Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Burmese Cuisine

There are a lot of reason why I fell in love with bike touring: the people you meet, the scenery, learning about other countries and cultures, exhausting my energy, and of course the FOOD!!! I love trying different food from around the world. Thankfully I bike and have a heftier appetite which basically means, I'm always hungry and never turn down the opportunity to eat! I like to think I hopped on my bike to pedal around the world, but some people might say I did it to try all the food from around the world, as if it was a non-stop buffet of our global cuisine! 

I always have a smile on my face when I'm eating in a foreign country.  It's so much fun regardless of the fact I can't understand the menu or speak the language and have no idea what I'm truly ordering!
Another plus about cycling in will never go hungry, food is everywhere!
Fast food chains would never survive in Myanmar, these ladies would put them out of business.  Convenience can't be beat!
At the top of my list for phenomenal cuisine I ate while cycling, Vietnam would have to be at the top of my list tied with Thailand. The runners up would be Malaysia for its variety, with Spain and Italy just behind. Although having completed my travels to Myanmar recently, I'd say it gives Malaysia a good run for its money. I hadn't ever tried the Burmese cuisine before entering the country, nor did I have any clues of the typical dishes and therefore I was pleasantly surprised by what I experienced in Myanmar.

These were tofu sandwiches with some savory goodies added on the inside.

A tray full of all sorts of sticky rice goodies.  Sticky coconut rice with bananas, mangoes, nuts, you name it!

I have to preface this blog post admitting that it took me about a week in order to be able to look at food again in Myanmar after a terrible bout with diarrhea. It was the first time in SE Asia that I had problems with food, and the third time during my bike travels all over the world that I found myself not feeling well. Considering I eat at all the local joints and food stalls wherever I am and avoid western restaurants and fancy places, I'd say I've been pretty lucky.

When I did find an English translated menu, it always made for a good laugh.  I would have loved to see the barking deer

In some places, it's not so cool to talk about the runs, but amongst other travelers in Myanmar, talking about your stomach problems a.k.a diarrhea is as common and acceptable as talking about the weather. From what I gather, if you go to Myanmar, you are lucky to make it out of the country without experiencing diarrhea. In fact, the number one question among travels a run down of your itinerary is, “How is your stomach?” Everyone has a story to tell and a number to share,.... the days since their last bout. I will spare you the details of my sorry stomach, but since surviving my episode, I have a stomach of steel and I was able to indulge in the mouth watering Burmese cuisine! I regretted leaving very few days in Yangon. Had I known Yangon was a foodie city, I would have stayed for another week, rather a month to just taste all the food. The variety of food here mirrors their ethnic mix. There is incredible diversity in their diet.

Downtown Yangon in Chinatown, filled with food vendors and markets

Tapas style breakfast with all the little plates galore at my first breakfast in Myanmar.

More breakfasts.......see the toilet paper in the red dispenser, that is your napkin.  Toilet paper is made from trees right? In Myanmar their trees are bamboo!

The first thing that impacted me about the food in Myanmar is the quantity. In Myanmar, quantities are small because flavors are intense! The flavor and hotness is so concentrated, you only need to mix a little with a lot of rice. Therefore, like tapas in Spain, the dishes are small but are plentiful, very plentiful! From the time you sit down at a little cafe or restaurant to the time you leave there is a parade of waiters that come to your table and drop off a absurd amount of dishes filled with food. And even crazier is the fact that all I might have ordered was a cup of tea! Myanmar is paradise for an indecisive person like myself, who wants to always see something before I eat it, especially when I can't read or understand a menu. Not to mention, I almost always want to taste what the person next to me is eating as well as my own food. In my ideal restaurant, you'd be able to see everything being prepared and taste any dish you wish before ordering. Hence why I love the ice cream parlors and frozen yogurt stores in North America! 

Inside a tea shop with a young woman waitress.  Notice the sex of all the customers.  No wonder I got stares,....or maybe it was the bike shorts, curly blonde hair, white skin, or 40 kg. bike?

In Myanmar, once you sit down, the waiters, many of whom are young boys (I take it basic education is not compulsory here, because I've had boys as young as 8 serving my table every day of the week), start bringing over dishes of food to your table. Usually it means they pick it up from another table and plop it down on yours. After 5 or 10 minutes if you haven't touched one of the small dishes and another customer comes, the dish will disappear from your table and travel to your neighbor's table. Depending on the time of day and restaurant, the items change and so does their freshness. You don't want to think too long about how long the food has been there or how many hands might have touched it!

Sweet milky tea which I loved!

Preparing sweet steamed buns in the morning

Voila, here they are after steaming

Tea shops are everywhere in Myanmar, but don't let the name deceive you! They don't just serve tea. From my observations, men usually transit tea shops, solo, in pairs, or small groups. Rarely do I see a solo woman, or even a group of woman, which is why I get a lot of stares. In the morning they serve breakfast, anything from rice and eggs, noodles, rice pancakes, and other savory dishes. Mohinga is a traditional breakfast in Myanmar, a fish broth with noodles accompanied by a few fresh greens such as cabbage, garlic, and cilantro. I witnessed a lot of the locals also eating rice that is mixed with miniature garbanzo beans topped with a fried egg. But locals also order noodle soups and salads. There was always incentive to visit a tea shop before 8 am because all the fried pastries were fresh. Myanmar donuts included elongated fried bread sticks, samosas, fried donut pies with a sweet bean mixture, or bananas rolled in dough and fried.

a beautiful and simple process to make their donuts.

Fried of course!

Breakfast with the locals.  

Breakfast! Too many choices and all soooo yummy! If you order just noodles, broth will always accompany your noodles.

The national drink here in Myanmar is milky tea, which is similar to Thai tea: black tea with condensed milk or sweetened creamer, but in a very small quantity. Americans would NOT be fans of this tea because in one gulp it would disappear as the cup is the size of a shot glass or two! Twenty cups of tea would fill a small Starbuck latte paper cup! Green tea is on every table in thermoses at all hours of day accompanied by tiny little tea cups the size of a shot glass. Green tea is complimentary and even if you order a milky tea or a coffee, many people still drink green tea. Green tea is drunk heavily in Vietnam and China from what I observed during my travels, but Myanmar takes the cake with the largest consumption of green tea. Coffee, or real coffee I should say doesn't exist, only instant which is advertised as “3-in-1” meaning coffee, sugar, and milk powder in a sachet that becomes an ever so artificially sweet warm, with no resemblance to coffee when you add water. Needless to say, I developed an addiction to tea during my travels, which usually cost about 20 cents, or an additional 10 cents if I ate a donut as well!
Another breakfast with the locals.  Look at the size of the rice bowl compared to the toppings

Food that is prepared previously is stored in round metal handleless pots with lids, which is how I learned to identify a cafe or roadside restaurant. Rice is in the largest of containers and most of the others contain some sort of meat and a lot of chili flakes. Although I tried food stored in these containers, I looked for the tea shops or restaurants that made their food fresh. Of course even that term is relative because fresh might might be anything prepared in the moment to 2 hours ago, explaining the heavy amount of oil used when preparing and conserving food. I think their theory must be something along the lines of the more oil you use, the longer the shelf or “table” life. Ninety percent of their food is fried using peanut oil, and of that, half is deep fried. I have to admit this type food saturated in oil grew on me as my trip went on, but I much prefer stir fries oil baths. It's tricky to find a food prepared in the moment at times because all their cooking stoves are real fires. It's no wonder the people wake up so early in the morning, it takes time to prepare the food. To boil a pot of water, make tea, cook rice or anything for that matter, a proper fire has to be started in a ceramic or designated fire pit. This also explains why kitchens in Myanmar and most Thai houses are actually outside. The fire for cooking also serves to warm people up in the morning.

My host cooking me dinner.  Their kitchen was basically outside and this fire was from a gas tank.

If I resorted to eating at a place with metal pots, I learned the word for vegetables and always found the dish with the most veggies. Since they use so much oil and a lot of their food is very strong in flavor, rice is served in abundance to counterbalance the intense flavor and sometimes spice. Lots of times at these restaurants they will place a bunch of little plates before you that have come from the metal pots and you can pick and choose what you want to eat. Again you aren't expected to eat everything in front of you, picking and choosing what looks appealing. When you ask for the bill, locals make the kissing sound, meaning “What do I owe you?” They count up the plates or the items missing from the plates and charge you per item! It's a brilliant concept, although it wouldn't fly in the western world, especially the United States with all the food handling regulations that exist. Imagine customers in a restaurant can pick and choose the food items they want to eat. Those they don't want go on to another table or back to the big pot where they started from. The items are passed around from table to table, circulating from person-to-person, hand-to-hand, exposed to a million germs. Of course, my theory is that once you are immune to these germs, you have a stomach of steel!

This thermos caught my attention with publicity on the outside, like a taxi in New York City

The food stalls and restaurants along the side of every road in Myanmar.  These are the places I ate 
Standard on every table in Myanmar as if condiments of ketchup and mustard is a thermos with tea, chopsticks, toilet paper and tea cups

Big and small, young and old use the short tables.  They make dining a very intimate experience!

I will pause for a moment to explain that in Myanmar you have to forget about all your standards of cleanliness. At first this might disgust you, but after a few days in a routine that seems dirty and full of germs, it becomes normal. For example, toilets are hard to come by, and if you find one, there isn't any toilet paper, let alone running water afterwards to wash you hands, forget about soap. When you stop at small cafes for a drink and want a beverage, you are lucky to find refrigeration out in small villages and drinks are more about tasting something wet rather than cold. To make a drink cold, they break off a chunk of ice from a large block, the same block of ice I've seen riding around in that back of a truck or a carriage during morning delivery. 

The other day I was served ice in my sugar cane juice. The chunk of ice got away from her and fell to the floor, which was dirt and dust. She picked it up and went over to the huge clay basin where there was a small pan. I had contemplated washing my hands with this water, but after looking in and seeing dead insect floating on the top of the water, I decided my hands might be dirtier after washing them. After washing off the cube of ice with this water,, she plopped it in my drink and I drank it delighted to have a cold sugary refreshment. Almost every morning at the tea shop I visit, I see the waiter use his hands to take money for customers, serve tea and donuts, wipe his nose, and probably go to the bathroom, although I don't see that! It's no wonder flies are constantly swarming anywhere there is food in Myanmar! I repeat, if you are a germ freak, this isn't the country for you, or perhaps you should frequent the restaurants for westerners! The prices are 10 to 20 times higher, the food is the same, but perhaps they are cleaner.
This is a "modern" sugar can juice maker with a petrol motor!

Purified water is readily available in Myanmar, and everyone drinks it from the same cup! I have an eye for finding the huge gallon tanks that I can use to refill my water bottles. Usually there is a metal cup on the tap so people can drink freely as they please. The same goes for the cups used for tea. When you leave a cafe or restaurant in Myanmar, the waiter will take your tea cup, pour out the tea that is remaining, and turn the cup upside down again and place it in the bowl of water at the table, letting it soak there until the next costumer comes and sits down. They have no problem sharing cups and glasses in Myanmar. In fact, many, if not all the purified drinking water available for locals in a big 25 liter jug always has a metal or glass on the plastic faucet so that anyone can have a drink using the cup, from the guy who needs to wash out his mouth filled with the red juices from the bettle seeds to the guy who just cleared his throat and pit out all the mucus, to the little kids walking back from school desperate for a drink, me! I couldn't ever bring myself to sharing the same cup but I did fill my water bottles here frequently as I refuse to pay for water worldwide.

This was a massive tank at a pagoda.  All the people are sharing the 5 or 6 cups on the faucets.  
A smaller water vessel with a shared glass and a ladle to get water
Food in Myanmar changes by regions and even within the same region due to the ethnic diversity. Up north in the Shan province, their noodle dishes are the delicacy. They serve small bowls of noodles, any variety imaginable thin rice noodles, round wheat noodles, flat kinds as well. They add some meat or fresh raw veggies and a couple of sauces, sprinkled with some peanuts on top. They always serve their food with a bowl of broth to accompany, but if you want a noodle soup, it's no problem. Chinese restaurants or restaurants with a more Chinese flare were also popular in Myanmar. But I found myself eating primarily at the little food stalls along the side of the road. Tables were no larger than kid-size and many times consisted of no more than one table with 4 chairs and a woman cooking. Usually the stall had one or two items to make it simple for her preparation. I am not being sexist when I say her, as most of the small food stands were run by women, or a couple and their children if the food stall was bigger. At the larger roadside stalls, there was more variety with the meals you could order, but regardless of how many items I ordered, it was hard to get my bill about a dollar, or a dollar and a half. Since green tea or purified water in big jugs is also available, I didn't spend money on beverages at meals, only during the day for sugar kicks. Myanmar more than any other country in SE Asia I've visited makes sugar cane juice fresh from a press that looks prehistoric! Iceys and smoothies are also popular, and snack foods include anything that can be fried and packaged as well as preserved fruit.

Flies vs. the food

I have chosen the vegetarian route here. Like other places in Asia, I have seen too many pigs on the side of the road eating trash, a lot of raw meat sitting out for hours on end in the heat of the day. Vegetables are plentiful here and fresh because they are grown everywhere. In fact there isn't a need for a western style grocery store because you can get all your staple items from the local market. I have a particular obsession for visiting markets taking in all the craziness from food products to the sellers to the way the items are displayed or prepared for eating. Most of the morning markets start at 2am and close down when the traffic gets busy since they are set-up in the middle of the roads. I don't think you will find markets with fresher goods than you encounter in SE Asia, especially after riding past thousands of kilometers of crops. I've seen everything from wheat, avocados, peanuts, tamarinds, coconuts, papayas, apples, bananas, rice, onions, grapes, and corn grown here. Basically you name a vegetable or legume and it's grown here in Myanmar, the problem becomes transporting it throughout the country on the poor road infrastructure!
Truly fascinating how the food items were arranged at markets in Myanmar

Although veggies are plentiful, I do find a lack of fruit, and variety, or at least in comparison to Thailand. Being the dry season, perhaps this accounted for the lack of fruit, but it was definitely more of a commodity here than in Thailand. Watermelon is everywhere, sold be the slice ready to eat, as well as banana bunches and bags of tangerines. Apples are grown up north, but very spendy. For the price of an apple you can buy a bowl of soup or a noodle salad. Myanmar's grapes are the delicious slip-skin variety, making the splurge ever so indulging. I became a big fan of a small oval-shaped green fruit with a pit, similar in shape to a plum, but crunchy like and apple. I heard one lady call them a baby coconut, although I know they aren't from the same family. Papayas can be found and back in Yangon I also got my fix of jack fruit!

A lady selling watermelon.  The scarf on her head is for padding and balance I'm assuming

One of my favorite fruits from Myanmar, the name remains a mystery, but they were actually quite juices and tasty

Latpet, my favorite dish in Myanmar, a Burmese pickled tea leaf salad!
I was delighted to sample Myanmar's salads, from their pickled tea leaf salad to ginger salad and tomato salad, they were different than any salad in the world I've tried! Their salads are half nuts and seeds and half vegetables, extremely concentrated in flavor, served in small quantities and soaked in oil, but the flavor is unique as well as the texture! Laphet, their pickled tea leaf salad was my favorite and since I had the name easily memorized I ordered it frequently, rather daily! Along with the picked tea leaves, there was a bit of cabbage, tomatoes, hot peppers and onions. For seeds there was a variety of sesame seeds, dried garbanzos, corn nuts, and peanuts. It comes on a little plate with a teaspoon, and many times I saw men eating this while drinking a beer. Myanmar takes the little tray of nuts that is often times served in a restaurant to a new level! One of my souvenirs was the special pickled tea leaf they sell prepackaged, and a bag of the nuts, so that I can hopefully try to recreate it when I have my own kitchen.

There are special food stores in Myanmar that just sell the ingredients for all their salads.  Here are the pickled tea leaves

These are the nut varieties that can be mixed with the tea leaves.

As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans”. And so for my entire trip in Myanmar, I ate at the most local joints I came upon. I prefer to give my money to these people rather than someone with a proper establishment and figure if there are a ton of locals here, although I might have difficulty communicating what I want to order, the food has to be good! The first time I splurged and visited a restaurant that was still visited by locals but had a menu translated in English, I found the prices to be outrageous and it was also the restaurant that caused my initial stomach problems. Eating at the roadside stalls, my meals rarely cost more than a dollar. If I was really hungry, I might spend two dollars, but lots of time a bowl of soup was a meager 40 cents and it was enough to fill me up, at least for a couple of hours! At a more proper restaurant with electricity and tables that weren't miniature, the prices were about double, ranging between 2 and 4 dollars, which is still an incredible value. Unlike accommodation, food in Myanmar is cheap and great value! I left buying Myanmar tea, ingredients for Laphet, and a typical Burmese lunch box that I saw every person carry in all shapes and sizes.

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