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Gluten free vacation in Burma / Myanmar

By Ton Nederhof

Myanmar view
Mayanmar / Burma. Courtesy of eGuide Travel

Myanmar (previously called "Burma") has many rice dishes and flour is not used frequently, if at all, in my experience on meat or fish in the Burmese regional cuisine. For this reason, I usually selected restaurants serving Burmese food rather than other regional cuisines such as Mon or Shan (wheat noodles). The main problem with Burmese food is to avoid sauce. Both fish sauce and soy sauce are commonly used but not gluten free. I avoided ketchup and mayonnaise as these may contain gluten. With grilled or steamed Burmese fish or meat, sauce tends to be added afterwards, making it easy to eliminate. This is more difficult with Chinese dishes served in Myanmar, so I tried to avoid these. I usually had fish or prawns, a salad or steamed (occasionally stir fried) vegetables, and plain rice. Fish dishes tended to be excellent, while beef usually was not very tasty. On one occasion, even though the beef was gluten free, I (and several non-celiac travelling companions as well) had a bad case of food poisoning afterwards.

There is not yet a Burmese restaurant card, while the English one clearly did not produce the right response. Restaurant staff usually had no more than a basic understanding of English, which meant that less common terms such as "diet" or "allergy" typically drew a blank. Even when a Burmese guide translated the English card, this usually did not make an appreciable difference. Therefore, I wrote just "No sauce or ketchup" and "No bread" on a conspicuous pink piece of paper and showed that, taking care to mention the various types of sauce that should be avoided. Even then, I was frequently asked whether I meant "No salt". Actually, this was a good sign, as it was understood that I had a diet problem, and after explaining that I used salt, but no, not sauce, all went usually OK. Once or twice, when the waiters did not understand English very well, food was served with sauce or ketchup. Fortunately, this was easy to detect by sight or smell. As a reminder for the staff, I kept the pink "No sauce" paper next to my plate until I was served. More than once, upon spotting the pink paper once again, the waiter went back to the kitchen with my meal and had it replaced with what I had ordered.

A few times, the cook used sugar instead of sauce. This presented no problem for me, while the staff was satisfied that the food tasted as it should be. Especially in restaurants with a Burmese owner, it is an important issue that the food tastes right, according to their palate. If not, as I experienced several times, they might refuse to serve the dish, claiming that it would taste awful. This was especially an issue with vegetable dishes, much less so with fish or meat items. Proposing to use a little sugar rather than sauce might carry the day.

I experienced no trouble with customs concerning my stash of gluten free bread, teff crackers and hard cheese. At breakfast, there were usually boiled eggs and / or fried eggs as well as one or two kinds of fruit, but infrequently plain rice. For lunch, I tended to have my own teff bread.

In the large Orange super market in Mandelay, they sold no flour with gluten, as far as I could determine, not being able to read Burmese. There was only gluten free flour (from rice and so on) on sale. There was no flour with gluten on sale in any of the other, usually much smaller, groceries that I visited.

In Yangon, I had good experiences with dinner in Monsoon restaurant (85-87 Theinbyu Road, Botataung Township; www.monsoonmyanmar.com; relatively pricey but delicious food) which had a European owner, and in the small sushi restaurant Japan Japan (239 Pansodan Upper Blk, Kyauktada Township; hardly any English spoken). Near the Golden Rock, the Mountain View Hotel in Kyaikhto (Seikphu Foothill, Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda Road) served good steamed pork. The Khyaikhto Hotel (near Khyauktiho Pagoda, Khyauktiho Hill) had nice prawns. Near Inle Lake in Nyaung Shwe, Smiling Moon restaurant (Yone Gyi Road) had enjoyable grilled fish and tomato salad with peanuts, but awful beef. By far the best food in Mandalay was served at the Green Elephant restaurant (No. 3 Block 801, 27th Street between 64th and 65th Street) in the theater district. Lovely garden, my favorite restaurant in Burma.

The Monywa Hotel (Bogyoke Aung San Road, Sagaing Div.) in Monywa served simple rice with fish. There was some unidentifiable black stuff on the bottom of the rice that I did not eat though.

In Bagan (Wet Kyi Inn quarter), I had four times a full meal in the Pyi So Ne restaurant (Nyaung Oo Road). The kind lady who owns the place speaks English and you should ask for her. Excellent grilled fish, nice prawns and several tasty salads, such as the green beans. The Green Elephant restaurant in Bagan Nandawun (with river view) serves a reasonable rice with lentils.

In all, gluten free travelling is possible in Myanmar. In general, once it is understood that one wishes to avoid certain ingredients due to digestive problems, Burmese restaurants try to be accommodating.

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