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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.
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.
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?”).
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.
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 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 yellow rice and tomato – tasty rice with tomato, onion and garlic.
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.
Pennywort Salad – An unusual but delicious salad made from the pennywort herb and mixed with onion, sesame, peanuts, garlic and lime.
These are some of the restaurants we recommend.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Really helpful thanks! I’m heading to Myanmar next month and I’ve been a bit nervous about this. I’ll definitely have to remember “thatalo”, and I also heard saying “eat like a monk” in Burmese gets a similar point across.
I’m sure you’ll be fine! Good luck and have a wonderful trip!
Some of that looks pretty good. You’re a great resource for vegetarian travelers.
What on earth is “awson”? I’ve lived in SE Asia for nearly 20 years, but never heard nor seen it anywhere except Myanmar. Some sort of stem or root vegetable with small leaves – I’ve seen it produced in a number of restaurants. The times I’ve eaten it, I can’t say it’s great – but I am intrigued. Mr. Google doesn’t help much!
No idea I’m afraid.
In Yangon you can try AV’S Indian Food,Snacks & Sweets,Here you get a pure vegetarian food and is popular among tourists.
Thanks! This will be very useful for my trip. Lots of details. I write about traveling as a vegetarian and have a page on FB veggie travel tales as well. So totally appreciate this.
The tea leaf salad was quite interesting … So was the avacado salad. In fact, I was happy having soup and salad quite a few times. Did you try the lentil soup?
Thank you so much for sharing your research. I would definitely get benefited of this for my visit by this year end.
Please do try AV’s and M.M.Foods for vegetarian food in Yangon.
Awesome!! Thanks so much. I am a Vegan and wonder how to always survive as a Vegan which is stricter than Vegetarian in Burma without any hassle? Thanks! Also, I am Indian and yay for Burma as neighbor.
I don’t remember there being much dairy in Burma so I don’t think it’ll be too much different being vegan. Good luck!
Help full information.. Ill keep this note for my upcoming travel. :-) thanks for sharing
This is such great, helpful information. What if I want to avoid the shrimp and fish sauce? Is that a challenge even in the vegetarian restaurants and should I assume they may be using it? Not only am I vegan, but allergic to shellfish.
Thanks for this. Can’t wait to visit!
Great post Erin!!!
I’m so hungry now!
I love Myanmar food and the Shan yellow rice is one of my favourite dishes! Delicious!
I am designing a photo-book about Myanmar People and Food and I include this dish in it. I have met local people all over Myanmar and asked them to cook their favourite dish for me.
It’s almost finish, please check my blog to know more about it.
I’d say most of Asia is quite good for vegetarians, or at least for non-meat eaters (I do eat fish and seafood, which I’ll admit makes things slightly easier).
Great resource though! :)
Eating fish changes everything… :)
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.
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!
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!
Many thanks for that wonderful collection of hard to find veggie restaurants out of an authentic experience.
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!
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.
… meant to say:
Kind of concerned about running out of money if I do not plan accordingly.
You do need to be careful to take more money than you think you’ll need. Have a read of this post for the money situation and how much we spent: http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/planning-a-trip-to-burmamyanmar/
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!
Have a great trip to Burma and enjoy the delicious food!
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.
Glad it’s helpful! We’d love to see a vegetarian survival guide to Indonesia.
Some other tha-tha-lo foods you all might like to check out if you can find:
“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
Wow! That all sounds great. Thanks very much for sharing Steve. We’ll have to go back to try these.
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?
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.
Glad you enjoyed tea leaf salad – it’s such a unique dish. We were happily surprised by how veggie friendly Burma could be.
Really unusual dishes. I always thought Burma’s food would be quite similar to Thai food, but Burma certainly has got its own cuisine. It looks delicious.
It really is different from Thai, and we found Indian food a bigger influence. The salads are unique to Burma it seems.
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!
I love these in-depth food reviews you guys do. My husband and I aren’t vegetarian, but I always like reading about other’s food experiences, and your pictures are always so appetizing!
Thanks Steph. Glad to know they are useful to non vegetarians too.
We are looking into visiting Burma, so I have bookmarked this for future reference. Thanks for all the great details. Your selfless research will certainly be a benefit to us! :)
Enjoy – it’s a fascinating country to visit.
Please visit AV’s and M.M.Foods for Indian Vegetarian Food,Snacks & Sweets in Yangon