There was a time when vegetarians had to literally hunt for safe places to get a palatable meat-free meal once they stepped out of their homes. Thankfully now, vegetarian options are available in varying proportions across the globe. Vegetarianism is becomingly increasingly popular for numerous reasons, at least one of which is health. Living in Yangon as a vegetarian, is not really a challenge, but interesting culinary experiences give us reasons to smile, even here.
Myanmar with its wide variety of earthy produce, a phenomenal variety of greens, tofu and lentils, has endless non-meat options. In fact, it is easier to survive in Myanmar with such preferences than other tourist friendly Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Myanmar cuisine has numerous vegetable-rich salads, soups that can easily be kept vegetarian as well as rice and curries that are delicious even without the addition of meats. Yet vegetarianism is not very common among the locals, since dried fish, meats and seafood are added to nearly every preparation to make them tastier, nutritious, and more of a complete one-dish meal. The word to know is “thut-thut-lau” pronounced as “tatalou”, which actually means ‘lifeless’ but implies vegetarian. Interestingly, eggs are not considered to be non-vegetarian.
The ever increasing class of vegetarians can be attributed to the greater awareness about cruelty meted to animals, and also those who avoid meats for religious beliefs. Buddhism does not impose food restrictions but Hinduism does. Many Hindus are pure vegetarians and many are selectively vegetarian on specific days of the week and at certain times in the year. Myanmar has thousands of Indians residing for generations and though many have adapted to local tastes, an equal number have opted to stick to their vegetarian food habits.
Still, as vegetarians, we end up with interesting experiences that become amusing narratives later, the dismay and anger long forgotten. These are almost universal, and anyone with specific food preferences would have been through similar experiences in any country, be it Canada, Philippines, Argentina or any other.
A few years ago, I would have been appalled at the prospect of finding a dubious chunk of something chewy, halfway through my soup. Today, I just put away my plate, take a deep breath, and not think of what has already gone in. It is no longer shocking to ask for fried rice ‘thut-thut-lau’ and find pink, curled pieces of shrimp stirred in. For many, being vegetarian simply means not eating pieces of meat, so soup, made of meat stock is fine as long as no pieces are visible. Adding fish sauce and shrimp paste to add flavor are also considered acceptable, much to the horror of those who would rather starve. Some people are highly sensitive to odors and smells and can make out if a ladle of a meaty preparation has touched their food. I am grateful that I am not one of them, or else eating out would have been impossible. Yet I find it difficult to share a table where steamed whole fish is ordered, since I am convinced the fish is looking imploringly at me, to save it…now I try to switch seats so that I face the tail and not the eyes!
The variety on offer in Yangon is much more than other places in Myanmar, which have lesser number of tourists. This helps since it no longer necessitates eating rice with chili paste as I would have done a decade ago. The abundance of fresh fruit is a boon since these can be picked up and eaten on the go. New eateries from noodle shops to international chains like The Pizza Company are transforming the food scene in Yangon and vegetarian options are offered as well. Fine dining restaurants, street stalls and tea shops all have something for the vegetarian. The list of options is endless, whether you walk down Anawratha Road in Downtown Yangon, or along the upscale Dhammazedi. Myanmar cuisine is vast, and delectably so. Its repertoire of salads includes the exotic tea leaf salad made out of fermented tea leaves, rich in caffeine, and mixed with sesame seeds, crushed nuts, cabbage, onions, lime and garlic. Lemon salad is a tangy mix of cabbage, red onions, chili, and sesame seeds. Tomato salad goes beyond traditional tomato slices, to include peanuts, sesame, onions and garlic. Even more sumptuous is the eggplant salad made out of the smoked vegetable that gives it a unique taste. Soups are often thickened with cooked chickpeas, and common ingredients include, tofu, vegetables and noodles. Steamed rice is served with curries that are rich and thick, and can be made with vegetables instead of chicken, fish or red meats. Easily available cauliflower, cabbage, bamboo shoots, beans, potatoes and pumpkins, provide numerous curry options. Noodles are prepared with sauces and vegetables, to be eaten as snack or at mealtimes. Fresh juices, jaggery and coconut sweets serve as perfect accompaniments to a vegetarian meal.
Myanmar cuisine has a strong influence of Indian cooking styles and many common ingredients like beans and pulses, curries and similar style of preparing vegetables. Walking down the streets in the Downtown area, reveals endless stalls selling the ubiquitous Indian ‘samosa’, the deep fried, potato-stuffed wanton. A large flat pancake called ‘dosa’ is served with chutneys, potatoes and a lentil curry called ‘sambhar’, and makes for a delicious meal at all times of the day. The number of Indian eateries is also expanding. All star-rated hotels in Yangon have Indian meal options, and standalone restaurants are opening up. It is easy to find places offering a reasonable vegetarian “thali”, which is a plate of rice with a lentil curry, vegetables and a pickle, or even chapatti and lentil curry called ‘daal’, which is a rich source of protein. Myanmar is a leading exporter of beans and pulses, so the quality couldn’t be better!
Today I am happy with a tea leaf salad or even the Myanmar tomato salad, followed by barbecued or fried vegetables, a tofu noodle soup, some stir fried greens and fried rice. Who can ask for more?