Mission of Burma

28 Jun

Sunset over the temples of Bagan

It’s been a while (OK, over a month) since my last post, I know — I always mean to blog on the road, but I’ve yet to make that intention a reality. Anyway, I’ve got a great excuse for not blogging during my recent jaunt to Myanmar (née Burma), a nation that truly feels like a bit of a timeslip. Imagine a week with no mobile phones (locals usually have them, but it’s not nearly so widespread as in the rest of the world), no ATMs, no Katy Perry, and internet connections that run at modem speeds, if you’re lucky to get any.

I think most SOK readers are familiar with Myanmar/Burma’s troubled history, starting with the fraught issue of what to call the country. Suffice to say that it’s been ruled for many decades by the iron fist of a military junta who have done their best to plunder the nation’s vast resources, both natural and human. In the past year, however, there have been signs of reform, most notably with the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who seems confident enough of the changes to travel to Europe, something she hasn’t done in over twenty years (much of which she spent under house arrest, anyway). So it seemed like an ideal time to visit: before the country is overrun by tourists seeking the “real Asia” but after it’s been opened enough that I don’t feel too guilty. As you can see, it’s a beautiful country, so I’m glad we got a chance to visit.

Enough about politics, though; this is a food blog, after all. Burmese cuisine isn’t widely known outside of the country, even in other parts of Asia. Even Malaysia, which has large population of refugees, doesn’t have a Burmese restaurant, although I’ve seen “Myanmar laksa” in KL.

Clockwise from top left: Shan-style noodles; an assortment of curries; an Intah specialty of mashed potatoes and rice; a typical Burmese lunch spread

Breakfast in Burma, as in many other parts of Asia, is usually a bowl of noodles. Mohinga — rice noodles with a thick fish broth — is served up as the morning meal all over Myanmar. We also got to try Shan noodles, which are served with lots of peanuts (one of the nation’s primary crops) and cilantro. Other meals are centered on rice, which is served with about 20 different side dishes, usually some hot dishes (the Myanmarese call them “curries,” but it’s really more like “meat or vegetables braised in oil”), salads (raw and lightly cooked herbs and vegetables), and mysterious condiments.

Pickled tea leaves with accompaniments

The meal usually ends with a palate-cleansing fruit — I had some of the best mangoes ever on this trip — and a Burmese specialty, pickled tea leaves with accompaniments, which is also served as a snack. The highlands of Myanmar (home to the Shan state), in the north, are famous for tea. The smallest, tenderest shoots are reserved for drinking, while the larger leaves are packed in salt and lightly fermented, sometimes with garlic and chili. The preserved leaves are then served with toasted sesame seeds, roasted soybeans, and dried chilis; diners take a small spoonful of each component, to preference, sometimes alternating with bites of palm sugar. The tea leaves are a little salty, a little sour, a little bitter, and totally addictive, especially the chili and garlic version.

Clockwise from top left: the morning market in Bagan; grilled river rat; cactus for sale; catch of the day

The morning market is still alive and well in Myanmar. Many homes, especially outside of cities, don’t have refrigeration, and the electric supply is iffy, so supplies have to be procured every day. There are also the obligatory snack and breakfast stalls; we saw one in Bagan selling barbecued river rats. These aren’t just any rats, though; they’re raised on an island, especially for consumption, on a natural diet of grains and grasses. During monsoon season (when we were visiting), the water level rises and flushes the rats out. (No, we didn’t eat them.)

Floating gardens on Inle Lake

Another unique way to use the water: hydroponic farming, Myanmar-style. (OK, it’s not really hydroponic, since the plants are grown in soil, rather than a nutrient solution.) The Intah people of Inle Lake have traditionally grown crops on “floating gardens,” which are patches of riverweed stitched together to form plots. Almost any crop can be grown on these floating plots: peanuts, tomatoes, marrow (a zucchini-like squash), potatoes. After seven years or so, the plots start to sink, and new ones are created. Apparently this has led to Inle Lake becoming increasingly shallow, so I wonder how long this traditional form of farming will continue.

Hopefully, the liberalization trend will continue, and Myanmar/Burma will be able to open up to the world — it’s a country that deserves to be known for more than being ruled by a military dictatorship. And let me know if you come across any Burmese restaurants in your area!

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One Response to “Mission of Burma”

  1. Nate @ House of Annie June 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    My wife has a couple of coworkers who were born in Myanmar, and I have had a chance to sample some Burmese food. It’s great! Familiar yet different. I love the “lah pet” fermented tea leaf salad.

    Thanks for sharing! Those floating gardens are something else.

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