Mohinga, the Burmese Breakfast Soup You Should Know
The hot season in Myanmar starts at the beginning of March and lasts until May, when the monsoons sweep in. During these months, temperatures climb to the mid-nineties or higher, and the only solution is to find a dark, air-conditioned room and move as little as possible until the heat breaks, usually around 5 o’clock. In Burmese Days, a novel set during the British occupation, George Orwell describes experiencing the hot season as if it were a sickness, or a kind of psychedelic hangover: “Even the lovely transient dawns were spoiled by the thought of the long, blinding hours to come, when one’s head would ache and the glare would penetrate through every covering.”
But before those long blinding hours begin, temperatures are relatively merciful and the streets are crowded. In the early morning in Yangon, men hustle along in longhyis (a Burmese take on a sarong), tea shops fill up and vendors line the sidewalks hawking all manner of food—samosas and meat skewers, Shan noodles and rice cakes, dragon fruit and durian, and also mohinga, a hot and sour catfish soup that’s considered Myanmar’s unofficial national breakfast dish.
Burmese cooking prioritizes a balance of sweet and sour, salty and spicy, and good mohinga fits this profile—it’s made with river catfish, fermented vermicelli noodles, banana tree stalk, boiled vegetables, onions, and turmeric, which gives it a muddy orange tint. Chickpea fritters, lime, eggs, shallots, and chili are optional, but even without the extra spice, the dish aspires to its nickname: “burn throat, burn tongue.” Flavors vary based on where it’s made—“country style” mohinga emphasizes fish, garlic, and pepper, while mohinga in the cities features ginger and lemongrass, and peppers cooked in sizzling oil. Burmese food is sometimes accused of being oily, and while this is not always the case, street vendors will coat vats of noodles with layers of translucent red chili oil—a low-rent strategy for keeping away flies.
Unlike the cuisine of neighboring Thailand, India, and China, Burmese food is barely known internationally, thanks to the military junta that has kept the country on lockdown since 1962. Decades of corruption and economic mismanagement have meant that despite Myanmar’s regional reputation as the “rice bowl of Asia,” much of the population lives paycheck-to-paycheck. As a result, popular dishes tend to be cheap and filling, milder cousins of Indian curries and Chinese noodle dishes, often garnished with lime, peanuts, chili, and dried shrimp. Since the landmark victory of activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party last year, however, things are starting to slowly change, including food culture. Conspicuously new restaurants stick out in the former colonial capital, and shirts and tote bags featuring “The Lady” are sold openly in the Bogyoke market, Yangon’s former epicenter of street food.
There’s no universal consensus on the origins of mohinga—one account traces it back to the first century AD; another attributes its current form to the designs of a fickle 13th-century king. There’s reason to believe it originated in China like many other Southeast Asian noodle dishes, and the earliest mention of it in English is in a story published in 1936 in the Indian literary magazine Modern Review. In the story, a young Bengali collects his inheritance and runs off to the city then known as Rangoon, where he is immediately struck by the “Chinese or Burmese” mohinga vendors who transported their wares as street-sellers still do today: “They carried their entire stock in two pots, which were placed on charcoal stoves. These stoves were slung on two sides of a pole, which the men carried on their shoulders.”
We do know that mohinga was popularized as a working class meal in the late 19th century under British rule, and that it remained a fixture during the post-WWII Japanese occupation and the subsequent period of independence. After the 1962 coup, mohinga vendors were some of the only entrepreneurs allowed to operate under the junta.
Due to its appeal during times of economic hardship, mohinga has gone from being a breakfast food to an all-day meal. Just as the price of a gallon of milk can be a weathervane for the cost of living in an American city, the price of a bowl of mohinga does the same in Yangon. In a 1991 letter, Aung San Suu Kyi complained that “the price of an average dish of mohinga which includes vegetable fritters and a quarter of a duck egg was three kyats before 1990. Now a slightly smaller portion with a cheap bean fritter and without duck egg costs fifteen kyats.” As of last March, a bowl on the street cost around three hundred kyats (roughly twenty-five cents) compared to a minimum wage of 3,600 kyats ($3) a day. For those looking to save money, ready-made mohinga packets are sold in the markets.
I first tried mohinga last spring, on a hazy early morning in Yangon. I had heard about the dish before arriving in Myanmar, and wanted to know what could be so appealing about starting the day with catfish chowder. The answer, it turns out, was that mohinga is like a lighter, more fortifying version of ramen; it’s filling and spicy yet surprisingly energizing, with a sour taste that pulls all the flavors together in a delicious if bewildering melange. As far as intense, fishy breakfasts go, this was the best I’ve had, and I’d recommend trying it should you find yourself in Myanmar. (Having said that, however, I confess to returning the next day to the “American” option of fruit and eggs.)
As to how mohinga became Myanmar’s preferred breakfast dish, I have a few theories. It could be because catfish are native to the Irrawaddy River, which runs through the country like a vein, or because of the dish’s reliance on ngapi (fish paste) which has been one of Myanmar’s main exports since the colonial days. It might also have to do with the heat: on sweltering days, it’s common in Southeast Asia for people to drink tea—or hot soup—to cool down. The mohinga vendors know this, and should you be in search of a meal, track one down in the hours leading up to high noon, when the sellers, along with everybody else, head back inside to wait out the heat.