‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell is one of the most cliche’d reads for tourists – an amusing if slightly alarming story based in British Colonial Burma. Since I was slowly falling out of love with my Kindle, I picked up a photocopied version in the market for 2000 kyat (equivalent of 2 quid; we had to buy them with dollars in the local market in copious 1000 kyat notes as there are no ATMS in Burma) and tucked myself into the first blurry pages over an ice-cold avocado shake. I had been told to look out for these as the local avocados were in season. It wasnt hard to miss them in the markets – they were HUGE, black and very round. In fact, just like a cannon ball but much more tasty.
Avocado shakes were omnipresent – slightly sweetened and incredibly smooth, they are thick but not cloying and the perfect power boost mid afternoon – much better than the Durian shake I tried in the wierdly named ‘Nylon Bar’ Mandalay’s top ‘ice cream and shake’ hang out. Let’s just say that the Jury is still out on this stinky, spiky fruit.
The best avocado experience we had was on the top of a hill after a full mornings hiking around Kalaw. After walking along the terracotta mountain ridge, we arrived at the home/eatery owned by some Nepalese who had a garden full of tea, gerka fruit and orange trees. We sat down, downed endless cans of coke and waited for our much anticipated lunch to arrive. We were eventually treated to quarter of a melon-sized avocado each, some picked cabbage and steaming, home made chappatis. A do-it-yourself wrap, topped off with a squeeze of lime and a tiny scattering of sun-dried chilli, turned out to be the best walking lunch we could have wished for. This was washed down with copious amounts of local tea straight from the rugged plantations below and some home-grown oranges. Pretty good.
Other lunches varied between hand-made noodles with veg (always the safest option if – after a trip to a restaurant loo – we had caught sight of the wood-smoke filled kitchen and wished we hadn’t) and divine steamed fish parcels, rice with coconut or pounded fish and taro or pumpkin custard. Restaurants, per se, are very rare and aimed purely at tourists – since the number of non-Burmese who came into the country last year for business and pleasure, totalled 750,000 (Angkor Wat in Cambodia had 3 mill visitors last year alone, by point of reference) and the ex pat community totals 800, you can see why the restaurant trade is virtually non-existent. The alternative is the Tea Rooms for the mornings (these also serve noodles up to mid-afternoon) and then Beer stations in the evenings, which will serve the local brew with salads and, often, bbq’d meet or curry.
The first night in Rangoon, a lovely expat took us to her local beer station. We took up our plastic chairs on the notoriously dangerous pavement – they are invariably a foot up from the road and have craters in them that could swallow up a fully grown man into the sticky black water running beneath. As we perched, the first dish of pickeled tea leaf salad arrived. This is the national dish, offered as a welcoming gesture to guests and eaten instead of pudding by the Burmese. It varied a lot on our travels – some was more spicy, some pickled and some rice-filled. The basic ingredients are the tea leaves which are preserved for a couple of months in oil, rice, roast fava beans, peanuts and sesame. The texture is taken very seriously – a mixture of crunch and smooth. Very good if slightly weird.
Avocado salad with tamarind and tomato salad staples. The tomatoes are coated in a peanut and lime dressing (great texture again) and are delicious. All the veg we ate was deliciously fresh and surprisingly familiar – cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, beans and aubergines. Strangely I have not tired of food markets on my travels and I willingly gave up my seat on the bus to one morning to get tucked into a local market in the hills. It was one of my favourite experiences of my trip: all women, chattering and smiling, laughing and joking as they handed over there carefully grown produce. Jew Root was a major player – which look slightly like bean sprouts and are used in soup, as were shallots and dried beans / chick peas.
The amazing thing about this particular market – between Kalaw and Nagashwe on Inle Lake – was that all the ladies were wearing their traditional costume – each village being slightly different. Some had black jackets with brightly coloured turbans, others had brightly coloured clothes and matching turbans. The ‘more modern’ used towels and turbans instead of hand-woven material. Being the only non local in the whole, sprawling market was therefore made even more obvious, and I found myself crouching down to their level, observing, trying to resist the urge to go crazy with my camera (I didnt succeed.) I was looked at with genuine wonderment – as if they had never seen a white person, let alone one wearing trousers and wielding a camera.
However, I never felt threatened. On the contrary, I was welcomed by the biggest smiles, and encouraged by most, to take photos. The almost naive, uninhibited smiles of the Burmese are their biggest gift as a nation and I just hope that does not change too fast. Their warm welcome allows visitors a real insight into them as a people and an understanding of how they live; my favourite dialogue in the market was with 2 grannies who were sitting next to each other, both selling strange sticky things. They were as intrigued by me as I was by them and their bounty, so I went over and tried to figure out, with my best acting, what they were selling. The most hilarious exchange ensued, filled with giggles and smiles. They were in fact selling Orchids (with just buds) and my delight in realising this was mistaken for a desire to buy. As I stupidly acted out a backpack to give them the reason I wasnt able to buy, I realised that they thought I was wanting one of their huge wicker baskets, carried with a strap across their forehead. A hopeless but happy exchange which left us all chuckling.
Aside from the endless supply of veg with noodles, tea, doughnuts and pickled tea leaves, we were treated to a tour of a little foodie village on the banks of Inle lake making all sorts of other local delicacies; tamarind flakes (a sweet treat of lots of paper-thin slices of dried tamarind eaten after a meal) gooey knotted sweets made from sugar cane and jaggery fudge (from palm sugar.) Chickpeas were used in everything from a cold sauce served with doughnuts at breakfast (yuk) to pancake which are deep-fried into poppadum type things, and a type of tofu cube (again deep-fried.) The villagers worked away tirelessly, some smoking the omnipresent local Cerruts, to produce these treats.
I wondered if they were sold locally or further afield. my suspicion is locally, since the infrastructure around the country is still basic, dusty and uncomfortable, to say the least. This is local cuisine at its best…and worth so much more than Orwell’s comment that the ‘filthy monotonous food….(was) almost the worst thing in Burma.’