A once-impenetrable country reveals itself to writer Matt Gross one meal at a time.
In Burma, the day begins, more often than not, with mohinga. It’s a fish noodle soup, and hardly flashy. The bowl of thin white rice noodles in yellowish broth, topped with crisp fritters and sometimes an egg, is eaten as breakfast everywhere from the Andaman Sea to the old royal capital of Mandalay to the hills of Shan State. Occasionally, you can find mohinga outside of Burma, at street fairs and Burmese restaurants, but those versions I now understand, are but pale imitations.
The real thing, as I learned in Yangon, a city of more than 4 million in the Ayeyarwady (formerly the Irrawaddy) River Delta, can be life-changing. In market stalls and tea shops, near under-construction malls and crumbling apartment blocks, I ordered mohinga from women whose cheeks were smeared with the yellow, sunblocking dust of the thannaka root. I gave the noodles a squeeze of lime and a scattering of crushed chilies. Then I dipped my metal spoon and slurped.
The fishiness hits first—a deep, rich flavor that undergirds the broth without being, well, too fishy. There is sourness there, too, from lime juice and crescents of banana stem. The supple noodles are a comfort, offset by the crunch of the yellow split-pea fritters that are a standard component of good mohinga. The bowl is usually emptied in one minute, my mouth aflame with chili heat, my mind looking ahead to tomorrow’s sunrise, when I will seek out another bowl.
It’s easy to imagine mohinga as a delicious secret unchanged for decades and unknown to outsiders—prevented by mysterious forces from escaping its homeland. But you could say that about almost everything in Burma (officially known as Myanmar). Because for nearly 50 years, this nation of 55 million residents was one of the most isolated on earth. Beginning in 1962, Burma’s successive military governments cut it off from the rest of the world, nationalized nearly every aspect of the country, overruled democratic elections, killed protesters, and jailed political opponents, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The brutal junta earned the ire of the world community, leading the United States and the European Union to impose economic sanctions and democracy activists at home and abroad to call for a tourism boycott.
In the last two years, however, Burma has done a surprising about-face. Leaders have transferred power to a nominally civilian government and liberalized the economy at a quick clip. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last December, Suu Kyi won a seat in parliament in April, and international sanctions have been easing. Burma’s government still hasn’t achieved complete transparency and fairness, but after 50 years of junta control, any progress is welcome.
As I read the news coming out of Burma, I knew what the pace of change meant: I might not have another chance to experience the country’s cuisine before it was forever altered by the inevitable influx of tourists, multinational food conglomerates, and fast-food chains, not to mention by the more cosmopolitan tastes of, one hopes, an increasingly wealthy population. Before Burmese food became the next hot New York City restaurant trend, like Neapolitan pizza or northeastern Thai, I wanted to find out what it tasted like in Burma.
This would not be my first trip to the country. In 2005, while traveling in northern Thailand, I ignored the tourism boycott and crossed the border into Burma’s far eastern Shan State, a region nearly cut off from the rest of the country by ethnic rebels. I had only a weekend to explore the dusty, mountain-shrouded towns, but their utter isolation fascinated me, as did the incredible, unusual food. The juicy tomato salads with crispy shallots, ocean-flavored dipping sauces, and eye-opening bowls of noodle soup stuck in my memory. If this little nook of Burma was so packed with flavor and color, what lay beyond?
For this return visit, I began in Yangon (once known as Rangoon), Burma’s largest city. Locals and foreigners alike assured me that it would be the best place for not only mohinga but for a wide range of Burmese food.
No, not so much, no, no, no!” said Ma Thanegi, a spirited 66-year-old writer, artist, and cookbook author. She was wearing her trademark black blouse and red lipstick, and we were sipping mango juice on the patio of Yangon’s Zawgyi House café. I had just deeply offended her by suggesting that Burma’s neighbors, Thailand, India, and China, have influenced Burmese cuisine. “We’re so different,” she said, ticking off the distinctions. Not as much coconut milk, lemongrass, and fresh green chilies as Thai food; less complex spices than Indian; none of the “light, delicate” steamed dumplings found in Chinese cuisine.
When she talked about Burmese food, Ma Thanegi called it “our cuisine,” because she was referring specifically to the food of the Bamars, the dominant group among Burma’s 135 ethnicities and from whom the name Burma is derived. And although it would pain Ma Thanegi to hear me say it, until mohinga is as famous as pad thai, Burmese cuisine will be defined in context of the more famous fare of its neighbors. What I was discovering is that Burmese cuisine is homey, almost untouched by international trends, with flavors that are strongly sour and fishy.
For decades, beginning in the 1960s when the military government closed off the country and let the economy gather dust, Ma Thanegi’s life revolved around food and friends. Lack of work, combined with an abundance of food, meant there was little to do but hang out and eat.
“We had so much leisure on our hands. We would meet at a friend’s house, cook together all day, and eat together or have barbecues in the evening,” she said. “We sat at tea shops, read good poetry and wrote bad poetry, and had conversations lasting into the night about the meaning of the world and the meaning of life.”
To me this didn’t sound so bad, but few Burmese had Ma Thanegi’s privileged upbringing (wealthy parents, private schools). The overwhelming majority were poor, and those who weren’t saw their ambitions for change, travel, and contact with the outside world thwarted again and again. In the summer of 1988, frustration with the junta boiled over. Thousands of people, from students to dockworkers, demonstrated in the streets of Yangon. Hundreds were killed—suffocated in police vans, shot by soldiers at City Hall, blown up in the Student Union building.
Until then, Ma Thanegi had considered herself apolitical, but observing the violence, she felt “ashamed,” so she volunteered with the National League for Democracy. Because she spoke fluent English, she became Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal assistant, managing the iconic human rights leader’s schedule and making sure she ate regular meals. “Sort of like a nanny,” Ma Thanegi recalled.
Her new activism had consequences. In 1989, the military sentenced Ma Thanegi to three years in the notorious Insein prison. She and her co-captives were denied good meals, so they concocted elaborate fantasies about cooking tender meats and luscious stews.
“What was the first thing you ate when you got out?” I asked.
“When I got out, I couldn’t think about eating whatsoever,” she said. “All I could think about were my friends inside: How were they doing?”
After prison, she also found the food culture slowly beginning to change. Though the ruling generals maintained their grip on politics, by the mid-1990s they’d loosened the reins on the economy. With more opportunity to work, her friends had less time to socialize. New dining trends were rare, but she noticed regional Shan noodle soups and barbecue restaurants making inroads in Yangon. And though she’s now guardedly optimistic about the country’s future, Ma Thanegi worries that an improving economic and political landscape may mean the new generation will forget how to cook and that traditional recipes will disappear.
“There are so many things they could do,” she said, “so many classes, training schools, work on computers. Anything!”
At lunchtime, Ma Thanegi and I hailed a worn-out, decades-old Toyota taxi. It took us past downtown Yangon’s crowded grid of grand structures from the British colonial era, threadbare apartment buildings, and gold-plated pagodas. After five minutes our taxi delivered us to the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit restaurant Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee. Our meal was textbook Burmese. We ordered by pointing at a buffet of dishes in stainless steel tubs. I selected a fat prawn the size of a lumberjack’s thumb and tiny shrimp smothered in a sauce of tart, minuscule tamarind leaves. On our table a platter of raw and boiled vegetables (lettuce, cucumber, okra) waited to be dipped in chili sauce spiked with ngapi, a funky fermented fish paste.
Most incredible was nga thalaut paung, a piece of bony freshwater Hilsa fish cooked for eight hours with vinegar, soy sauce, tomatoes, and lemongrass. When the cooking was complete, the bones simply melted away, revealing the essence of fish flavor, pure, meaty, and remarkably comforting.
As impressed as I was by the food, I could tell that it was essentially home-style cooking. It was traditional and unpretentious, fundamentally conservative. In fact, that was the case almost every time I ate out, as if a Burmese restaurant kitchen were just a home kitchen away from home. It turned out that many of the Burmese themselves would not eat at a restaurant what they could cook at home. As Toni Robertson, the Mandalay-born executive chef at Asiate restaurant in New York City’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, told me by email, “When you want to eat for a special occasion or eat ‘upscale’ cuisine, you go to a Chinese restaurant.”
It’s not fair to judge Yangon by New York standards, of course. In Burma, the culture of eating out is younger than Mark Zuckerberg. But that, too, is changing. Every evening middle-class families flood YKKO, a small chain selling kyay-oh, a noodle soup with pork and egg, traditionally served in a copper pot. And a Singaporean frozen-yogurt franchise, racily named Frolick, has gained a foothold in an upscale mall. The most conceptually daring restaurant I visited was Taing Yin Thar, a chic, open-air spot serving dishes from many of Burma’s ethnic groups, their flavors undiluted. A dish of green eggplants, in the style of Rakhine State, was admirably hot, and the fisherman’s soup fragrant with lemongrass was, I realized, a cousin of Thai tom yum. The pomelo salad with sweet red onions was so fantastic I wanted to recommend it to other diners. But there were no other diners. Open just three months, Taing Yin Thar hadn’t yet attracted locals or travelers.
Residents who can afford to eat out want Chinese or, if they’re wealthy, Western food. As for tourists, maybe they just didn’t know about it. After all, Taing Yin Thar had no website. And travelers know to eat where locals flock, rather than in empty restaurants.
The Burmese are just starting to view their food as worthy of attention, as I found when I tried to arrange a lunch with Monica Tsung-Thluai, a friend of Toni Robertson’s who supposedly employs the “best Burmese cook in town.” Over the course of several emails, it became clear that Monica was worried less about what I might like to eat than about what I was capable of eating; she took pains to assure me that “we certainly cook food hygienically.” Nor was she alone in her concern: Virtually all of the locals I contacted for this article sounded hesitant. You want to eat Burmese food? Really? It was as if I was the first foreigner ever to express any interest in their cuisine. Burma has been closed off for so long that many locals can’t conceive of tourists coming solely for the cuisine. Or, really, coming at all. While neighboring Thailand had 19 million visitors in 2011, Burma saw just over 800,000, with barely a quarter of them from western Europe or North America.
Still, I managed to convince Monica I was game for Burmese food, and late one morning, she welcomed me to her home in Yangon. Inside, souvenirs from around the world testified to her work with UNICEF, which included time in Cambodia, Vietnam, Togo, and Yemen.
The day’s menu, prepared by Monica’s storied cook, Mawi Hlen Ngam, began with two classic salads: fermented tea leaf and pickled ginger. Each is prepared similarly, by mixing the soft tea leaves or mild shredded ginger with a host of savory, salty, and crunchy bits such as peanuts, fried shallots, garlic, dried shrimp, or toasted yellow split peas. I nibbled them with a little spoon, savoring the contrasting flavors and textures, until Monica warned me to slow down. There was more to come.
“Like I wrote to you: If you don’t finish things, …” she began.
“You’ll be deeply insulted,” I finished. And I didn’t want to insult her.
At a dining table set with blue crocheted place mats, I found beef slow cooked with chilies and bay leaves; a curry of butterfish, named for its smooth, rich flavor; a light soup littered with hand-knotted bamboo shoots; and a sour, leafy stew made from what Monica could only describe as “a sour leaf.”
As we lunched, a dipping sauce captured my attention, and Monica explained how it’s made. First, mash together chilies, garlic, and skinned tomatoes.
“And then what else is in there?” I asked. “There’s cilantro?”
“Cilantro, yes,” she said.
“Some salt, probably?”
“No. Fish sauce,” Monica revealed.
In other words, this was your basic Mexican red salsa, but made with fish sauce, that staple of Southeast Asia, instead of salt. It was marvelous, and not just because the tomatoes were so ripe and sweet, the chilies so bright and hot. This salsa hovered right on the edge of familiarity, like a childhood friend I hadn’t seen in decades. The essence was there, but the image was fresh and pleasantly disconcerting.
To my surprise, this was not Monica’s, or her cook’s, native cuisine. Monica is not Bamar but Chin, a poor, largely Christian ethnic group from the hills of western Burma. In the 1960s, the Chin were subjected to a government rice blockade, and many fled the country. The cuisine there is ultrasimple, she said, centered on rice, millet, and maize, with meats boiled rather than cooked in oil.
When I asked why she chose to serve Bamar, Monica said simply, “This is Burmese style because I didn’t know you would be interested in Chin food.”
But now, having seen me eat with gusto, Monica understood my curiosity. “I think that next time when you come, you let me know, and then I’ll cook Chin food,” she said.
As I left the bougainvillea-draped house behind, I felt I had barely begun to skim the surface of Burma’s culinary waters. Only 134 more ethnic groups and their cuisines to go. Yikes! Still, I—and other American diners—have come to understand the complexities of Italy’s many cuisines, from Venetian to Roman to Sicilian. Maybe one day we’ll all be just as well versed in the subtleties of lowland Chin versus mountain Chin cuisine, and argue for the superiority of Mandalay’s mohinga over Yangon’s, or vice versa. In the meantime, however, there remained one place I desperately needed to eat: eastern Shan State, the corner of Burma that had first entranced me in 2005.
Getting there, however, was not easy. Foreigners are restricted from crossing parts of Shan State by land, and it took me five days to arrange the three-flight journey to the region’s largest town, Kengtung. But when I finally landed, after three hours, in the crinkly green hills of the Shan State, I was overcome with nostalgia. Little appeared to have changed in seven years. In the town center, concrete buildings still crowded next to colonial survivors whose redbrick walls ended in peaked, shingled roofs. The lake at the center of town was still perfect for a sunset stroll, with palm trees, golden stupas, and mist-shrouded ridges reflected on its surface. A billboard still warned that the Tatmadaw (the military) would “crush all those harming the union.”
Granted, not everything was the same. When I was here in 2005, I was one of a mere handful of tourists eager to trek to the villages of the Akha, Lahu, and Pa-O hill tribes that dot the region. Now a dozen Europeans were staying at my hotel, the newish Princess, where I could crank the air-conditioning, watch the BBC on satellite, and catch a Wi-Fi signal. Two blocks away, a National League for Democracy office was selling coffee mugs bearing the images of Aung San Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton, between them a single phrase: THE GREATEST.
According to my guide, a bright 26-year-old I’ll call Plato, liberalization had hit the hinterland full force (though he still asked me to use a pseudonym to protect his identity). “There are signs around town that say if you see a foreigner, you should help him,” he said. “Before, if you spoke to a foreigner, they would watch you.”
Thankfully, Kengtung’s central market was exactly as I remembered it. Huge. Sprawling. Mystifying. Men strode through its lanes in baggy Shan trousers or sarong-like longyi, alongside women in traditional embroidered black Lahu fabrics, colorful Pa-O head scarves, and full Akha headdresses studded with metal spheres and bulbs. Wood fires, not gas, heated the cauldrons of broth at noodle stalls. And the displays of familiar ingredients, such as nose-tickling bowls of crushed chilies, pristine heads of lettuce, baskets of musty green tea, and ziggurats of fresh tofu, soon gave way to the thrillingly bizarre. I saw chickens gutted to reveal orangey unlaid eggs; vats of what looked like spicy pickled cherry tomatoes but were actually tart, astringent fruits such as sour plums and marians; bundles of crunchy green pods on flowering stalks; black discs of hardened soy powder. Furry things, leafy things, rootlike things, grublike things.
Plato couldn’t name everything, but he could explain each item’s function. “Those we use to dip,” he said of the crunchy green pods. “This is a kind of flower,” he said of a damp bulb of green-and-white petal-like things. Finally he named something: “These are mango leaves.”
Mango leaves! Who knew you could eat them? But how? And more important, where?
At home, said Plato. As in Yangon, people here go out for Chinese or Thai. For the kind of food your mom makes, you go to mom.
I was clearly disappointed. All this way and I wouldn’t get to taste Shan food? But Plato had a solution. That evening when I returned to the hotel, I found a smiling man waiting in baggy Shan pants and a black leather jacket. This was “Socrates,” a veteran trekking guide and Plato’s mentor. He had a surprise for me: a home-style dinner with his parents.
I climbed onto the back of Socrates’s motorbike and we zipped off into the countryside, turning down various dirt paths until we reached his family’s home, a wooden house on stilts. Inside, the lighting was low and fluorescent, and a Thai program played quietly on a flat-screen TV in the corner. Socrates introduced me to his mother and his father, whose silver hair contrasted with his youthful features. Neither spoke a word of English. We gathered around the table to eat.
The meal was bountiful, and a large bottle of Coca-Cola had been purchased in my honor. There were sweet, tender chunks of braised pork belly, and cucumber slices in a light pickling brine. On a platter, fresh greens were set out to dip in a thick chili sauce flecked with cilantro. The braised tofu was silkier and smokier than I’d believed possible. As Socrates explained, the tofu was made by his mother, who sells it at a local market.
Smiling, Socrates described the contortions his parents went through before this meal. Could foreigners, they’d wondered, actually eat rice? Seriously, Socrates said, they hadn’t known if foreigners were physically capable of eating rice. He told me they’d also asked him why tourists all looked so different from one another, because they hadn’t understood that tourists come from different countries. It’s only natural, Socrates added with a chuckle, since they never went to school. They can’t even read.
I’ve met a lot of people in my travels, but never ones so disconnected from the outside world. And yet there was a satellite dish on the roof, and their 30-year-old son made $20, $50, maybe $100 a day guiding people from all over the planet around their little corner of Burma. If that was the change over one generation, what would another generation bring?
At last, I could eat no more. I smiled broadly, shook the parents’ hands, and thanked them again and again. Outside, it was dark. The only light came from the stars, the moon, and the faint flicker of distant TVs. Socrates climbed onto his motorbike and I behind him. As we rode back to town on those bumpy roads, I tried to imagine this land in another seven years. Would a superhighway cut through the hills? Would fiber-optic cables knit the country together? Whatever changes might come, I knew that when the sun rose over Burma, tomorrow or a decade from now, the noodles, whether served in a fancy restaurant or a simple home, would be just as exciting—if maybe different—and I would still be craving a bowl.
Tours that Reveal the New Burma
A 15-day “Best of Burma” itinerary begins and ends in Yangon. The trip combines quintessential Burma experiences such as cruising the Ayeyarwady River with off-the-beaten path visits to Shan State hill towns and Inle Lake’s floating villages. Departs monthly. From $2,310. (800) 970-7299, intrepidtravel.com
ABERCROMBIE & KENT
This high-end tour operator provides groups of 18 or fewer travelers unique access to local culture on its 10-day “Burmese Heritage” tour. Highlights include a candlelit dinner at one of Bagan’s temples and a visit to a Buddhist monastery atop Mount Popa. Departs Feb. 10, March 10, Oct. 13, and Nov. 3, 2013. From $6,495. (800) 554-7016, abercrombiekent.com
Cookbook author Robert Carmack and textile designer Morrison Polkinghorne have been taking travelers to Burma for the last decade. Their trips explore the region through a culinary and design lens, mixing in cooking classes and a trip to a village known for its silk weaving. Departs Dec. 2012 and April 2013. From $2,695. 61/(2) 9550-5510, globetrottinggourmet.com
IMMERSE THROUGH CULINARY TOURS
Explore the food traditions of Burma on an eight-day tour of Yangon, Bagan, and the Inle Lake area hosted by Naomi Duguid, author of the new cookbook Burma: Rivers of Flavor. Markets and eating are the focus, but trips to iconic sites including the ruins of Bagan are also featured in the itinerary. Departs Feb. 3, 2013. From $2,500. immersethrough.com
>>Next: Matt Gross’s Picks for Six Restaurants to Try in Burma.