Nothing says breakfast in Myanmar more than a hot bowl of mohinga, a flavorful fish soup with rice vermicelli. It’s the taste of the Irrawaddy Delta in the Burmese heartland, and an iconic national dish.
It’s an “all-day breakfast” food, sold across the country by curbside hawkers, carrying their wares on shoulder poles or bicycle carts, as well as in shops and restaurants in every price range.
In recent years, it’s become my favorite morning meal on reporting trips to Myanmar. It’s substantial but doesn’t weigh me down, which is important when preparing for a day of work in sometimes searing tropical heat.
Myaungmya is a township in the Irrawaddy Delta, southwest of the country’s largest city, Yangon. Cho is the name of the late entrepreneur who established the restaurant. Daw is the honorific title before her name.
Daw Cho’s descendants now operate seven restaurants in the Yangon area, and export an instant mohinga product overseas. (According to its Facebook page, the shop was awarded second prize in the Myanmar Mohinga Competition.)
A bowl of mohinga starts with a variety of catfish native to the Irrawaddy. The shop buys it from local fish farms in the delta. It is first soaked for half an hour in a fish sauce in large pots. Fish sauce is a basic ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines, made by fermenting fish, such as anchovies, with sea salt.
The fish is then de-boned and pan-fried in peanut oil just long enough to bring out the flavor. For even more flavor, the cooks extract liquid from the bones by pulverizing them. The bone liquid is then mixed with water and boiled, before the fish meat is added in.
Rice powder is added, thickening the mixture into something between a soup and a chowder. Next, boiled peas, onions, garlic, lemongrass and banana tree stems go in. A little turmeric gives the soup a dark yellow color. The soup is boiled for an hour and a half, before the final ingredient goes in: rice vermicelli.
The vermicelli is typical of the mélange of east and south Asian influences in Burmese cuisine. At one meal, you’re having having biryanis, curries and chutney. At the next, it’s Shan noodles, one of the many dishes influenced by southwest China’s Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar’s Shan State.
Finally, the eater gets to “customize” the bowl of mohinga with a range of condiments. Options include more fish sauce, lime juice, crispy chickpea fritters, fish cakes, boiled eggs (chicken or duck) and fried dough strips. My personal favorites are cilantro, crushed dried chili and fried shallots.
The final dish is a complex blend of flavors and textures. It’s simultaneously slightly sweet, salty and spicy. There’s a fresh fish taste, but it’s not “fishy.” Pro tip: It’s worth tasting the soup without the noodles and condiments to hone in on the subtle flavors.
In case you don’t get enough for breakfast, many mohinga shops such as Myaungmya Daw Cho are open in the afternoon, so you can go back for a second helping.