BAGAN—Myanmar (Burma) is fast becoming a tourist destination, with its centuries-old gilded pagodas and a rich culture that includes wearing longyi (sarong-like wrap-around cloth) and dabbing one’s face with thanakha, a natural sunblock made from ground wood bark.
After being isolated for almost 50 years owing to a repressive military rule, Myanmar is on the throes of modernization, with billboard after billboard of Samsung greeting you at Yangon’s international airport (a big leap, considering that a sim card which would cost you $200 four years ago can now be had for only $1) and at least two KFC branches heralding the influx of foreign investors (but still no McDonald’s).
Sadly, while its stupas, long-necked women and one-leg rowing fishermen have been the subjects of postcard-pretty snap shots, its dishes have yet to put Myanmar on the culinary map.
Here in Bagan, which is dotted by close to 3,000 ancient pagodas, a social enterprise has emerged that seeks to give vocational training and employment opportunities to underprivileged Burmese kids while promoting local food.
Sanon, which is Burmese for turmeric, was established in early 2016 by the Myanmar Youth Development Institute in partnership with Friends International.
“We want to give our guests a relaxed dining experience where they can enjoy traditional food and have the option as well to order more familiar fusion dishes,” sous chef Shein said in an interview.
There is Burmese lentil curry made with wing beans and aromatic acacia leaves and jasmine rice; khauk swe or chicken noodles from the Shan state that is bordering China, Thailand and Laos; giant Irrawaddy prawn and catfish curry; and Andaman soft-shelled crab tempura with spicy papaya salad. But there is also penne pasta served with cherry tomatoes; beef burger with white radish pickle and sweet potato; and beer battered fish and chips. The drinks list is likewise extensive, including fresh fruit juices, draft beer, and cocktails such as the frozen pineapple chili margarita.
Sanon started with 50 kids who underwent training in food preparation and bartending. They were also given English lessons, given that majority of the restaurant’s clients are foreigners.
At another restaurant along the bank of Irrawaddy River, 40-year-old chef Ye Win said the country’s bodies of water have a major influence on local cuisine, providing abundant sources of freshwater fish and prawns, among others.
“We work with what we have,” added Ye, who is a native of Myanmar’s old capital, Yangon.
At Inle Lake, which is about less than an hour’s flight away from Bagan, locals grow vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter gourd and eggplants in floating gardens—they have been practicing hydroponics for over 200 years now!
Because Myanmar is a country made up of many ethnicities, each has its own special dishes. Perhaps the most famous local dish is the fermented tea leaves or lephet, usually served as salad and mixed with shredded cabbage, beans, nuts, and tomatoes, with garlic oil and chili. But the more plebeian common denominator is rice cracker (As my Burmese friend attests: ‘Everybody loves rice cracker!’) The iconic street food and appetizer in almost all restaurants across Myanmar is still cooked using the traditional hot gravel and is served with vinegar that reminds one of our own pinakurat.
For the more adventurous souls, have a go at the mildly sour crunchy ants served by local mountain dwellers who come down once a week to Inle Lake to sell their produce – from traditional medicine to grapes to the more touristy jade bracelets—at the bustling market behind the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda.
Indeed, Myanmar’s march to modernization comes at a cost. In a sense, it is history on the run. There are now spanking new air-conditioned buses imported from China in Yangon. There are more roads getting paved in concrete. Four and five-star hotels are catering to tourists (at least 55 hotels and hostels along Inle Lake alone). And when you open the menu, you’d find a list of fusion and international dishes that is getting more and more extensive.
But then I go back to 1898, when English writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, during a brief three-day stop in Burma, wrote: “This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know about.” He was moved profoundly by what he saw and experienced. And more than a thousand years later, Myanmar is still quite unlike any land you will ever know about.
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