Dining

Souped Up

Meet mohinga, the Asian noodle soup you've been missing your whole life
Mohinga Burmese Soup
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

Two months into a street food-filled, market-hopping tour around Southeast Asia, where days were built around meals and the snacks consumed in between, I thought I had tasted it all. That was until I landed in Myanmar.

Closed off from the world for 50 years due to a military dictatorship, it was as if this utterly otherworldly country had been frozen in time when I visited in 2014, a year before the first democratic election. The cuisine—simultaneously sour, crunchy and funky—stole my heart, thanks in no small part to mohinga, a tangy, catfish-based noodle soup, thickened with chickpea or rice flour, and topped with a range of spicy, crispy and fresh garnishes (see the recipe).

And if you've never heard of what is essentially Myanmar's national dish, you're not alone. But thanks to a new cookbook from San Francisco hot spot Burma Superstar, which offers a range of Burmese specialities including two varieties of mohinga, the beloved breakfast soup is picking up traction and is about to become your new obsession.

For Desmond Tan, owner of the restaurant and coauthor of Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes from the Crossroads of Southeast Asia, who was born in Yangon (the largest city in Myanmar) and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 11 years old, it's always been his favorite dish.

"It's a very familiar bowl of noodles. It's taking the essence of why people like pho and reinterpreting it," Kate Leahy, coauthor of the cookbook, says. Like pho, mohinga is a common street food eaten for breakfast, and it can take many forms. In the central part of the country, the broth is often made with lemongrass and might contain ginger or the pith of a banana tree stalk. On the western coast in the Rakhine State, the soup tends to be spicier, with shredded fish on top, as opposed to just having a fish-based broth.

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Tart flavors, from lemongrass or tamarind, keep the catfish flavor from overwhelming the soup. The broth is also thickened with toasted rice or chickpea flour. Garnishes might include a mixture of shallot oil, red chile powder, minced scallions, hard-boiled eggs, fried shallots, chopped cilantro and crispy split pea fritters.

"It's more about texture and savory flavors than it is about heat and sweetness," Leahy says of Burmese cuisine on the whole. In contrast to Vietnamese food, which is fresh and light, Leahy explains, Burmese food is rich and savory, and "definitely takes you in a different direction." One bite of mohinga, and it's easy to see what she means.

In Myanmar, you might eat mohinga on the street on your way to work or at a tea shop, the city's version of an all-day café, which serves breakfast, snacks and, of course, tea. Or you might even pick up the prepared ingredients—broth, garnishes, crackers—at the market and bring it all home to eat as a family. In the countryside, it's more common to make it from scratch. "It's a really warm welcome," Naomi Duguid, author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor, says.

Most importantly, if you grew up eating it a certain way, that will always be your favorite style, Duguid stresses. "It's just a fact: Mohinga from your home region is the one you prefer. Mohinga is comfort food, a taste of home."

And that's why it's the perfect dish for getting to know this wonderfully diverse country, home to more than 100 ethnicities and bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand.

"[Myanmar] is the ultimate Asian melting pot, because it's always been a crossroads for so many different people," Leahy explains. The cuisine, which belongs to none of Myanmar's neighboring cultures but takes cues from all of them, is the perfect window.  

Though Tan is excited to share his cuisine with a wider audience via his restaurants, he also sees the new book as a way to shine a light on Myanmar itself. Though the country is still struggling to be completely free of its military past, the people are making great strides.

Duguid, who was researching her cookbook while Myanmar was still under dictatorship, sums it up well. "We don't want to think about a place by the headlines about the army. There're real human beings on the ground. [And] food is such a great lens." 

  • Baskets of dragon fruit and custard apples at a market in Myanmar. 

    Photos: Courtesy of Alison Spiegel

  • In Yangon's Chinatown, 19th street fills up with BBQ carts at night. Grab a plastic chair, crack open a cold beer and pick out a whole fish or bbq kebab that will be cooked for you on the spot.

  • Curries on the street at a market in Yangon.

  • Myanmar's famous tea leaf salad. Customize it as you like, adding your preferred amount of crunchy dried peas and beans, peanuts and garlic. Eat it as a snack if you're looking for a little caffeine kick, or conclude a meal with this speciality.

  • A pile of chiles and spices at a market in Yangon.

  • Fried snacks—the kind that might be served on top of mohinga or eaten alone—at a market in Yangon.

  • Kebabs ready to hit the grill on 19th street in Yangon.

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