From the rice, sesame and chilli fields we saw during our three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, to the wet markets of Yangon, it seemed abundantly clear that much of the Burmese cuisine revolves around the fresh ingredients the land offers.
Why am I so keen?
For one, they have oodles of noodles, which I absolutely love, and as through most of India my options were rice or bread, I was happy to be able to consume an alternative carb! My particular favourite were the Shan style noodle soups, with either minced pork or chicken sprinkled over the top, along with crushed peanuts, coriander, shallots and sesame. Having watched a few locals, the key thing is to get your chop sticks right in there and mix all of the ingredients together beforehand.
Noodles in Myanmar don't just have to be at lunch or dinner, but you can also stop by a teahouse for mohinga(a Burmese breakfast fish noodle soup) or even have a bowl of Shan noodles at 5am in a bus station among locals doing the same and feel completely normal... (And tired and delirious...)
Our breakfast dish of mohinga wasn't particularly pretty to look at, but I was intrigued to discover what we'd find in the dish. After a sprinkling of the accompanying coriander, we delved in to find crunchy fried bean crackers, bites of what seemed to be lightly battered fish, and sticky noodles. The vermicelli noodle soup had flavours of garlic, chilli and lemongrass, creating a spicy but refreshingly delicious dish. A whole bowl of this for breakfast was more than enough, if not a little too much.
This was all washed down by a cup of tea, a Burmese cup of tea... I assumed this would be just a refreshing, healthy green tea.
And I thought India was bad for their love of sweet tea... Nope, Burmese tea is a whole new level. Condensed milk in your tea anyone? I say no more.
Luckily as with most teahouses and small roadside restaurants, cafes and beer stations, each table has a thermos of free green tea (I learnt after ordering my sweet tea), so I chased it all down with several cups of that! Local tip - before you use the cups that sit in a bit of water in the centre of the table, swill them out with a little tea first. Not only are they just sat there all day in a pool of water, many places do not wash these between customers - they just throw the dregs out onto the street and sit them back in the water!
Along with the condensed milk tea, and even an iced green tea I had which contained condensed milk, it seems the Burmese like their sweets - although you'd do well to find a authentic restaurant offering a dessert menu. Instead you'll be offered lumps of jaggery at the end of a meal or tamarind palm sugar discs wrapped in paper. Actual desserts do exist and are eaten as snacks purchased from stalls in the street, such as "pudding" - basically set custard, served in extra-large portions only, which even an ill James couldn't resist!
It's not all salt and sugar, most of the colourful culinary delights we encountered were the salads, including avocado, onion and tomato salad made from the humongous locally grown avocados, to the tea leaf salad, crunchy and bitter.
Being so close to India, Thailand and China, the culinary influences can be seen in most places we visited in Myanmar. From the steamed coriander dumplings in Yangon and the Thai basil chicken in Bagan, to the biryani in a small Muslim cafe in Mawlamyine. It gave the much needed variety, as the saltiness of the Burmese soups and curries flavoured by the pungent ngâpí (fermented fish paste - see previous post), became too much at times, and coupled with the bottles of Myanmar beer, can be very dehydrating too!
Reaching our last stop, the old British capital of Mawlamyine, offered us a new dining experience. Every evening from 5pm, a night market pops up along the water, with each stall offering similar things - barbeque and noodles. We focussed on the barbeque options, all presented on wooden skewers laid out in the evening heat and praying insects (just turn a blind eye), you select your choices and they barbeque it for you. At first we played it safe and tried what we knew (or thought we knew), including various parts of the chicken, a whole river fish, potatoes and okra. I say what we thought we knew, as one of the chicken parts turned out to be chicken gizzards... We think. There are not hoards of tourists here and not everyone speaks English, so the gizzard part may have been lost in translation!
After polishing all of that off, we start to get a bit more comfortable and cocky, and head up for seconds. I return to our table from ordering, grinning to James, exclaiming that I have no idea what I just ordered!
Food arrives and I appear to have ordered various forms off barbecued chicken and pork sausage, some stuffed with ingredients such as rice, and actually quite enjoyable. If I'm honest, they all tasted slightly of the barbeque chicken having been cooked on the unwashed grill - but still nice nonetheless.
I was sad to leave this country and I feel that there is so much more to discover, not just the food, but the people and places too. But onto new foodie experiences and I look forward to learning how to recreate some of these Burmese dishes (watch this space) and to revisiting the country again in the future.