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

Eating out in Ubud, Bali

With a wrinkle-creased face that expands and contracts whenever her bespectacled face lights up with laughter, she reminds me so much of my grandmother. Her eyes are light and almost diaphanous. She has a natural charm to cast at the visitor who saunters by gingerly to peer into the menu that is left outside on a pedestal of her modest restaurant. Naturally, it takes me exactly two minutes to fall for her disposition and in the days to come, I would frequent her Oka’s Warung almost every day. Most days for a meal and if for some reason I could not make it to a meal at her restaurant, I ensured I had one of her tiny array of desserts – especially her thin rice pancakes rolled with a filling of roasted coconut in palm jaggery. They never fail to prove that there is no better way to end a meal.

Balinese fare
Balinese fare

Oka appears to be a self-made woman much like many women in such establishments – eateries, massage centers, garment shops and shops selling trinkets and gifts – in the perpetually languid Ubud. She tells me that she quit her job at a restaurant 25 years ago to start off on her own and has been running the restaurant ever since.  Her English is rustic and my partner and I know only a smattering of Balinese and Bahasa – Indonesia. Mostly each conversation is an exercise at understanding what each other is trying to convey and not letting up until either one of us is convinced that the clear meaning is passed on.

An evening in Ubud
An evening in Ubud

Oka’s introverted husband handles the kitchen unaccompanied and he never once peeps out of his domicile even out of curiosity to see the faces of the foreigners who are chatting away with his wife despite the pressing language barrier. The restaurant has a seating capacity of 10 and I assumed Mr.Oka can manage it all by himself even if it’s a busy day.

A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak
A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak

Of all the 25 years she has been in business, Oka never thought of expansion plans for her restaurant. May be she wanted to keep it small and maintain exclusivity? When I ask her, she says she did not want anything big.

A Rama sculpture in Ubud
A Rama sculpture in Ubud
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.

I wanted to ask her one more question, did she ever think about retiring? But I sort of knew the answer. The cobble stoned streets of Ubud never see unmanageable footfall nor does Oka have huge ambitious plans in life. With all its allure, Oka’s present life feels very much like retirement to me. I could trade it right now for my dusty, soulless urban existence. But my grandmother, on the other hand, would not have approved.

A yakshini inside the Ubud palace
                                                A yakshini inside the Ubud palace

Have you been to Ubud? Leave a comment and let me know.