Mohinga is to the Burmese what menudo may be to the Mexicans. It’s the stuff of life, found all across Burma, in homes, street stalls and in restaurants. As a kid, I regularly ate it for breakfast on weekends (there was no way I was going to school with a potent fishy breath). Over the years, I’ve had countless iterations of mohinga. I’ll tell you this: once you’ve eaten enough bowls of mohinga, you realize that no two persons cook the same recipe–every chef makes the dish their own.
But first, what’s mohinga?
Simply put, mohinga (မုန့်ဟင်းခါး) is Burmese comfort food. “Mont” (မုန့်) is a catch-all word for snacks of all sorts, while “hinga” (ဟင်းခါး) is the name of a clear fish soup seasoned with black pepper. But it’s quite unlike the hinga usually eaten with Burmese salads or curries.
Mohinga is made from almost exclusively indigenous ingredients, suggesting that the dish has native origins; most south-east Asian noodle dishes can be traced back to China.
It’s true. Many of Southeast Asia’s much beloved noodle soups harken back to Southern Chinese counterparts, or at the very least, Chinese influences, from the preparation to the noodles used. But there’s nothing quite like mohinga.
Unlike most Southeast Asian noodle soups, mohinga uses an indigenous repertoire of ingredients: roasted chickpea flour, roasted and pulverised rice and peanuts, garlic cloves, onions, lemongrass, slices of banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste and shredded freshwater fish (hilsa, catfish, etc.).
Before serving, the broth is poured over a pile of boiled rice vermicelli. The bowl is then further seasoned and garnished with a squeeze of lime juice, coriander, chili flakes, and fritters like fried lentils, fried onions, and fish cakes. Metta Kitchen has an awesome mohinga recipe which sheds more light into all the ingredients that comprise this rather complex dish.
Night-time mohinga? What’s the big deal?
Now, mohinga is breakfast food. It’s usually eaten before starting the day, or as a snack in between meals.
But there’s a place in Yangon that serves it exclusively at night, from 5 pm to 2 am each day. My uncle first told us about it on our way back from my dad’s hometown in the countryside. Arriving back into Yangon around 8 pm, we were absolutely famished. So he veered off into the side streets, and led us into one of Mayangon Township’s many dark residential alleyways.
In the middle of this leafy residential neighborhood was a fluorescent-lit house completely buzzing with diners. Daw Yin Shwe’s Mohinga Shop (ဒေါ်ရင်ရွှေမုန့်ဟင်းခါးဆိုင်), as it’s called, has built a local reputation over the years. Since 1997, Daw Yin Shwe has indeed capitalized on people’s night-time craving for this breakfast food. And she does as superb job. Daw Yin Shwe hails from the Ayeyarwady delta town of Hinthada (or Henzada in pre-1989 times), an area known for its superb renditions of mohinga.
(The shop is also nicknamed “U Yay Ke Street Mohinga Shop” (ဦးရေခဲလမ်းမုန့်ဟင်းခါးဆိုင်), after the street it’s on. Yay Ke means “ice” in Burmese.)
Daw Yin Shwe’s menu is rather simple. There are 11 options, including 3 milk-based desserts (we Burmese love milk in our desserts, perhaps a carryover of colonial Indian influences). Translations below:
- မုန့်ရိုးရိုးတလွတ်တစ်ပွဲ – plain mohinga (400 kyat)
- မုန့်နှင့် အကြော်တစ်ပွဲ – mohinga with fritters (500 kyat)
- မုန့်နှင့် အိုးဘဲဥ – mohinga with pot-cooked duck egg (600 kyat)
- မုန့်နှင့် ငါးဖယ် – mohinga with fish cake (600 kyat)
- အကြော်တစ်ခု – fritter (100 kyat)
- ဘဲဥတစ်လုံး – duck egg (200 kyat)
- အကြော်နှင့် ဟင်းရည် – fritters and broth (300 kyat)
- ပူတင်း (၃) ဗူး – pudding (1000 kyat)
- ရွှေကြည် (၁) ဗူး – semolina cake (300 kyat)
- ဒိန်ချဉ် (၁) ဗူး – yogurt (400 kyat)
And it’s practically self-serve dining, with orders taken at the front, where the broth is continuously stirred in the open air. Crowds of patrons, ranging from families to office workers and students, flock around the cooks, who hand out custom-made bowls according to each order.
The shop operates on an honor policy of sorts. You pay after you’re done, reciting your orders as you pay one of the employees. And somehow the system works!
Mohinga at Daw Yin Shwe’s is served the old school way, heated up under a pile of coal in a traditional metal pot. Men are consistently stirring the ladle to keep the broth from stagnating, while others are quickly customizing the bowls with toppings like chopped yi kya kway (အီကြာကွေ့, Chinese donut), fish cakes, boiled duck eggs, and more.
As with most traditional Burmese food joints, there was a complimentary offering of green tea, a refreshing change from Thailand, where hot tea is never served with a meal. Every table also came with bowls of freshly chopped coriander, chili flakes, lemon juice and fish sauce, to season and garnish to one’s liking.
Within minutes, our bowls were ready. I ordered a bowl of mohinga with pounded fish cakes and duck eggs. I seasoned the noodles with a plentiful amount of coriander and some chili flakes and dug right in. The mohinga broth was a beautiful goldenrod hue, with just the right amount of liquid to solid ratio achieved from freshly roasted peanut powder and pea flour (which act as thickening agents to achieve that chowder-like texture).
And the broth was just the perfect remedy to a bumpy 4 hour road trip back into the city. Piping hot, hearty, and rich in flavor. And the sheer variety of ingredients in a 60 cent bowl: cooked banana stem, onions, shredded fish, and yummy fish cakes. My bowl of mohinga required no extra seasoning.
I finished my bowl within minutes. While my dad went to get me a refill of the broth, I snuck into the kitchen to find a very old-school set up, with a bunch of raw ingredients laid out and ready for the fire.
After we paid for our meal, my family made one pit stop across the street. An Indian woman selling fritters of all sorts, including samosas.
We paid for several bags full of deep fried snacks and made our way back to the hotel, to enjoy some late night snacks.
Daw Yin Shwe Mohinga ဒေါ်ရင်ရွှေမုန့်ဟင်းခါးဆိုင်
U Yay Ke Street, Mayangon Township, Yangon, Myanmar
ရန်ကုန်မြို့၊ မရမ်းကုန်းမြို့နယ်၊ ဦးရေခဲလမ်း
P.S. Daw Yin Shwe’s is so popular that it’s been covered by local media. Burmese language video below: