An Impromptu Buffet

Asian food. My most “Seamlessed” cuisine back home. I really love the stuff and 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—I knew nothing at all!

On 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 to the spiritual center by Burmese people from all over the country. Myanmar is unique because we were oftentimes the only foreigners in site, providing a truly immersive experience. The site was there for the locals first and foremost, and we were merely rare but welcomed guests.

After observing the Burmese Buddhist traditions of worship (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 created a makeshift bar in front of the wooden cart structure. A tarp overhead shielded the vendors, food, and visitors from the relentless sun. We plopped down scanning the metal pots and bowls filled with indistinguishable meats, colorful vegetables, and fragrant broths.

Smiling faces and long-winded Burmese 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 had hoped to be pork belly. There was some pork belly, and there apparently was also liver, which I unknowingly took a big bite of. I tried to fight off an 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 in Asia and she had not yet built up the stomach tolerance for Asian meat that I developed from my suffering in the Philippines. S pointed to a pot filled with a reddish brown sauce and a smooth sphere hunk-o-something with lines scored along the circumference. A boiled egg? We could only hope. 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 scooped spoonfuls of other dishes onto our plates. We exchanged nervous glances, concerned that we might have mistakenly indicated that 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 crowd favorite. The tender salty meat offered all the comforts of home with a zesty Asian twist.

We offered a tip for their generosity, but the boss-lady modestly refused. Tourism is new in Myanmar, so the locals have not yet been influenced by mobs of westerners. Feeding us was about sharing their culture not about money, and their pride was unmistakable. The whole experience left us feeling buzzed from the meaningful interaction and tasty satisfaction of the hand-signal prompted meal.

 

Post by K

Photo: Burmese food vendors (Yangon, Myanmar)

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