Vegetarian Survival Guide to Burma (Myanmar)

Burma (or Myanmar) isn’t the worst place we’ve been for vegetarians and we coped a lot better than we expected. This was largely due to the big Indian influence and the fact that in this Buddhist culture there is a well understood Burmese word for vegetarian. Being able to communicate this made things a lot easier.

We had some delicious meals in Burma, some that were decidedly average, and only one mishap when we were served shrimp in our salads. Overall we enjoyed exploring the cuisine of this little-visited country.

Here are our tips for surviving Burma as a vegetarian.

Learn the Magic Word

The best advice we received was from our friend Shannon who told us to learn the magic word for vegetarian: “thatalo”. I think it literally means “lifeless” so by using it you’ll get a meal without any living creatures in it.

We found it worked really well, although sometimes we didn’t get the pronunciation quite right so it wasn’t always understood.

A traditional Myanmar meal

A traditional Myanmar meal

It did enable us to eat in traditional Myanmar restaurants and get all vegetarian meals. Unfortunately we found the food in these places rather bland and unexciting – usually we’d get some boiled vegetables with rice. Better than going hungry though.

Indian Food

Thali in Yangon

Vegetarian thali

There’s a huge Indian influence in Burma and we are very thankful for it! We ate some delicious cheap meals of dosas (pancakes filled with spicy potato) although more commonly known as thosai here, and all you can eat vegetarian thalis (rice and curries).

We also loved the availability of fried Indian snacks on the streets. Samosas are easily found and were always vegetarian (although check by asking “thatalo?”).

Indian fried snacks, Burma

Samosas and other fried snacks

Tea Shops

Tea shops are obviously a place to drink tea, but we found them to be a good place for snacks too and we often found samosas or fried vegetables here.

Another good option is Pe Byouk – flat bread served with a boiled pea dip. It’s common for breakfast or as a snack later in the day. Breakfast is usually free at guesthouses but if not head to a tea shop.

Shan Food

We found the food from Shan state (although available in Yangon too) to be particularly delicious and vegetarian-friendly.

Some dishes to look out for:

Shan tofu – a creamy version made from split yellow peas rather than soybeans. We ate it fried, in a tofu salad, and mixed with noodles for a creamy comfort dish.

Shan tofu salad

Shan tofu salad

Shan noodle salad/soup – we ate both a noodle soup and a noodle salad, which had a little bit of broth so was like a soup.

Shan noodles

Shan noodles

Shan yellow rice and tomato – tasty rice with tomato, onion and garlic.

Shan yellow rice and tomato

Shan yellow rice and tomato

Burmese Salads

Burmese salads are a revelation. They are nothing like the western salads we know and are always full of flavour. Usually the ingredients are chopped thinly and it’s all mixed by hand. They make a great option for vegetarians although fish sauce and shrimp are often added so you’ll need to say “thatalo” when you order, and hope for the best. We ended up with shrimp on top of our salad once and had to pick them out.

Here are some of the salads we tried, but there are many more interesting options.

Tea Leaf Salad (Lahpet Thoke) – This is the classic Burmese salad. We loved it but it does have a strong flavour that takes some getting used to. Pickled tea leaves are mixed with tomato, cabbage, onion, sesame, peanuts, dried peas, garlic, chilli and lime. It’s crunchy and full of flavour. See the top photo.

Tomato Salad – In France you’d literally get a plate of tomato but the Burmese tomato salad is so much more interesting. There are different variations but usually included onion, garlic, peanuts, coriander and sesame.

Lemon Salad – A mix of cabbage, red onion, lemon, chilli, and sesame.

Lemon Salad

Lemon Salad

Pennywort Salad – An unusual but delicious salad made from the pennywort herb and mixed with onion, sesame, peanuts, garlic and lime.

Pennywort Salad

Pennywort Salad

Recommended Restaurants

These are some of the restaurants we recommend.

Yangon

Barbecue on 19th Street/ Mahabandoola Rd

The best barbecue we have ever had was in Yangon’s Chinatown. 19th St is lined with stalls where you pick up a tray, choose your food and they grill it up for you. There is meat and fish but also plenty of vegetables – we feasted on tofu, okra, broccoli, garlic and potato grilled in a tasty chilli and garlic marinade. It was utterly delicious and cheap too – our first visit only cost 1200 kyat for the two of us and even stuffing ourselves on our second visit cost 3000 kyat for us both including water.

Barbecue on 19th St, Yangon

Barbecue on 19th St, Yangon

Ingyin New South India Food Centre on Anawrathta Rd

There are lots of Indian restaurants on this road. The South Indian restaurants will be most vegetarian-friendly. We ate tasty dosas and a vegetarian all you can eat thali here for 1000 kyat.

Nang Htike on Bogyoke Aung San Street between 46th & 47th

On our first night we met up with Bessie and Kyle from On Our Own Path who lived in Yangon at the time. They took us to this Shan restaurant where we feasted on Shan creamy tofu and noodles; rice with tomatoes, garlic and onion; fresh water seaweed in a tangy chilli and lime dressing; and spicy mixed vegetables. It was delicious and cost 1600 kyat each. They ordered for us though and I don’t know how easy it would be to do if you don’t know the names of the dishes.

Bagan

Aroma 2 on Restaurant Row in Nyuang U

It’s not as authentic as the cheap places in Yangon but this is a good Indian restaurant with a friendly owner and nice setting. The tasty vegetarian thali included vegetable curry, chapati, rice, and five chutneys including tamarind, mint and coriander, and spicy tomato.

The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant, near Ananda Pahto, Old Bagan

It’s location makes it a good place for lunch while out at the temples and there’s a huge selection of interesting dishes at this vegetarian restaurant. The eggplant salad made with warm roasted and mashed eggplant, and the creamy Bagan Tamarind Curry with groundnuts were particularly good.

Eggplant Salad at The Moon

Eggplant Salad at The Moon

Yar Pyi Vegetarian Restaurant, opposite The Moon

It’s not as busy as The Moon because it’s not in the Lonely Planet but it’s another good option for vegetarians with a similar menu.

Mandalay

NVC Nepali Restaurant, 81st Street 26/27.

We liked the all you can eat vegetarian thali for 2000 kyat and the potato paratha served with curries.

Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake)

Night Market

Nyaungshwe Night Market

Nyaungshwe Night Market

We ate at the first stall which had a menu in English and the lady understood our “thatalo” request. We liked the Shan noodle salad, although it was more like a soup with cabbage and a little bit of broth, served with pickles and chilli. The tea leaf salad was quite strong but the lemon salad was good. All dishes are around 500 kyat.

Shan noodle salad and pickles

Shan noodle salad and pickles

Star Flower Italian Restaurant

We didn’t usually bother with western food in Burma but we had heard good things about this Italian restaurant. It’s quite expensive but the pizzas (5000 kyat) and homemade pasta with eggplant and parmesan (3500 kyat) were excellent. You get free bruschetta too.

If you are a travelling vegetarian don’t miss our vegetarian survival guides to Chiang Mai, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru.

Trail Wallet

Leave a comment if you have any vegetarian tips for Burma.

29 thoughts on Vegetarian Survival Guide to Burma (Myanmar)

  1. Reading this is making me hungry! I can’t wait to get to Thailand and try out some of the lovely vegetarian food in Chiang Mai! It’s a country I think I will enjoy being a veggie in!

  2. I had Burmese food for the first time a few weeks ago and loved it! The tea leaf salad was delicious, and there were a couple of other really good vegetarian options that our group shared.

  3. Pingback: GLORIOUS NEWS: PDX Fruit and Veg news and links, week of May 28 « Banana Nick's

  4. Some other tha-tha-lo foods you all might like to check out if you can find:

    Notes:
    “a-tho” means salad. There are many kinds of delicious Burmese salads mostly unknown elsewhere, even in nearby lands.

    a-thi (thee) means fruit

    hin = a dish of something, often miscalled a curry

    hin-jo = soup
    ————————-

    Gyin tho = ginger salad

    Ma-gyi-ywe a-tho = salad made from young tamarind leaves, tomato, onion, etc

    Thayet-thi a-tho = salad made using slightly sweet sour green mango, peanut, sesame, onion, etc

    Bei-byoke a’tho = salad based on the Shan protein staple beibyoke (flat round fermented bean sheets that are grilled and part broken or cut up, mixed with onion, tomato and other things (often too much chilli). Strong flavoured, very addictive to some but repellent to others….

    Bei-byoke belachaung = a condiment made from the flat round fermented bean sheets that are crushed, mixed with peanut, sesame, deep-fried garlic and onion, plus usually chilli, that is sprinkled (or heaped) on rice dishes with leafy side dishes

    Poun-yei-gyi (pown-yay-gi) = a fermented paste made from black beans, usually with garlic and raw onion.

    Chin-baun hin-jo = a watery but delicious sour soup made with roselle leaves, onion and flavourings (note: usually, as with most Burmese dishes, made with a liberal amount of MSG, locally known as ajinomoto. The sour soups balance out and complement the many Burmese curries that are usually oily and spicy)

    G’n bawn chin hin-jo = another watery but delicious sour soup made with leaves of Acacia pennanta, also with a little onion, salt, msg

    Moh-nyin-chin-chaung hin-jo = yet another subtle and delicious thin soup, this made mustard leaves that are pickled then dried, with slices of root ginger and onion added.

    Dahl made from split beans or Indian beans is a standard food to go with rice

      • Thanks for the heads up on the MSG content. This is something we had wrongly assumed would not have made it to Myanmar.. I wonder how hard it is to have it omitted from everything, do you know?

  5. On behalf of all vegetarian travelers, thanks for this. I think I should write up a ‘vegetarian survival guide’ for Indonesia since I spent 2 months there and this was a daily challenge.

  6. Thanks for the information! My wife and I are going to Burma in January 2013 and I was looking for vegetarian foods, and places to go for them. Your pictures look tasty!

  7. Thanks for the information.

    ‘I was hoping you could answer a couple of questions I have…

    How long where you there? How much money did you bring? Kind of concerned about running out of running if I do not plan accordingly.

    Thanks for your help! In Indonesia now, thinking about going to Myanmar from Bangkok.

  8. Pingback: Vegetarian eats in Burma « DC Vegetarian

  9. Although I agree with your assessment of vegetarian options in Myanmar, I was certainly surprised at a restaurant in Yangon to see a “salad” menu where every salad had some sort of meat or seafood in it, like pork intestine salad, etc. In my mind, if a vegetarian looked at the salad menu they probably would have been a bit turned off. But, that yellow Shan tofu is amazing!

  10. Food looks great! Just wondering if most veggie dishes are also vegan as you would find in many Asian countries? Any idea how to say vegan in Burmese? I usually use my vegan passport to explain everything but Burmese isn’t in it! Thanks.

    • I don’t remember anything having dairy products in, I don’t think it’s that common, so you should be fine. It’s possible that “thatalo” is actually understood as vegan but you might want to check with a local when you get there. Good luck!

  11. Thank you so much for the detailed information. Thanks to your post, now I am confident that I can get vegan meals without much difficulty in Myanmar.

    By the way, do the staff at the local restaurants understand English? I hope if they cannot understand my pronunciation of thatalo, they will understand some English.

    Thanks again.

    • Some do, it really depends on whether they are used to tourists. And don’t be scared of saying thatalo to them in a few different ways until you get the right pronunciation!

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