Food Stories from Burma

During my childhood, I was often told anecdotes about how some of our relatives had migrated from Burma (Rangoon in particular), to Calcutta under difficult circumstances. Closest in that circle was one of my maternal Aunts' husband (mesho) who had migrated with his entire family to Calcutta and started afresh in a small apartment near Calcutta's Gariahat. An excellent gourmet and extremely knowledgeable about food pairing, he was also an extremely interesting story teller. He was the first person who made me aware of Burma. During my school days, came across stories (from teachers) based on characters shuttling between between Rangoon and Calcutta. One of the most significant was that of "Pather Daabi" by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. And while learning, I came to learn the word "ambidextrous" which was an unique ability of the protagonist, Sabyasachi. 

Few months back when an opportunity came up to visit this wonderful country, Burma, (now Myanmar), it was with great excitement I was looking forward to the trip. and coincidentally, in the last six months I have made three trips to this wonderful country. The first thing that hits you is the friendliness of the people towards Indians (or maybe they are generally hospitable). The next big things that keeps making an indelible impact is the infrastructure (albeit restricted to the cities), the cleanliness across the country and the lush greenery across the countryside. 

An eye opener was the new capital Nay Pyi Taw (aka NPT). Supposedly built within a span of 3 years, the city boasts of modern infrastructure, convention centres, hotels, amazing town planning and 20 lane roads (!!!) in some parts. The scale and the planning that has gone in for making this new capital is worth emulating for our town planners (India is more than 30 times their GDP - 2015 estimates).

This blog being about my experiences of food, I will however restrict to this post to matters of the palate. The general feeling I came back with was that the local food is extensively similar to the "Bangal" (East Bengal) way of cooking. A bit spicy, extensive use of garlic, tomatoes, onions and spices. One can also find abundant use of shrimps / prawns, pork paired with rice or a variety of noodles. Another interesting observation is that there is an equally extensive use of greens. Hence, Salads and Soups also formed a distinct part of the food journey.

The first local meal kindly hosted by one of our local friends. A whole fish simmering in garnishing of  garlic, chilly, celery and some more. It was placed in a  fish shaped metal dish with a fire down below assisting in the slow cooking.  This was accompanied by dishes of pork, chicken, rice, some light flat noodles, and varieties of dips. One interesting feature across all the meals that I have had in Burma is a light soya + Vinegar, with slices of garlic and chillies. This is an extremely common accompaniment, almost everywhere that we ate. 

The next interesting meal that I experienced was the Burmese version of our Thali. And amongst all the meals I have had, the thali meal was most varied, full of flavours and gave a nice glimpse of how similar is our food habits. The first thali meal (the pic at the top) was in southern suburbs of Yangon and perhaps the best thali I had. A variety of dishes - principally gravy based pork, mutton, chicken and fish is served in the centre. Along with that is a wide variety of exotic local dips and assortment of fresh raw vegetables (as salads). Each diner is provided a large plate and plain white rice is served on each plate. And each of the dishes reminded me of typical "bangaal" cooking in our family homes, especially those cooked by the elders, who still carries the traditional variety of East Bengali cooking. We ofcourse paired it with a glass of the chilled Myanmar Beer, a local produce and very good.

The other thali meal (the lower pic) I had was at the northern historical city of Bagan where we had once gone to see the pagodas. This did not have the fish in gravy preparation but the typical fried pieces of "rui maach" (rohu fish).  

Another very interesting meal that I experienced during one of the trips, was the "Hot Pot & Grill" meal. I could see numerous such restaurants in Yangon and going by the occupancy, I guess this is quite a popular option among the localites. My friend, Z, took me to one such place in a tony Yangon locality. And despite being a weekday, the place was quite full with people waiting for a table. Each table has two hot plates - one a grilling hot plate and another a sunken hot plate (which can take in the broth pan). For the hot pot, you order various accompaniments as you wish. We ordered meat balls, meat slices (comes in strips), tofu, celery. This was accompanied by a big bowl having eggs, corn on the cob, carrots, baby corn, and exotic mushrooms. The bowl is filled with crushed ice and the eatables on the top. The pan for the broth is filled with broth (I guess it was chicken broth) and heating started. You had the ingredients (depending on what you want to eat) and allow it to boil for sometime as you sip your drink. A sauce and dip station is located at the centre of the restaurant. You are supposed to pick up your choice as you like and get them to the table. Once the broth has started boiling for about 5 mins, you fill your bowls from the hot pot, add the dips and enjoy the meal. As we got busy about making the hot pot, the steward came and started off the grilling hot plate. A sheet of cooking paper is placed on the plate and the choice of meat (as ordered by us) is put for grilling. Each table has its own exhaust suction which is pulled from the ceiling. A can of white oil is placed at each table alongwith a pair of tongs. The diner is supposed to grill the meats and enjoy it alongwith the hot pot.          

While the above were the most memorable food experiences, it would be a gross injustice not to mention the variety of noodles, meats, fishes and salads I had. I am told Burma has provincial specialties (or ways of cooking) and one of the specialty that I experienced was the Shan Style dishes - noodles and meat based. Shan is a state in the north eastern part of Myanmar. A more reddish and spicier variety, it was distinctly different from what I had in Yangon or NPT.    

The story of my food journey in Myanmar would be incomplete if I don't mention my introduction to the amazing dish of Tom Yum Soup. Though originally a Thai dish, I had this in NPT, on recommendation of a senior colleague. And I have been so hooked to this dish, I picked up a few packets of the paste for trying out at home. Tangy, spicy and so flavorful, the dish has distinct flavours of greens, kafir lime, galangal (a ginger variety) and prawns.

At the end, this would not have been possible without the excellent company & support of my friend, Z, who is the always smiling & ever ready for the experiments. He went out of his way to make the trips interesting, and exciting. A big shout out to him for everything.


Cyrus dadachanji said…
Ki bhalo Shaad!

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