Asian food. My most “Seamlessed” cuisine back home. I really love the stuff and really looked forward to finally experiencing authentic dishes during my time in Asia. I had no idea what to expect of the food in Myanmar—the flavors, the preferred protein, the cooking methods, nothing!
Our first day in Myanmar, we explored People’s Park in Yangon to get in some morning yoga. We made our way over to the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda, where we witnessed firsthand the pilgrimage-like flocking of the spiritual center by Burmese people from all over the country. Myanmar is special because we were often times the only foreigners in site, providing a truly immersive experience. The attraction was there for the locals, and we just happened to be welcomed guests.
After observing Buddhist worship traditions (kneeling, praying, bowing, making offerings to statues of Buddha, lighting candles, donating money, etc.) and enjoying the gaudy decor of colorful mosaics, gold paint, and neon flashing lights, the sun was high in the sky and we had worked up an appetite. We shed our conservative accessories (sarong over the shoulders for the women, “longyi”, a knee covering skirt, for the men) and headed out to find some food.
We mimicked locals and scooted across several lanes in true Frogger fashion, with cars zooming by us as we hovered on the yellow line dividing north and southbound traffic. A food cart swarmed by locals called to us right away. Tiny plastic stools provided a makeshift bar in front of the wooden structure. A tarp overhang shielded the vendors, food, and visitors from the relentless sun. We plopped down scanning the metal pots and bowls filled with undistinguishable meats, colorful vegetables, and fragrant broths.
Smiling faces and Burmese words seemed to invite us to make a selection. This was going to be a roll of the dice. I examined my options and chose a stew with fatty looking meat, what I hoped to be pork belly. There was some of that, and there apparently was also liver, which I unknowingly took a big bite of. I tried to fight off my instinctive cringe as the gritty dense meat let out the recognizable flavor.
T went the safe route with a dish of broccoli and cauliflower. It was only her first week and she had not yet built up the stomach tolerance for the meat that I developed from my suffering in the Philippines. S pointed to a pot filled with a redish brown sauce and a smooth sphere hunk-o-something with lines scored along the circumference. A boiled egg? We hoped. It was a boiled egg, and S was satisfied with his tasty selection. Each of us paid 600 kyat, equivalent to about $0.50.
As we nibbled at our dishes, the lady behind the apron started handing us rice, then soup, then scooping spoonfulls of other dishes onto our plates. We exchanged nervous glances, concerned there was a language barrier issue and might have mistakenly indicated we wanted more. The food didn’t stop coming and we expressed our gratitude, “Ce-zu-tin-ba-deh,” and responded with dramatic yummy noises. The slow cooked, on the bone chicken was the winner. The tender salty meat offered all the comfort of home with a zesty Asian twist.
We offered a tip for their generosity, but the boss lady modestly refused. The whole experience left us feeling buzzed from the meaningful interaction and positive outcome of the hand signal prompted meal. Their pride was unmistakable. Tourism is new in Myanmar, and the locals are not yet jaded by mobs of westerners. Luckily for us, the circumstance created one-of-a-kind experiences and a true display of Burmese culture and character.
Post by K
Photo: Burmese food vendors (Yangon, Myanmar)