‘salads’, it can be pretty salty – not a problem for me. Along with mohinga, a fish soup with rice noodles and fritter shards, lahpet is about as close to a national dish as you can get in Burma.

One down is a mutton curry. Not very spicy but absolutely brimming with taste. If you’re going to have curry, it needs to be mutton (or most likely goat), I say! In the middle are the complimentary side dishes that come at traditional Burmese restaurants; again, anti-clockwise from the bigger bowl, which is ngapi yay, a spicy, fermented fish sauce, the first one is balachaung, dried shredded shrimp and shallots (a favourite of the Fat Magistrate).

Next is some kind of dried fish, followed by pickled green mango, and then, finally, dried fermented soy bean. The fresh veg, which is dipped in the ngapi yay, and the bamboo soup (at the front) also come gratis. This restaurant on the corner near the market in Nyaungshwe is called Lin Htett. It’s a great spot, run by a brother and sister. She offers cooking classes, which I might have considered had I had more time. I’ve seen some people giving it the thumbs down on TripAdvisor. I’d politely opine that they’ve had a taste buds bypass.

Nyaungshwe is the nearest town to Inle Lake, a well-known tourist destination so prices are accordingly high. Still, the whole thing came to 14,000 kyats (NT$380/8 quid), including a soft drink and a banana lassi for the lad and a big bottle of Mandalay strong beer for me.

If that weren’t enough, the beer also had “two pegs” of whisky thrown in, as was the custom in Orwell’s day. I was told by my old pal The Inveterate Bede to “ask for two pegs and watch the waiter nod approvingly”. He certainly knew what I was on about when I made the request. The locals on a neighbouring table did the approving and kindly congratulated me on my “beautiful daughter”.



Top left: The food was so good at the place in Nyaungshwe that we went back the next day. Here we have a pennywort salad. The bitter leaves are used as a herb in traditional medicine and work well as counterbalance to the saltiness of the peanuts.

Top right Mashed, fermented butter beans with garlic and spring onion – the Burmese version of mushy peas! I told the boss that we didn’t need the dried side dishes from the day before and he gave us this instead. All over Burma these complimentary dishes/snacks often go unfinished which seems like an awful waste!

Bottom left and right: Man, I loved these bad-boys and Felix was partial, too. They’re called mont lin ma yar, which translates as husband and wife in reference to the two halves that are conjoined in greasy matrimony. The technique is simple, yet deadly: mini rice flour fritters with a quail’s egg in the middle, some chopped spring onion tips and, if you fancy, some fresh chilli specks. The ones I had in Nyaungshwe had an almost processed cheesy tang to them, so I’m not sure if there are optional extras as fillings. Half a dozen cost 200 kyats – about NT$5 and that’s in a tourist spot. I later saw the boss selling the same amount to a local for half the price. The outrage! In fact, I also saw her handing a bag of three to a destitute-looking fellow with no money changing hands.

To “cadge” from the natives “would be a very easy thing to do, if one cared to,” Flory remarks. “The Burmese won’t let anyone starve”. While this is probably no longer the case, the Burmese remain an incredibly generous bunch, especially when one considers the poverty levels in the country. During my trip, we were given free food on several occasions with no ulterior motive.

Left: Two pegs, m’laddie, and be sharp about it!

Right: The boss’ son offers me one of his dried coconut pieces, a pleasant little treat.

Top Left: These dishes are from another restaurant in Nyaungshwe. The top two were stir-fry type affairs, one using mint, the other a sour sauce. The young lady claimed they were Kachin dishes but they seemed suspiciously Chinese. On the menu they translated the stuff as “with curry”, which they certainly weren’t. I think part of the confusion stems from the translation of “hin” as “curry” when it should properly just be “meat (dish)” or even “accompanying dish”, rice being the main item.

Similarly, the dish at the front was called “hintouk”, which I gather should be “hin thoke”. This literally translates as “salad accompaniment”. In this case, from what I could ascertain, it was sticky rice flour with spring onion. There appeared to be something else in there akin to the pickle you get a beef noodle joints in Taiwan (酸菜), though I can’t be sure. I asked a young Yangonite what it might be but he reckoned it was a Shan dish and didn’t have the foggiest. I found this with a lot of local ethnic specialities, again underlining the massive range of food on offer.

Top right: From the same restaurant: pounded tomato with chilli, served on lettuce leaves. I think this is ngapi chat, though I couldn’t taste any fermented fishiness here.

Bottom left: Burfi (Indian sweets). Growing up with friends and neighbours of Indian heritage, I had this stuff quite a bit when I was a kid. It’s incredibly rich and pervaded by fragrant spices such as cardamon. I meant to grab some for Felix to sample but forgot in the end.

Bottom right: Various dried and fried meats and fish. My fave is deer meat, which you can get in Taipei’s Little Burma district, but I had to settle for the beef here. It’s spicy, oily and salty as anything but, damn, it tastes good. Both my boys like it, too.


Offal the street stalls in old Rangoon …

Innards on skewers abound throughout Burma. Top right is an offal pig’s nose of a stew (OK, I’ll stop now!) I found in Bagan.

While I was snapping this, Felix decided to go Evel Knievel on the e-bike we’d hired, with me making it worse by grabbing the throttle to try to stop it. We banged into the stall, broke one of the small plastic chairs and nearly had the parasol down.

Far from being annoyed by our antics, the episode tickled the vendors and bystanders pink. As we “made our excuses and left” (to borrow from the great Murray Sayle via Viz), the still chortling bystanders alerted me to a wad of 5,000-kyat notes I’d dropped during the debacle.

Top left: Probably the most basic thing we ate during our trip but it still had an interesting spin. The carrots were coated in lime juice and sugar. This simple dressing really worked. Again, this was another freebie that a very nice lady with a good knowledge of the temples gave us as we grabbed a drink near Bagan bus station.

Bottom left: We stayed we in-laws downtown in the Chinese district (19th Street) but just 10 minutes walk and you’re in the Indian neighbourhood will all sorts of marvellous street tucker en route. This lady was one of many serving up bean/lentil/corn fritters. I grabbed some of the small pieces, which were similar to the the vada I used to buy off the vendors on buses and trains in Sri Lanka.

Right: One of my in-law’s employees brought home these interesting little globules for breakfast the day before we left. Mont lone yay paw is the Burmese name. They’re kind of like Chinese pan-fried/steamed buns (水煎包) but made from glutinous rice flour, stuffed with palm sugar and served on a bed of shredded coconut. Not my bag, as I’m more a savoury-salty person for brekkie but certainly not unpleasant. 

Clockwise from top left: 1. Curries and assorted spicy treats. I’ve read a couple of descriptions of Burmese food claiming they don’t tend to add chilli to the dishes. Complete rubbish! We had a wicked spicy chicken dish here on Chinese New Year’s Eve. I knew we were going to be eating hot pot with the fam, that evening and needed some real flavour to lay the ground. When I nipped across the road to grab a beer, I did wonder whether my food would be crawling with flies when I got back, but they’d thoughtfully covered my it up with a metal plate. Word of warning: Like many parts of Yangon (especially where there’s food in the vicinity – so pretty much everywhere), rats where scuttling to-and-fro a metre from our table. Both Felix and I had dicky tummies on our last day, and for a few days after our return to Taiwan, and I have this place down as a suspect, as we didn’t each much else after this. The chicken was, however, delicious.

 2. Sweet pickled green mangoes. I think they use chilli and sugar or perhaps something similar to the sour plum powder in Taiwan.

 3. Pulses and powder: turmeric and various beans at the market at the village of Indein on Inle Lake.

4. The Burmese certainly have a sweet tooth, and you can find these guys selling condensed milk desserts around Yangon. As you can see, their buckets have loops and they carry them around on the end of bamboo pole, setting up shop wherever the takings look promising. This one was right near the famous old colonial Strand Hotel. Semolina also seems to be popular and some of the desserts I saw seemed to be a kind of gloopy, syrupy mix, sometimes with some bread thrown in for good measure!

5. Not sure what this is called but it’s a kind of breakfast bread that can be had with sweet peanut powder or savoury with chopped coriander. Think of slightly podgier version of spring onion pancakes in Taiwan (蔥油餅).

6. Fried noodles in the Chinese district of Yangon.



Thirst quenchers: Drinks vendors abound in Yangon. We were hoping to get our hands on some “pink drink” as my elder son Herbie calls it, fondly recalling how he managed to splatter it all over the national museum in Vientiane on our first trip to Laos in 2011. Faluda (known as “Indian ice” or印度冰 at Little Burma in Taipei) refers to pretty much all these cold, milky drinks. Alas, we didn’t spot anything that quite fit the bill. The Strawberry Domino shown on this excellent blog post on Burmese food would have been just the ticket!

Starting with the photo combo on the left, clockwise: 1. A vendor sloshes syrup and lemon water back and forth between glasses. I grabbed a couple but they were insanely sweet. To the vendor’s bemusement, I asked her to water it down twice before I realised that what I had thought was water was actually syrup! They also served another drink that you can see the guy on the left holding. I’m not what that was – a (black) cane sugar drink perhaps?

2. Felix sips coconut juice at a weaving centre – one of the many tourist stops on Inle Lake.

3. A drinks stall with piles of gelatin/tapioca tit-bits that are added to the drinks.

4. A cocktail at the Strand Hotel. I believe this one was the Strand Sour. This place is a real throwback to the glory days when the sun never set etc. etc. It’s very pricey (by Burmese standards) but, finding myself with more readies than I’d anticipated thanks to the in-law’s generosity, I decided to live it up a little. The head waiter here is fantastic – so attentive and friendly. In the more upscale joints in Burma they really do tend to pamper you. It’s almost a bit much for shoestring guttersnipes such as yours truly.

The Strand was built in 1901 by the Sarkies brothers, Iranian-born Armenians who were also responsible for the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. You can read more about these fascinating characters here.

If you’re sending postcards, the main post office is just a few doors down. Hardly anyone I asked on the street had a clue where the it was. Mail doesn’t seem to be a thing here.

Right: A vendor at one of the many mobile squash stalls, this one alongside Maha Bandula Park with its ostentatious Independence Monument.

Parts of this park, built on reclaimed swamp land and originally called Fytche Square after a British commissioner, were donated by members of Yangon’s sizeable community of Baghdadi Jews. Like the Armenians, Rangoon’s Jews ascended to positions of power and influence under the British. There’s still a synagogue in the area, though I didn’t spot it during our meandering walks around the lanes off Maha Bandula. The Jewish population has apparently dwindled to around 20 people now.

Squash – yes squash! – is a staple in almost any British household with kids.

Since moving to Taiwan 15 years ago, most of my friends have been North Americans, so I pride myself on the intricacies of the Transatlantic divide. Almost every week, though, I learn something new. I was flabbergasted a few years back to discover that squash as Brits know it basically doesn’t exist across the pond. “Oh you mean cordial,” is the general response once I’ve explained what I’m on about. Well, no, I don’t mean bloody cordial! Squash is squash and cordial cordial, and never the twain, all right?

Actually, the squash in Burma is rather more cordially than the British stuff, though I’m guessing from the use of the word, which can be seen on bottles at stalls and shops, that this style of drink originated with the Brits. 

Clockwise: 1. Assorted snacks and sweets. This stall was located in the Chinese district but seemed to draw mainly Indian customers. In another nod to Yangon’s fluid blend of culture, Chinese sesame-peanut brittle (far left corner) sits alongside Indian-style sweets and savouries. Top-centre are sticks of sarkalay chee (or something similar), a popular lentil savoury, which is similar to Bombay mix, my dad’s fave back in the UK.

2. Vendors prepare flatbread at a stall in Yangon.

3. Bamboo. I guess the orange stuff, which I’ve also seen in markets in Taiwan, is pickled.

4. Sweet rice cakes, similar to the kind of bland, sugary gunk you get in Taiwan. “A present,” the girl in the pic said, offering me a chunk. I couldn’t very well say no.


Meat feast! Clockwise: 1. Cured pork hangs at a stall near Maha Bandula Park. I wanted to sample some, but the vendor was nowhere to be found.

2. Snacks on the bus from Bagan back to Yangon. Tied to pieces of rattan, this dried, jerkied meat is common in parts of Southeast Asia. I’ve had similar stuff in Laos and Cambodia. We grabbed this from a roadside store along with some dried banana chips and boiled eggs.

3. A last hurrah at The Strand. As I still had a bit of cash left after buying loads of books from one of Yangon’s many tarpaulin booksellers, we had a final pig-out at The Bar. I was mightily impressed that Felix managed to put this burger away as it was massive. He paid for it later … On the left is my club sandwich, the second half of which I had to save. We were both bloated to bursting point.

4. Sausages and cured meat pieces.  

Food-wise, we made the right choice with this place in Nyaung U, the nearest town to Bagan. The menu wasn’t extensive but the dishes were decent, especially the condiments, which included shredded tamarind and ginger, and a mint and coriander sauce. For our mains, we had the mutton masala, the chicken keema and a palak paneer. The palak didn’t have an awful lot of flavour (in fact, I think I’ve made this dish better).

The proprietor, on the other hand, was full of spice. I’ve seen him described as “a character” on TripAdvisor. Headcase would be my preferred description.

A regular Indian Basil Fawlty, he spent the first 10 minutes following our arrival haranguing his staff in the kitchen. He would walk out, take a couple of steps toward his cash desk, then, unable to extricate himself from the rage that was gripping him, storm back into the kitchen to resume his tirade with renewed vigour.

We dubbed each return a “round”. I asked Felix how many we were on after he finally seemed to have burned himself out. “Was that round four or round five?”

Felix did a little calculation in his head. “I think it was four, but I’m not sure. Let’s just say Round Five.”

A pair of German women behind us noted our incredulity and nodded sympathetically. Lighting a menthol cigarette, one of them confided, “He was actually hitting one of them when we got here. We thought it was really bad, but then the guy was fighting back, so …”

One of the waitresses was an attractive Indian girl and when she brought me a beer, on a hunch I asked “Is that your dad?”

With a resigned, sardonic smile she nodded. “Shocking isn’t it?”



Clockwise: 1. A vendor selling preserved plums.

2. Lobsters at the fish market around 18th Street in Yangon.

3. A chart on the wall of a travel company in Nyaungshwe. This shows you the ill effects of eating certain foods together. Symptoms range from “diarrhoea” to “dead”.

I asked the boss about this list of dodgy combos. Desperately trying to salvage something from the 5-1 thrashing he was copping off his mate on a Playstation 2 footy game (don’t think it was FIFA), he nevertheless managed to dart a quick glance toward me. “Oh, that’s just some stuff the Shamans tell children,” he offered. Still, just to be on the safe side, I won’t chance rhinoceros and fish (?) or peacock and cassava any time soon.

4. We all scream! She’s had a few. Felix had one. 


Finally, the piece de resistance. I spotted these guys lolling around in the shallow water on that metal plate as we inched through the rush hour traffic in a taxi from the bus station in Yangon. Once we’d made it back to the in-law’s flat, I told Felix I had to run down the road to grab something. “You’re going to get those things,” he guessed, presciently. I was, indeed.

As I approached the stall, I heard saw a couple in the process of buying a couple of the things. Noticing they looked like tourists and were speaking Chinese, I engaged them. They were from Guangdong, where, according to the guy, these things were unavailable. His better half disagreed and, the denizens of that province being notorious for putting almost anything in their gobs, I was inclined to side with her. As they walked away he told me the things were “good for (waist-thrusting motion).” His girlfriend caught him in the act and admonished him with a “What the hell!”

Good luck,” I said.

Having no opportunity to conduct an experiment, I cannot attest to the veracity of his thesis, but what I will say is that these grubs – probably something similar to the “larvae of the rhinoceros beetle” that Orwell describes in the market scene – were actually not bad.

I’m still not entirely sure what they were as they look similar to these silkworm larvae, too, but I’m edging on the side of beetle larvae as those seem to be quite common in Burma. 

About the most I could get from the vendor was that they came from up in the mountains. They’re deep fried and served with the kind of salt and pepper powder mix you get in Taiwan.

Most of the time it’s texture that puts me off certain kinds of food, so I had initially decided to bite them in half then swallow the segments whole. As I bit into them, I was aware of a far from unpleasant taste. It was kind of peanutty. The texture was not quite the gross-out wibble-wobble mess I had anticipated, either. Altogether, not half bad.

At 2,000 kyats (NT$50-plus) a pop, they were seriously expensive by Burmese standards, but I grabbed another and took it back home to try to entice Felix. He wasn’t haven’t it.   


Orwell wrote of U Po Kyin that he was “even beautiful in his grossness; for the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically like swollen fruit”. I would have to concur with this description, at least in my own case. The beer and food I gorged myself on during our trip brought my gut, which had receded somewhat during a period of sustained weight loss last year, back to prominence. I did indeed swell like a fruit, but I think the fruit in question would have to be a pear.

Pear-shaped I might I have been but the trip was far from it. Burma is full of fantastic sights, sounds and, of course, tastes and smells. I very much hope to return one day.

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