Marketplace in Mandalay

Fruits in a market in Mandalay

I love walking through markets when I’m in a different country. It gives you a good feel for what you might get to eat. Our exposure to Myanmar is so small, that I was happy when we got some time to walk through a market in Mandalay. I would find out what the Burmese grow and eat. There were fruit shops at the mouth of the market. Almost all the fruits were exactly what you might see in India. No surprises there except for a pile of dragon fruit. Perhaps we had not travelled far enough to the east to begin seeing the really exotic.

Bananas in a market in Mandalay

One of the things that I learnt on a recent visit to Chennai is that fruits and bananas are different things. So I was not surprised to see a banana stall near the stall of fruits. The variety was amazing: Myanmar has quite as many kinds of bananas as one could expect in southern India. We got to eat some of these varieties later on. There was a sweet and buttery tasting variety with mottled yellow skin which was nice and quite different from anything I’d eaten before. I guess one can find some of these varieties in north-eastern India if one looks hard.

White fungus being sold in a market in Mandalay

The next few shops sold vegetables. I recognized most of them, although I would think of some as mildly exotic. There was eggplant of a slightly different shape than I’ve seen in Mumbai. The chinese cabbage looked large and crisp. Lotus stem and various beans were placed next to the usual staples of potatoes and onions. The only exotica was this white fungus. I recognized it as the main component of a tasty salad I’d had the previous night. I wonder whether it is farmed or collected.

Paan leaves in a market in Mandalay

The impression that the food was not very different continued when I passed a stall full of fish. The featured photo shows some of the fish, but really showcases the plates which they are put on. I’ve never seen such beautiful plates for fish in any Indian market. Nearby was this man sorting through a stack of paan. Nothing exotic here for us except for the longyi which the man is seen in. I’m not a fan of paan, but strangely even The Family skipped it. We’ll have to go back to find whether there is a large difference in flavour between the Indian and Burmese variety.


If you think that placing this photo so prominently in the blog is exoticising Myanmar, then you are right. You would also do it if you walked through a market where almost everything was boringly normal, and then suddenly chance on a vendor selling insects. In a thought-provoking article in Science the agricultural scientist M. Premalatha and her colleagues write “The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops by killing a food source [insects] that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein.” I find that I can eat and enjoy almost everything that other humans can eat. I did not share a language with the vendor so I could not ask how to prepare these animals for the table. Nor could I figure out what they are called. So, as a tourist without access to a kitchen, I lost this opportunity to taste something really different. Another time.

Meats being sold at a market in Mandalay
Sausages in Mandalay's market

This lady was very amused by me stopping to take a photo of everything I saw. She was selling meat, and called me to take a photo. Her style of dress was different from that of the others, and she had a short head covering. From this I guessed that she could be Muslim. If so then could it be that Muslims specialize in butchering and selling meat in Myanmar just as they do in India? In India this started and is perpetuated by a remnant reluctance among Hindus to kill land animals. There could not have been such a taboo in Myanmar. Perhaps this is an inconsequential coincidence, and perhaps she is not Muslim after all. Preserved meat also plays a significant role in Burma’s food, if the market is anything to go by. There were several different kinds of sausages and dried fish. I later tasted dried fish in congee one morning at breakfast, but I never got to taste the local sausages. The list of reasons to go back to Myanmar is quite large, as you can see.

Sweets and pickles in the market in Mandalay

The last shops I came across before leaving the market had sweets and pickles. The sweets in the front are mostly candied fruits and vegetables, similar to some traditional sweets in eastern India. The pickles were quite different. We got to taste some pickled tea at this shop. Later I searched for and found pickled tea in salads a couple of times for lunch. Unfortunately one could only get the tea in little plastic bags which didn’t seem very leak proof, otherwise it would have been nice to bring some back to add variety to our daily salad.

As always, I’m left with a nice warm and fuzzy feeling after a walk through a market, even if I do not buy any food. We went out and had Burmese style tea with large amounts of condensed milk, and sweets called monbao.

What to drink in Myanmar

One of the first things I noticed in Myanmar was that roadside eateries were painted a dark green and had the word Myanmar in white or red written in the Roman script on this. I couldn’t read the rest of the writing because it was in the Burmese script. It took me till the evening to figure that this was the local beer: a nicely bitter lager. They have a stout which I was unable to get. There is a competitor called Dagon, whose beer I tried to taste, quite unsuccessfully. Neither could I taste the third local beer, called Andaman. It seems that Myanmar Brewery Limited, which is reported to have connections with the military, has a lion’s share of the market.

A selection of drinks from MyanmarThere are two wineries in Myanmar. I tasted the red from Red Mountain winery. The Shiraz which you can see in the photo here was quite reasonable. The Family liked it, but it was a touch too acid to for my taste. We passed by the estate later when we were in the Shan state of Myanmar. The property is owned by a Myanmar national, and the wine is made by a French expert. The Aythaya white is made in an estate owned by a German who also makes the wine. I saw a spätlese from Aythaya, and marked it down as something to taste later. We never saw it again!

Maymyo legend recipeThere are also foreign brands of both beers and wines available. We were served a nice Chilean wine one day. Heineken and Carlsberg are visible. Although I did not pay much attention to spirits, it was impossible to miss the recipe you see in this photo. I first came across it in a restaurant in Pyin Oo Lwin, a British era hill station formerly called Maymyo. Later I found the same cocktail was served in lake Inle under a totally different name. It seems to be a tourist favourite, and therefore available everywhere that tourists go in Myanmar.

The non-alcoholic drinks were also interesting. Fresh fruit juices were widely available: watermelon, pineapple and apple were the common ones. One outstanding drink was the fresh avocado juice. Avocados are grown in Pyin Oo Lwin and probably in other hilly areas, since they are widely available. The Family became a fan of the lemon iced tea. This was always house-made. The well-brewed tea and fresh lime made it much better than the canned lemon iced tea one usually gets in the rest of the world. Roadside eateries served hot drinks, usually ready-made coffee or tea with lots of condensed milk, quite different from the Indian chai. I had to overcome my aversion to sweet and milky drinks, but once I did I liked it.

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