Hungry Wanderer Myanmar: A Day’s Meal Following Anthony Bourdain’s TrailAugust 20, 2014
- Mikka WeeWords
Stepping foot into Myanmar felt like trespassing uncharted territory. A lucid, surreal bubble preserved in time, and me, with a sharp needle sandwiched between my thumb and index finger. While waiting for my ride, I saw Myanmar painted with gray skies thanks to the bipolar weather, and a sprawl of pagodas, temples, box-type buildings, and grandiose British architecture coexisting like it was the way things are meant to be. Men in skirts and women in pants exchanging pleasantries with monks, and nuns-in-training hailing buses that I would only see in the form of piggy banks in vintage stores (and hipster Pinterest photos). My eyes darted left and right in search of something familiar—like a McDonald’s or Starbucks or heck, even a 7-Eleven, but there is not one in sight. “Welcome to Yangon,” says my driver as he pops into his seat. “Might you please enjoy your stay.”
My view from the hotel window is a rundown building-turned-cinema, masking its cracks with muted seafoam green paint. X-Men: Days of Future Past is showing in 3D. Tickets here are still on paper. None of the fancy “choose your seat” technology—yet.
Anthony Bourdain’s pilot episode for Parts Unknown explores the winding streets of Yangon—its food, of course, and history. Being closed to the rest of the world for decades, opening itself up to tourism two or so years ago was the beginning of a cultural revolution that started unlocking doors, inviting foreign investors to spend their money. Advertising agencies have only begun to set up shop, and sim cards are still an unfamiliar microchip, costing around $100 each. Bourdain talks about dishes like Mohinga and Shan Noodles, which pique my curiosity. A few minutes into bizarre Myanmar, I head out to the streets, in search of grub that could provide me with at least a bit of clarity in the midst of the cultural chaos. And just as I step outside the hotel, a whiff of sambal and deep-fried samosas leads me to my first stop—the market.
8:45 a.m. : Sein Ta Lone Mangoes at the Street Market
Mangoes are everywhere in Yangon, presenting themselves like gold inside woven rattan baskets. The Sein Ta Lone Mango (also known as the Diamond Solitaire Mango) is the most popular kind in Yangon. Its distinguishing factor is a rhino horn-like tip, and its taste is a cross between a sweet Philippine mango with the addicting tartness of a Thai mango. Its flesh is succulent, each bite causing the juices to dribble down my chin.
Breakfast at 9:15 a.m. : Mohinga and Myanmar Coffee at Sule Shangri-La Hotel
Greeted by an extensive international breakfast buffet did not discount the presence of Mohinga in the selection—a traditional breakfast dish in Myanmar made with fish paste and vermicelli noodles. Lime, chili flakes, coriander, and fried crackers are served on the side to add a variety of texture, balancing out the thickness of the soup. Taste-wise, it was a melting pot of Asian flavors—fishy, sweet, pungent, sour—wrapped up with a garlicky finish thanks to the spring onions.
Coffee is served black, with a Vietnamese touch of condensed milk on the side. Arabica coffee beans are planted and harvested at the mountains of Pyin Oo Lwin, and are brewed into a robust, full-bodied brew with a medium acidity and a deep, chocolatey aftertaste. It’s probably one of my best bets for Asian coffee, and I hoarded packs of it in the grocery, sealed in foiled packages and placed in charming cloth pouches, before flying out.
Lunch at 12nn: Aung Mingalar Shan Noodle Restaurant
Aung Mingalar was another of Bourdain’s pitstops at Yangon. This restaurant was a confusing hodgepodge of cuisine from the Shan state’s (East of Myanmar) neighboring countries—China, Laos, and Thailand—whose influences were very much present on the menu. Aung Mingalar has turned into a popular food institution in Yangon, with its claim to fame being that it serves the best, and most authentic Shan noodles in the city. Frequented by locals and foreigners alike, the place definitely has a lot of character, but it left me confused and blinded as to what made Myanmar food unique on its own.
We ordered some pot stickers, which were cooked with a perfectly crisp exterior—an invitation to the tender dumpling enveloping moist and well-seasoned ground meat.
Each bite of the Shan Noodles touched on different noodle dishes from different Southeast Asian countries. A light, almost-watery tomato curry sauce is mixed in with glutinous rice noodles—adding more body to the dish by thickening the stew. With fermented tea leaves and clear soup served on the side, the Shan Noodles are finished off with stewed pork, garlic, spices, and deep-fried noodles, a nod to Thailand’s famous Khao Soi, but with the heat volume turned down low.
Another variation on the Shan Noodles was the Flour Noodle with Dumpling Salad, which pretty much had the same contents and edible confetti as the former dish, but with dumplings shaped like ravioli, stuffed with the same meat as the pot stickers.
3:00 p.m. : Snacks from the Street
Exploring the streets of Yangon is an architectural feast. Western structures that have been outdated are turned into residential areas. I won’t go so far as to say that Yangon is a poverty-stricken place, but its buildings can use a bit of improvement, especially as they house multitudes of people with rickety walls that I fear could crumble any minute. It was the most bizarre thing, seeing how residents transported grocery items from the ground level to their upper floors dumbwaiter-style (and outdoors at that!). There are no elevators in these residential areas, just a flight of stairs that creak upon every step. I was catapulted into a place in time far, far away from the present.
Savory pancakes fused chickpeas, parsley, spring onions, and peppers together, then are fried and served on silver plates and packed in wax paper-like brown bags, that don’t do much to drench the oil. The edges held an audible crisp, and the cake itself was tender but greasy. It was alright, but it didn’t hold a candle close to the Mont Lin Ma Yar, which is a popular “couple snack” among the locals.
Because I was alone, I enjoyed these couple snacks as a solo flyer. Two quail eggs are deep-fried in a rice flour based batter, loaded with MSG (I saw), topped with scallions, chickpeas, and then joined together into a sphere. Similar to our local kwek-kwek and tokneneng, I popped these into my mouth like they were fishballs or squidballs. Ah, the bliss of walking into a foreign land, eating these foreign snacks, breathing in all this foreign culture—this is a story that ended up badly.
I was warned by my Myanmar companions to stay away from Myanmar street food lest I suffer from gastrointestinal fireworks that’ll leave me hogging the toilet. It isn’t known to be the cleanest food around. But I went anyway, and my stubbornness was rewarded as I ended up feasting on a diet of bananas and immodium the next day. I knew this was the culprit.
8:30 p.m. : Dinner at Minn Lann Seafood Restaurant
True enough, the prawns were phenomenal. The Tom Yum curry clung to every crevice of the shrimp and was bursting with coconut, lime, and lemongrass. Damn it. I forget how many bowls of rice I was able to finish—Myanmar rice, by the way, is such a treat. Fragrant and with an al dente-like bite, it’s addicting. These Tom Yum Curry Prawns are best enjoyed with what else but a nice, huge frosted mug filled with extra cold Myanmar beer.
Myanmar doesn’t have a food culture that’ll make it stand out from the prominent cuisines of other Southeast Asian countries. What it does, though, is that it tries to put its best food forward in being a melting pot, mastering the art of bringing together different flavors from nearby countries—and doing it quite well. With countries like China, Thailand, and even India lending a hand in some of the best dishes I’ve eaten during my stay (those quail eggs included, despite the horrible aftermath). Yangon’s food culture isn’t as striking, but makes do as an inviting glimpse of their evolving culture. If there’s a city I’m excited to see flourish in the next few years, it’s definitely Yangon.