Myanmar On A Diet
By Regina Sharpe
In the pursuit of better health, more energy and weight loss, many people have taken to optimising their eating habits, and for good reason. Diet is the main factor that directly affects our body, and it’s one of the biggest things that’s within our control. So when people travel, it’s almost a given that they’d have to give up on their diets to accommodate for the long flights, unpredictable detours and new food that they’re unfamiliar with.
However, as a diet enthusiast myself (I went vegetarian for two years and am now approaching one year of intermittent fasting), I know your pain, and I’m here to talk to you about maintaining diets while travelling in Myanmar. We’ll cover the more popular ones, especially diets that differ the most from each other, so as to cover as many bases as we can.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that these are just guidelines and should not be taken at face value. Make sure to supplement this guide with your personal due diligence, and always consult a medical expert when in doubt. That said, let’s get right into it, shall we?
We’ll start with vegetarians as they make up the highest number of those with special dietary needs. Myanmar is one of the most vegetarian-friendly countries in Southeast Asia, as the majority of the locals are staunch Buddhists, which in turn influences the country’s cuisine as well. Do take note, however, that there are Buddhist monks who eat meat.
Still, that shouldn’t stop vegetarians from having a fuss-free time in Myanmar. Not only will you have an easy time scouting for your dietary needs, you’ll even be treated to delicious local dishes that are inherently vegetarian.
Learn this phrase if you’d like to state your vegetarian preferences in the local language: thuk thuk lo. This translates literally to ‘no living things’. Not only will you minimise mix-ups, but the locals will also love you for trying to pick up their language!
You’ll be delighted to know that you won’t even need to step into a restaurant to enjoy vegetarian cuisine, as there are great offerings at street stalls as well. Everything from snacks such as dosa, main meals such as Shan noodles (meatless option) and desserts can be found with ease.
Must try: The tea leaf salad, one of Myanmar’s most iconic dishes, is perfect for vegetarians. Made out of pickled tea leaves, onions, peanuts, tomatoes, soybeans and chillies, this blend of flavours and textures will leave you wanting more.
Vegans have a harder time finding food that suits their needs, even in their home countries, so maintaining this lifestyle while travelling can be a challenge. But fret not, as there are plenty of dishes available that are free of all animal products.
Again the phrase thuk thuk lo will come in handy, ensuring that even the sauces and broths don’t contain animal ingredients (fish sauce is big in Myanmar). Indian food is great as the menu traditionally revolves around vegetable-based dishes, but do keep an eye on the curries as, while the fat of choice is typically coconut milk, the occasional dairy does make its way into the mix.
Soups are another great option, often served with rice to constitute an entire meal. Shan tofu soups make great dishes in this regard, leaving you with that satisfying hearty feel. For street food, look out for rice flour pancakes – a savoury snack made out of tomato, coriander and chillies that look like little pizzas without the cheese.
As long as you remain vigilant, ducking into a vegetarian restaurant will most likely offer food that doesn’t include animal products.
Must try: Thali, a spread of side dishes not unlike the Korean-style banchan, offers plates of vegetable goodies served with rice, and it’s a pretty enjoyable way to dine. Also, many niche websites do carry lists of all the vegan options available in Myanmar.
Another big hit among fitness enthusiasts, the Paleo diet will be one of the hardest to maintain while travelling in Myanmar, as the local dishes contain a lot of processed carbohydrates, oils, sugar and beans. While local delights such as biryani chicken can be an option (without the rice, of course), it’ll take a lot of explaining to communicate your exact needs.
Your best bet will be to keep it simple here, opting for plain salads, fresh produce from their myriad of markets (your excuse to go market exploring), or pure meat dishes. Exploring Yangon’s Chinatown might give you some options, most notably the skewered pork, made out of the different parts for you to choose from. Also available here are vegetable dishes such as stir-fried leafy greens, skewered garlic and grilled okra.
Meat dishes such as the red pork pot roast are also viable options, though you may need to check if they have alternatives to peanut oil. Alternatively, you can tell the cook to forgo oils entirely.
Must try: The oxtail and watercress dish is worth hunting for, as the ingredients are Paleo friendly, providing you with the taste of local cuisine without sacrificing your diet. Besides the oxtail and watercress, this dish is seasoned with fish sauce, salt and garlic.
Maintaining a ketogenic diet in Myanmar would be fairly effortless, seeing as to how the diet itself is pretty adaptable. Often, the carbs in typical noodle and rice dishes can be easily removed, and with low-carb vegetables making up most of the local fare, it’s easy to make your way through the ‘Top 10 Dishes to Try in Myanmar’ list without feeling too restricted. As long as you’re prepared to sacrifice half the ingredients of these famous dishes (a lot of their meals are built on rice and noodles as the main fillers), you’ll be fine.
For instance, you might not be able to tuck into the noodles in a bowl of mohinga, but you certainly can wolf down the fish and tasty broth that make up the dish! Depending on your specific restriction to oils (some vendors might use vegetable oil), you’ll be able to do this with other local dishes such as the noodle salad.
For a seamless experience, opt for the meat dishes, though you might need to keep an eye out for milk.
Must try: Treat yourself to Nga Baung Doke (fish in banana leaves), consisting of keto-friendly ingredients such as coconut milk, turmeric and onions. It’s definitely one of the more aromatic dishes you can try in Myanmar.
And now we arrive to arguably the easiest diet of all to maintain during your travels in Myanmar. As an intermittent faster myself, I find it very easy to adjust my eating window to suit my travel schedule. One thing to note is that the locals tend to eat heavily during breakfast and lunch, and it’s much easier to find food during these times of the day.
So when it comes to the most optimum time (assuming you’re on the most convenient variation of 16:8), I’d suggest you bring your window forward and have your first meal at breakfast. Since most guesthouses and hotels offer breakfasts, it’s a no-brainer anyway. It took some adjusting on my end, as I tend to have my first meal at 3pm, but that worked amazingly with what Myanmar has to offer – most tours, for instance, start early in the morning and end at sunset.
The only downside is that you might not be able to enjoy a late-night drink at the local beer stations, but the best side of Myanmar is best enjoyed during the day anyway.
Must try: Anything. Go crazy. All of Myanmar’s most iconic dishes are available to you, as long as you score them within your eating window.
[Image: Shan Noodles Myanmar.jpg | Caption: Dine to your heart’s content, as long as it’s within your eating window. | Alt Text: Dieting in Myanmar – Bowl of Shan noodles]
As you can see, having a personal diet plan doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the local tastes. This is barely scraping the entirety of what this country has to offer, so the rest is up to you to explore!