Article : A Culinary Odyssey to Burma

Explorer | Myanmar
A Culinary Odyssey, on a Path Blazed by Orwell

Published: March 11, 2007

GEORGE ORWELL, who memorably sketched the stark existence of living on bread and thin soup in Paris in the 1930s, hardly seems like an obvious guide to exotic food in the tropics. Yet, in his classic novel “Burmese Days,” Orwell creates a vibrant scene of his hero and heroine wandering through market stalls filled with ripe pomelos the size of green moons, red bananas, dried fish, crimson chilies, ducks cured like hams, larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, heart-shaped betel leaves, and “baskets of heliotrope-colored prawns the size of lobsters.”

Ma Aye Shwe, known as the Fatty Lady, in the kitchen of her five-table restaurant in the Burmese village of Ohnoma.

The list, in full, is so extravagant and inviting that, for me, it served as a kind of mental eating map during a recent road trip through Burma, now called Myanmar by the authoritarian government. Much has changed in Myanmar since Orwell served there as a policeman in the 1920s, but because of the government-enforced isolation from the rest of the world (the country has little processed food and imported food is rare in the countryside) Burmese still live off the land and its abundance of vegetables, fruits, fish and spices.

Even before I crossed the border from China into Myanmar, I had a taste of the delicacies to come. At Ruili, the bustling trading center in Yunnan Province that serves as the entry point for cheap Chinese goods into Myanmar, a Burmese trader invited my guide and me to a lunch of multiple dishes — steamed whole black chicken that fell from the bone, tiny grilled fish that you eat from head to tail, bean leaves with garlic, and most unusual, opium poppy seeds with tofu. Chopped coriander sprinkled on top added a little spunk — and color — to the mild tasting seeds that had been churned with the tofu into the consistency of a soupy porridge.

Immigration officials don’t allow foreign travelers to dawdle at Mu Se, the first Burmese town over the border. So we drove down the old Burma Road — the artery that the Americans used in World War II to hold back the Japanese — to the village of Kutkai, then to Lashio and on to Hsipaw, a town with a good market and friendly guesthouse, a favorite stopping spot for tourists.

Our destination, though, was a sleepy dot off the map, the village of Ohnoma, about two hours south of Hsipaw. Ohnoma was a major destination of our 10-day trip. It is the home of a trucker’s restaurant known fondly as the Fatty Lady’s Place — the formal name of the five-table establishment is Napi — which I remembered with great fondness from a trip several years before. I had eaten lusciously then — the freshly caught fish, in particular, cooked several different ways, was memorable. So was the invitation into the kitchen to observe short-order cooking of the Burmese kind. I remembered, too, the lusty appetites of the drivers who had parked their huge trailers outside.

I was not disappointed this time, either. Tucked on the ground floor of a two-story house bearing large advertisements for London brand cigarettes, Ma Aye Shwe — owner, chief cook and a woman of large proportions — was still there, whipping up tangy fish, vegetables and sauces in less than 20 minutes over a wood stove. Burmese cuisine veers between the influences of India with its tradition of curries and Thailand and its flavors of basil, lemon grass and coriander with a few oddities left over from the British. At Fatty Lady’s you get straightforward Burmese cooking with a slight tilt to the Thai side of things.

As soon as we arrived, tired and dusty, for a late 4:30 lunch, Ma Aye Shwe asked one of her nieces — three of them work as her helpers — to catch a foot-long catfish from the pond just outside the kitchen window. This was done rapidly by grabbing one of the fish by hand, giving it a wallop to kill it and then gutting it and chopping it up into about one-inch pieces. The niece sprinkled some salt on top of the pieces, some pieces of ginger as well, and threw the pieces into a pan of super hot fat. That was to be our fried fish.

In a second wok, the chef stir-fried some garlic, ginger and sliced tomatoes, added some water, added pieces of the fish, a huge bunch of basil leaves, and then covered it all for some 15 minutes, fanning the flames with rapid flicks of a reed fan. A second niece prepared a quick chicken stir fry with bamboo shoots. For a vegetable dish, our hostess tossed tomatoes and garlic with cauliflower pieces and their leaves (a leftover from the British days) in a wok for five minutes. Accompanying everything were side portions of a spicy yellowy sauce: dry mustard, garlic, ginger, chilies, and onions boiled with the green stalks of the mustard plant. For the fried catfish, there was a sauce of tomato, garlic, green chili, vinegar and sugar cane.

The food was served on large white china plates placed in the center of our round wooden table, along with a large bowl of white rice. I hadn’t expected to find any of the wonders of Orwell’s market stalls here. I got what I came for: an invitation into the small kitchen (two benches, a couple of chopping boards and sharp cleavers, two small overhead fluorescent lights) and a mouthwatering straight out of the pan meal — for about 7 kyat, the equivalent of $1 a person.

During the rest of the trip, we ate at several roadside joints that offered unfamiliar combinations of tastes. Yellow papaya flowers sautéed in garlic seemed a variation on the classic papaya salad. Frogs cooked with an assortment of bitter leaves, and braised cashew leaves served with raw cucumber slices gave a sense of the pungent streak in Burmese cooking. I rarely spent more than 10 kyat each for a single meal. Most of the time my guide helped with the ordering, though with smiles and gestures I could have managed on my own.

At the beachside resort of Ngapali on the west coast, I found my way to Best Friends, a simple indoor-outdoor restaurant nestled among a row of small places catering mostly to tourists. I settled into a table on the deck where a few tables were taken by Germans and French. I savored the most delicious avocado salad on earth, and asked for the recipe. It turned out to be basic — chopped avocadoes, sliced onions and shallots and tomato cubes, mixed with a little sugar, vinegar, oil and a dash of fish sauce. Coriander on top. What made the difference was the lush avocado straight from the farm.

At Ngapali, where the Indian Ocean laps at the shore, I expected to revel in prawns the size of lobsters, as recalled from the pages of “Burmese Days.” After all, I had seen pomelos, red bananas, mounds of dried fish, green coconuts and strange-looking bugs in almost every market. Heart-shaped glossy betel nut leaves, just as Orwell described them, were abundant at the ubiquitous stands that serve up the betel leaf and a piece of hard chewy nut laced with lime.

But the prawns were not to be had in the markets or at Ngapali Beach. I glimpsed them only briefly — glistening in their translucent shells on the steel tables of a fish export factory — as they were weighed and packed for air freight to Japan.

For better or worse, this was a sign of modernity since the days of Orwell.

Correction: March 25, 2007

The Explorer column on March 11 about dining in Myanmar misstated the value of the kyat, the Myanmar currency, and the price in kyats of meals there. A meal at Napi, also known as Fatty Lady’s Place, in Ohnoma cost about 1,250 kyats, not 7 — the equivalent of $1 a person. Meals at several roadside joints in the countryside rarely cost more than 1,800 kyats, not 10. (Although the official exchange rate is seven kyats to the dollar, almost all private transactions use rates of 1,000 to 1,250 or more kyats to the dollar.)

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