Myanmar food?

Myanmar food? Exciting ….yes….. unique…… yes…. frightening… Absolutely, yes. Our first meal at a road side stall after we sidestepped rubbish and the odd sickly rat, mangy dogs….the food looked delicious, smelt scrumptious and spicy….and was served into our take away plastic bags…by hand. We survived half expected food poisoning in Uzbekistan, but here…..each morning we were to wake slightly nervous and then relived to find we are still very much….. well. After a week in the country my one and only bout of nausea, followed by the runs and vomiting hit me quickly after lunch and only lasted a few unpleasant hours. At first I had thought it was the sun…the beer….which I also thought was so very odd!
We have watched cats climb on plates and bowls to sneak away dried fish, watched flies buzz, drown in the oily slick, dogs, yet more commonly, people, sleeping on the food preparation surfaces……none of which stop the hungry cyclist from eating…..or the tired bus traveler…… is always part of the adventure.
We drink tea from cups in the centre of tables, cups placed upside down in bowls of water to assume there cleanliness. Much of the time the water has evaporated or if not it is brown. We have also not said no to offers of drinks from communal cups, water in ceramic pots that adorn temples, the roadside, tea shops. We have no idea of the origination of this water. When not in company we sterilise water from taps with the UV light of our steripen.
Everyday, everywhere, cities, villages, farms….people cart water from wells and even the wealthy can not avoid the black outs, the frequent absence of electricity. Thus, much of the food, in this climate, makes sense.
Burmese food food has proved generally salty and oily, prepared and left to sit throughout the day, more often than not it has sat and it has sat and it is served cold. My eyes take in the sights, my nose the pleasant smells and my mind…. notes the hours allowed for bacteria to set in. Fortunately the oil does seam to preserve the food so that we avoided multiple bouts of food poisoning.
We learnt quickly that the food can be delicious, small amounts of curry and sauces mixed with lots of rice to take in the otherwise overpowering flavours. We had thought it rude not to finish the never ending bowls of food that appear each time one bowl is almost finished. It is not rude and not wise to consume an otherwise never ending banquet. Fortunately all sit down meals even in the most basic of tea shops in the smallest of villages comes with a brothy palette cleansing and thirst quenching soup….this can also be never ending….topped up in a blink of the eye. The locals also spoon this into the curry, rice concoctions which makes the heaviness of dishes somewhat more appealing.
What would have been rude was not accepting my gift of soup when we stopped for soft drink in the middle of the furnace, somewhere in the middle of Myanmar. Oh dear….I saw it coming…it was so hot that day and I was not at all hungry. OH DEAR! As I looked down at my offering….striped fowls feet, intestines, whole liver and ….All eyes upon me….I tasted the broth….not bad…. I gave Li the liver before I “enjoyed” the other bits and pieces….half gone…..all smiles…..the bowl again topped up! Well it did go down well with my first ever experience of palm wine. I was excited by what I expected was coconut or sugarcane juice in an old plastic bottle… the surprise at first taste was horrifying….and then refreshing and very quaffable…..and I never did finish my second bowl of guts soup!
Burmese food can be refreshing and more to our liking. Tomato salad with shallots, crushed peanuts and sesame seeds. Ginger salads with the glorious crunch of a dried and toasted assortments of beans. Fermented and tangy tea leaf salads. There can be a lot of tantalising texture.
We started seeking bastardised Chinese,Thai and Indian food which is readily available when in larger places, because it usually wasn’t swimming in oil and cooked fresh. For this reason I was looking forward to visiting Inle Lake in Shan State. Yet rather than avoid the food of Myanmar it was here that we discovered Shan Food. We had been searching for wine in the local stores when a tourist overheard us and said the wine we were looking for was available in a restaurant where he had just eaten. We asked about the food? …his eyes lit up and he literally sparkled. We headed straight to Sin Yaw for our first taste of Shan cuisine…..and we adored it.!Sun cured pork and spring onion tempura with tamarind sauce. Golden yellow crispy tofu with punchy coriander and lime sauce. White, local, seaweed salad. We returned to try more delicacies, always light, cooked fresh and immediate, and bursting with flavour.
Incidentally, near Inle we just had to cycle to both of the only wine producing vineyards in Myanmar, tasting 11 wines in total. The vintners are aiming at the local market and unfortunately getting your hands on a bottle outside of Myanmar would be difficult. Quality wine, of all shades including frizzante for the price at around $10 per bottle.
Oh…how could I forget the “donuts”. Guilt free because of our mode of travel. Many street vendors provide fried delights, samosas with hints of star anise, corn filled spring rolls, caramelised crunchy battered bananas, rings of batter with crisp palm sugared hard caramel….and our favourite, golden, soft centred donuts filled with fresh coconut and sugar. These were also a perfect gift…. along with tamarind and sticky rice flavoured cheroots, when we were granted the floor of a temple to spend the night…..our legs, nor the donuts were enough to propel us to the next town with a designated foreigner guest house where we could legitimately, legally, spend the night.
The best food comes with drama….a performance….and in this aspect the food of Myanmar is not lacking. The first time I placed my order, a young boy screamed this translated into Myanmar to a colleague….or perhaps his mum? As the order was being screamed down the line, starting a yelling match of banter back and forth….Li placed her order…..followed by the orders of our new found friends….no note pads or memory required….just a very loud cacophony of sound running through and over, and back and forth. This form of taking orders when sitting down at restaurants never ceased to delight and amuse me.
During meals and refreshment we also managed to provide entertainment. On several treasured occasions women merrily applied tanaka to our faces. Tanaka is worn by all genders but primarily the women and it is used as both make up and for sun protection. On a large stone the tree stump, (tanaka) is ground with water to make a smooth paste….and applied to the face ……”beautiful”!

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