Browsing a local fresh market is one of the most captivating activities of visiting any foreign country. It’s at markets where the real lifeblood of a country flows, where commerce and leisure meet, and nowhere is this more true than in Asia. Markets are where local residents converse, do business, share meals, and spend time together with friends and family.
Slotted in between Thailand, India, and Bangladesh, and with major influences from both China and Great Britain, Myanmar contains an extremely diverse range of market ingredients and cuisine. Yangon, the capital and most important city in the country, is home to a number of sprawling food markets that not only offer fresh produce from miles around, but also a variety of different pre-cooked meals and treats.
The early morning is the best time to visit a market in Yangon, as the most vibrant trade happens before sunrise when restaurant, street food, and business owners all converge to get their daily supplies. After that, the next wave of traffic comes from people hunting for breakfast and those looking to purchase ingredients for their daily cooking needs.
Eating breakfast at a Yangon market is always a joy – Bangladeshi-style dosa pancakes served with flavorful curries, spiced peas wrapped in flatbread known as pe byouk, a selection of donuts and pastries, and freshly sliced tropical fruit are among the many options. But the most popular breakfast dish of all is known as mohinga, a bowl of rice noodles in fish curry topped with crispy fried fritters and garnished with lime and chili pepper. Few things are more enjoyable than sitting on a low stool while being served a piping hot bowl of mohinga in the midst of a bustling Yangon morning market.
Many people in Yangon are extremely friendly, especially in areas where they are not accustomed to seeing foreign visitors, like at local markets. While slowly wandering through most any market in Yangon, I was frequently stared at with a mix of curiosity and friendly nosiness, and even invited to sit down to drink cups of tea and eat snacks on many occasions. The hospitality from strangers was inspiring.
In order to cater to a real mixture of different cultures and cuisines, there’s a colorful mishmash of produce in Yangon’s markets. Eggplant, potatoes, cauliflower, bitter melon, turnips, and beans mostly cater to the Indian inspired dishes, while green leafy veggies, carrots, cabbage, and mushrooms are generally more prevalent in Chinese dishes. Other ingredients like pickled tea leaves, nuts, chickpeas, fruits, and herbs are key components in traditional Burmese favorites.
Fish, red meat, and poultry are all common throughout markets in Yangon. Fish is most commonly used to make the broth for mohinga and in famous Burmese curries but can also be found marinated and grilled. Beef, goat, and chicken are cooked in rice biryani, simmered in curry, boiled in soups, or stir fried.
Banana, guava, dragon fruit, durian, jackfruit, mango, watermelon, and papaya are all widely grown in Myanmar. Something known as a sweet cucumber – a green and yellow gourd-looking fruit – is popular as a refreshing beverage and sweet dessert.
Having the chance to browse through a local market presents an unparalleled glimpse into the mix of cultures, the diversity of ingredients used in food preparation, and the way of life in Yangon. It’s a perfect eye opening introduction to the stimulating culture of local Myanmar.