“Why doesn’t he get married in Myanmar,” the chipper woman with thanaka-streaked cheeks asks my guide James over loud laughter. She has just served me Mohinga, the Burmese noodle in a fish broth with tofu crackers and seems already charmed by the Indian visitor in her country. I am at Pathein, four-hour drive south of Yangon, sitting squat in a tiny stool and slurping the noodle broth in her roadside shop, watching the tiny town stirring up to the vagaries of that weather-worn hot day. It had been raining last night, now though the sun is high up already.
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 and like the time tested 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 Mumbai’s to shame).
In Yangon’s streets, women squat in tiny blue and red plastic stools 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.
The sellers run out of Mohinga in a couple of hours into the busy rush hour traffic of their business. One of those mornings, I try the Shan Khow suey that shows Thai influences in Myanmar cuisine and comes from Shan state, bordering Thailand. A handful of rice noodle is hand-mixed with crushed chilies and various spices and served in a broth form. Tamarind is used as a souring agent to spike up the flavor. On request, pan fried chickpea tofu squares and hardboiled eggs, cut into bite-sized pieces, are tossed in.
Along both sides of Yangon’s Strand Road hawkers sell noodles, deep fried savories and sweet, Burmese set meal with fish, skewered meat and an assortment of fruits. The platform is choking with pedestrians ambling along but there is no dearth of customers ordering food and eating, squat positioned in these stalls.
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 am seated, a plate of Burmese salad – half-cooked whole vegetables including two types of egg plant, wing beans and spinach is plunked on my table. A waiter came along asking me what I want in Myanmar.
“Sorry, English?” I try to be as simple as possible with the usage of English for his benefit of understanding. He scampers inside and brings another gentleman who doesn’t seem any better with the grasp of English. I finally understand that I need to order from the dishes displayed behind the glass cabinet in the kitchen. Rice accompaniment will follow, I realize. Burmese cuisine can be greasy as it is simple. The different type of fish dishes, fried prawn in gravy, sautéed watercress and Pennywort salad – a deliciously tart salad made with dandelion leaves can be often found dunked in a slightly excess amount of oil. However, there is one major habit that neutralizes the excessive oil in the food –green tea. The greasiness in the food is washed down with green tea, available in every
restaurant, roadside eatery and homes, complimentary.
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 batter fried 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.
Perhaps, the most interesting and unforgettable flavor that I tasted belonged to the Burmese green tea salad and it is from a kind woman’s house in Pathein. Though she and I had no common language to hold a conversation in that did not deter her sense of hospitality. The tea leaf salad, Lephet Thote, is sour, crunchy and each restaurant seems to serve a different version. But if you eat it at someone’s home, the strong flavors of fermented tea leaves will be compensated with the crunchiness of nuts bean sprouts, and green tomatoes and it all form a delightful little gastronomical explosion in your mouth. Your host will be mighty pleased. And who knows, based on your age, you will even be asked to marry in Myanmar.