Today is April 26, 2017, my 245th day in Myanmar.
"How could you write about food in Myanmar without first writing about mohinga?"
At least three mornings a week, you will find me in a street side shop of no bigger than 500-square feet, sweating under the fan and slurping over a bowl of mohinga that has cost me precisely 44 cents USD. Conveniently located on my daily route to work, this shop sells what I believe to be the best mohinga in the city of Yangon.
And that, is one controversial statement. With the area’s colonial influence, the Brits’ fondness for milk tea has rubbed off on the locals, who opened countless tea shops, decorating just about every street corner in this city. Mohinga, a through-and-through Burmese staple, is the one thing you can bet these tea shops all serve. It is a dish that requires no explanation in Myanmar. I will admit I haven’t sampled mohinga from all these places, as I assume no one could. But I have had mohinga from the shops where the popularity of this one dish is enough to sustain their business for generations. I have had the crowd-pleasers. And I still believe that mohinga sold at the easily-negligible shop near my home in the Yankin Township is the best there is.
Finely-cooked rice noodles absorbed in sour and salty catfish soup paste –– the core of mohinga –– is essentially the country of Myanmar in a bowl, giving merit to the country’s natural resources (rice and fish) and their preferred tastes (savory above all else). Hence the day I clumsily ordered my first bowl of mohinga without any local’s help, I marked that day as the end of my transitioning to Yangon, and the beginning of my time here.
That took about six months.
Customizing a bowl of mohinga to your own taste is a culinary art, and as art generally goes, it’s often not easy to grasp. The necessities are straightforward: cooked rice noodles and boiling fish soup, combined at the time of order. Optional supplements include but not limited to: fried garlic oil for the savory, lime wedges for flavoring, cilantro for garnish, chili powder for the kick, hard boiled eggs for protein, fish cake for more fish (duh) and an assorted variety of fried food (friend beans, friend gourd, fried dough so on and so forth) for the crunch. What’s not to love! But identify what you like to add and accurately order them is a skill only sharpened through practice.
During my first six months in the city, I experienced stages of emotions towards what could easily be the most popular dish in Myanmar. The first time I had it, a.k.a. my second day in the country, my expat friend warned me mohinga is an “acquired taste.” And you know things hardly ever end up well when that term is involved. Looking back now with the taste buds acquired, the particular bowl of mohinga I had that day wasn’t the best introductory course, but through multiple trials and errors, what used to be misunderstanding slowly turned into appreciation and immense obsession.
A hot, in both taste and temperature, and sour bowl of mohinga serves as your best hangover cure. I won’t disclose how many times it’s saved me and my belly on weekday mornings. One uses a spoon and only a spoon for mohinga, because the inseparable marriage between the thin noodles and the thick soup means they simply cannot be consumed separately. Each mouthful contains a party of flavors and textures, leaving me yearning for more after scraping every bowl clean.
It’s understandable that with mohinga being a very accessible delicacy, the quality of it varies from one place to the next. My personal criteria for judging the quality of mohinga – soup, quantity, freshness of cilantro and lime, and last but least, the options for fried goods – are well taken care of by my neighborhood shop. I never needed to order a second when I have mohinga there (which is rare). Their cilantro and lime wedges always seem promising (as opposed to “I’m not sure if this would give me diarrhea”). On any regular day, they offer three kinds of fried food: bay kyaw (fried beans), bu ti kyaw (fried gourds) and my personal favorite, ei kya kway: (fried breadstick, a.k.a. youtiao as it’s known in China) and that’s all I would ever ask for.
Operated by a family of women, this street-side shop is clean and and amazingly has an AC installed (though not always used)! The women, who often sit around a table cleaning vegetables when I arrive in the early mornings, have turned our inability to communicate verbally into thorough customer service. They pour me hot tea (free and always on the table) when I forget to do so. They also reserve the right to recommend menu items whenever they see fit: Once they saw me having the same bowl of mohinga for far too many mornings in a roll, they insisted on me switching to coconut noodles for a morning, a lesser favorite of mine but an equally good creation of theirs.
Sein Lae Yeik Thar St, Yankin
For no fault of your own, you will miss this place the first time walking by it. The only sign is in Burmese. Look for their sliding glass door instead, and you will happily find some much cooler air inside.
Burmese-style curry is also served, and some basic Burmese vocabulary will come in handy when ordering.