Mohinga and more – Myanmar’s streetfood

On the first day of my month-long trip across Myanmar, I walked across the insanely crowded road in front of my airbnb accommodation to a tiny restaurant that had all of three tables. The slender, fine-boned woman that owned / managed the restaurant did not speak any English. Nor did the rest of her family. Their laminated one-page menu had the names of the dishes in Burmese, transliterated into English. Trying to figure out what was what I quickly realized it was a lost cause altogether.

If I were to eat anything at all, I would have to go with the ‘chef’s choice.’ And I did. What arrived was Shan khauk swè – a simple hand-tossed noodle salad served with a side of pickled vegetables and a bowl of clear soup. The rice noodles were spiced with pickled sour mustard leaves (some of which I brought home from a local Burmese market) and mixed with peanuts, garlic, chilli and garnished with shredded chicken. I wash it down with a tall glass of avacado milk shake.

A noodle salad at Mt. Popa, Myanmar
A noodle salad at Mt. Popa, Myanmar

In Yangon’s streets, women squat in tiny stools in blue and red with their wares spread out in front of them – various types of noodles cooked and piled under a mosquito net to ward off the flies along with a range of spices and condiments in plastic containers. Not phenomenally different from Indian, Burmese cuisine offers simple yet delicious flavors, infused with local ingredients.

A woman selling food on the streets of Yangon
A woman selling food on the streets of Yangon

Mohinga is Myanmar’s favorite dish. Eating Mohinga for the first time can be intimidating at first, even uninspiring. The entire broth is muddy in color and the crackers smashed into it form the garnish that this dish could do without. The broth itself is very fishy. But Mohinga grows on you, like the theories about street food go elsewhere it is inexpensive and affordable. And Myanmar slurps it by bowls after bowls every morning paying little regard to the prevailing warm weather (Yangon’s humidity levels can sometimes put Chennai to shame). The sellers run out of Mohinga in a couple of hours into the morning hours of their business.

Mo Lembya, deep fried balls of fermented rice
Mo Lembya, deep fried balls made with fermented rice batter

Soon enough, I ate the famous Burmese green tea salad – Lahpet. Pickled green tea leaves are tossed with crunchy nuts, tomato, garlic and seasoned with dried shrimp in this dish. I fell hook, line and sinker for it. Before I left Myanmar, I bought a bottle and packed it with my luggage. Sure it leaked and ruined my tee-shirt but the bottle survived the flight, I am happy to announce.

Lahpet - the green tea salad
Lahpet – the green tea salad

The Burmese set meal is a delight to order, much more than it is to eat. The extent of English usage doesn’t extend beyond ‘okay’ even in cities like Yangon. So you are left with your devices to order food and hope that what landed on your table is what you ordered in the first place. On a sunny noon, I step into the popular Feel Myanmar restaurant to order my first Burmese set meal. As soon as I sat, a plate of Burmese salad – half-cooked whole vegetables including two types of egg plant, wing beans and spinach is plunked on my table. And then this!

The Burmese set meal is a delight to order
The Burmese set meal is a delight to order

Indian influence in Myanmar cuisine is difficult to ignore. Walk along the streets of Yangon and you can pick at least a few of these similarities – a hybrid puttu-idli snack, a samosa like snack, the usage of coconut and jaggery in sweets, and a kuzhipaniyaram (made with fermented rice batter) like snack called Mo Lembya. The Myanmar Muslim restaurants serve up delicious briyanis and the dosa sold by the street side vendors in Yangon is a delightfully crispy version, albeit a bit too oily, that has a filling of cooked vegetables, peas and egg.

The Green Tomato salad
The Green Tomato salad

If I had to define the flavor of Myanmar food, Shan khauk swè  would be it. Though this dish stands proof to the Thai influences in Myanmar cuisine. The kindly woman on the roadside would take a handful of rice noodle and mix it with crushed chilles and various spices. She would use tamarind sauce a souring agent to spike up the flavor. On request, pan fried chickpea tofu squares and hard boiled eggs, cut into bite-sized pieces, are tossed into the salad.

Eating out - streets of Yangon
Eating out – streets of Yangon

What was your favorite dish when you travelled in Myanmar? Leave a comment and let me know.

Advertisements

Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part II

This is the second and last instalment of pictures of Bagan ruins. Get there before Bagan catapults into the tourist circuit (it already has and tourist footfall is only going to grow). I did it by horse cart but if you have a slightly bulky wallet, get on a hot air balloon and watch the ruins from above. Balloons over Bagan offers rides, click here to visit their website. Once done, hire a horse cart with the help of your hotel front desk and take a ride along the ruins to give yourself a different view. It is quite an experience.

Do buy the February’2015 edition of Outlook Traveller (India) to read my story Bagan by Horsecart.

Click here to read the earlier post about Bagan (or simply scroll down).

Monks seeking alms
Monks seeking alms
Sundown in bagan
Sundown in bagan
Skies painted blue and orange at sun down
Skies painted blue and orange at sun down
Sulamani
Sulamani
Souvenirs for sale
Souvenirs for sale
Ruby with her cart
Ruby with her cart
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sunset cruising in Irrawadycc1
Sunset cruising in Irrawady
Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies
Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies
Thatbyinnu
Thatbyinnu
The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan
The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan
The ananda phaya
The ananda phaya
The abayadhana temple
The abayadhana temple

PS: Some of these pictures are generously provided to me by my travel companion and friend Kiran Kannappan who was with me during the first leg of my Myanmar travels.

Like what you see? Leave a comment.

Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part I

“There is a country far nobler than any, a land that brings joy to the heart; and it is called Bagan.” This was inscribed on stone in the 14th century by order of a queen of the Pyina dynasty. Says the beautiful picture book titled ‘Bagan Mystique’ by Ma Thanegi that tries to dissect the history behind the mystical ruins that lay scattered in the central plains of Myanmar for centuries.

Bagan is an ancient city and its existence was noted by Chinese travelers as early as 1225 CE. Decades of military rule had isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world and these structures remained somewhat a mystery while the neighboring Angkor Wat hogged all the limelight. That is until Myanmar opened for tourism in 2011 after the military dictatorship partially came to an end. As soon as the floodgates of tourism are open, Bagan started receiving millions of tourists each year to gape at these architectural marvels that have stood their ground through centuries.

A devastating earthquake of 1975 destroyed many of these structures. However, a mighty 2230 of these pagodas, temples, monasteries and cave pagodas remain according to a 1993 census conducted by the Department of Archaeology. These structures are scattered across 16 square miles and evoke an imagery of surreal mysticism. Details are patchy but inscriptions found in various temple complexes suggest that construction of the oldest structured happened in the late 11th century.

The mystical Bagan is slowly gaining prominence as tourists are trickling in. Here are some of the pictures from the trip. The pictures are just so many they couldn’t be contained in one post. I will post the next instalment very soon.

A monk in contemplation
A monk in contemplation

 

A sand painter
A sand painter
A temple complex
A temple complex

 

An ornate signboard
An ornate signboard

 

Ananda Phaya
Ananda Phaya
Fresco at Apayathana
Fresco at Apayathana
Dhammayan Gyi
Dhammayan Gyi
Cycling is a preferred form of transportation
Cycling is a preferred form of transportation to visit the ruins
An apsara at the Apayadhana temple
An apsara at the Apayadhana temple
Htilminlo at sundwon
Htilminlo at sundwon
Horsecarts in front of ruins
Horsecarts in front of ruins
Htilminlo temple from a distance
Htilminlo temple from a distance
Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures
Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures
Little monks in contemplation
Little monks in contemplation

 

Also read my story in the February edition of Outlook Traveller that is on stands now.

Like what you see? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

The lost childhood of the beautiful children of Myanmar

Cherubic with round faces and streaks of thanaka across their cheeks, the children of Myanmar can be shy and curious like children across the world are. However, unlike children anywhere else Myanmar’s children start really early. To work. In a country whose natural wealth has been plundered by the military rule for about 50 years, its citizens have had it hard. The economy is in tatters and the crushing poverty among its populace forces parents to send their children to work to supplement the family income.

From waitressing at restaurants to hawking knick knacks across tourist attractions, children in Myanmar can be found in various places working hard to make money so their families don’t starve. They are subjected to hard labor though I did not find any instance of their managers / minders being rude to them. Notwithstanding the kindness of their masters, it is heartbreaking to note that these children are dropping out of school with no future in sight or a guaranteed income other than the measly wage they are paid as a result of their hard labor.

Media across the world has been paying attention to the child labor issue in Myanmar but with very limited success. Read this Huffington Post story on child labor in the booming construction industry of the country. According to this NPR report that quotes U.N., a third of the country’s children have jobs. Another report titled, ‘Child labor is declining worldwide, but it’s thriving in Myanmar’ in the Foreign Policy magazine is self-explanatory.

During my trip across Myanmar, I found numerous instances of child labor. I found children working in restaurants wiping tables / serving dishes, hawking souvenirs around temples, plucking peanuts in fields and tilling the land.  It’s a depressing state of affairs and there is probably very little one can do about the issue in a country that is still partially ruled by military. But these children are still pictures of innocence. They are beautiful, heart breakingly so. Cliches be damned.

The extremely little

These are the babies. Those chubby faces and perky mischievousness know very little that they will be put in school and pulled out of it very soon so as to assist in the family’s income. Nevertheless, for now, they are cute as buttons.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The school goers

Many children seem to only finish primary schools. They are pulled out of their schools soon enough they can manage a day job, as it were. But they are cheerful when they go to and come back from schools as I witnessed.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The shy and curious

Step into a village that is not frequented by tourists and you will be surrounded by these children. They haven’t seen a camera in their lives. Nor have they seen a soul that is not their villager visiting them. Each one of them is photogenic and they seem to know it as they confidently stare into the camera.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The unfortunate teens

You can find them selling postcards in and around pagodas frequented by tourists. To them, postcards are still relevant because their world is full of them as stocks, waiting to be sold to make money. You can also find them tracing designs on lacquerware trays and other utensils. One entrepreneurial fellow even sold me a bunch of hand-drawn postcards he made with his crayons.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The hard laborers

They till land to make patches for vegetable plantations or glean peanut plants after the year’s harvest. They are the least fortunate among the lot for their work involves hard, physical labor. And no child should be forced to do that.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

I am ending this year on a poignant note with this post. I have had a good year and I have very little to complain about (if at all, I have to).  I hope each one of you have had a wonderful year as well. I wish you all a great 2015 ahead. Stay safe. Stay well. Leave a comment wishing me a good year and telling me what your travel (and general) plans for 2015 are. I would love to hear from you.

Contest alert: Win a souvenir from Myanmar!

Have you been enjoying the blog? If only you guys talked (or left a comment, as it were), but it’s okay. I might have something to start the conversation. Or at least show some activity on these pages. I am travelling to Malaysia and Myanmar starting Oct 15th and I thought I would bring a souvenir for you. You like?

Myanmar countryside - pic: backroads.com
Myanmar countryside – pic: backroads.com

Here is what you need to do:

All you have to do to win this souvenir is very simple. Go and ‘like’ The Sunlit Window’s page on Facebook. Leave a comment here saying so. I will randomly select one winner and announce it on these pages.

You’re nice and you already like my page. Now what? Share it on your wall and let me know in the comment section here.

I will bring you the souvenir when I get back from my travels in the last week of November. Sounds good?

Ancient temple ruins in Myanmar - Pic: backroads.com
Ancient temple ruins in Myanmar – Pic: backroads.com

Watch out for the updates about Malaysia and Myanmar until then.