Myanmar Cooking Class

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Written a few days ago, when we were without internet:

Happy New Year!

The past few days we have been relaxing at Ngwe Saung Beach in the southwest of Myanmar. Lonely Planet describes Ngwe Saung as having ‘a palpable abandoned aura.’ Although this may be a slight exaggeration, there is so little to do on this strip of sand that one is forced to relax. It has been a breath of fresh air after hectic non-stop travel. We have taken plenty of downtime while traveling, but this is the first opportunity to do so without a smidge of guilt. There are no pagodas that we should be seeing, no one-day-only markets or limited museum hours that we could be missing. Each day begins when the electricity stops and the fan in our room grinds to a halt at 6am. It ends around 9pm when every restaurant in town closes. There is not much nightlife anywhere in Myanmar. I feel confident that when we leave on January 2nd, Zev will have fully mastered the art of relaxing.

Zev’s birthday was on the 29th, which we celebrated by picking crabs drenched in curry powder, gorging on Tiger Prawns and having a spa spree, and of course blowing out a candle atop a slice of chocolate cake.

So maybe we have been doing a few things while relaxing at the beach…. I learned how to drive a geared motorscooter (big thanks to Zev for his bravery as a passenger and instructor), this is a big deal because I have been terrified of driving one ever since I tipped over and nearly squished my sister, the passenger at the time. (Perhaps she can elucidate the unfortunate incident in the comments section, as I recall she has a particularly vivid recollection of what happened.)

We also went snorkeling twice with only once getting scrapped against some sharp rocks.  Marine life spotting has been limited to small fish of different types, a grouper, and an eel! I wouldn’t say that the snorkeling here is great, but the very clear water and thriving coral reefs make it engaging enough for a few hours. And personally, I enjoy seeing the tiny brightly colored coral fish flitting about.

Upon arrival at the beach I embarked on a coconut water binge, vowing to consume at least one coconut a day. So far, so good. I looooove the super cheap coconuts here ($.75) and the vendors will even hack it open when you’ve drunk the water so you can scoop out the translucent flesh. Delish!

Earlier this week in Bagan we took a Burmese cooking class at ‘Flavor of Myanmar.’ Bagan is known for its ancient stupas and temples, but sometimes you can get templed out. The food here has been tasty, lots of mild (and sometimes greasy) curries, and unusual salads including the ubiquitous tea leaf salad which is tart and bitter with pickled fermented tea leaves, fried lentils, sesame seeds, and an assortment of other savory tidbits.

The class began early in the morning with a market visit. Unlike previous cooking classes in which the instructor walks you around and shows various local fruits and veggies while giving the name and purpose, this one had a much more interactive element! We were each given woven bamboo shopping baskets, containing a parasol, a shopping list and 2,000 kyat ($2.40). The grocery list gave phrases in English and Burmese that would come in handy while navigating the marketplace. We learned how to ask the vendors whether or not they had an item, how much it was, and to bargain down the price. With our allotted budget, we each set off to haggle our way around the marketplace acquiring ingredients for the course. It was delightful to interact with the vendors and joke and laugh with all the ladies in the market as they tried to understand our attempts at Burmese.

We returned to the cooking school and received a booklet which had all of the recipes typed out with detailed instruction. After watching a demonstration of the first dish, the ubiquitous ‘Myanmar Chicken Potato Curry,’ we retreated to our individual stations and attempted to duplicate what the instructor had created. It is always funny to see how disparate the final result can be from the demo.

Of all the dishes we made, the Chicken Potato Curry was the most typical and also our personal favorite.

Chicken Potato Curry

Serving: 1

Method of Preparation: Sauté/ simmering in 2inch deep sauté pan

Ingredients:

80g chicken, cubed (ed. dark meat preferred for tenderness and best flavor)

1 medium potato, par boiled until just tender and quartered

1 teaspoon turmeric powder (1/2 tsp for marinade, remainder for cooking)

80g shallots, minced

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp ginger, grated or minced

1 tsp red chili powder, or more depending on level of spiciness

2 tsp fish sauce (1 tsp for marinade, remainder for cooking)

2 heads lemon grass, crushed

½ cup water

handful cilantro leaf chopped roughly, for garnish

salt and pepper, to taste

Marinate the chicken:

Wash the chicken and cut into medium pieces. Mix thoroughly with salt, pepper, turmeric powder, and a bit of fish sauce. Marinate for 10 minutes to 1 hour.

Cooking:

This recipe cooks quickly, so be sure to have all ingredients prepped and at hand.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the turmeric, and just as it begins to turn color, but before it burns (not more than 30 seconds), add the shallots and sauté until golden brown.  Add garlic and ginger together, sauté until fragrant. Add 1 tsp fish sauce. Add red chili powder and stir; almost immediately (count 5 seconds) add chicken, potato, and lemongrass.  Add ½ cup water to avoid sticking and cover tightly.
Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove lid, reduce heat, and simmer until liquid has evaporated and the chicken is tender, adding more water as necessary.

When the oil separates from the gravy, remove from the heat. Season with salt pepper, and additional fish sauce, to taste. Discard the lemongrass and serve, garnishing with the cilantro leaves.  Serve with rice.

Burmese countryside

Last Wednesday we hired a taxi to take us from Inle Lake to Mandalay, a seven hour drive that we decided we’d rather not spend in one of Burma’s bumpy and sleepless overnight busses. On the way we stopped to visit statue-filed caves in the limestone cliffs above the town of Pindaya. In addition to the thousands of gold Buddha statues filling the caves, the ceilings of the labyrinthine complex are covered in stalactites, and the combination of both man and nature-made features created an almost mystical atmosphere.

The side trip to Pindaya took us away from the mostly-paved main route to Mandalay and onto 7 hours of rural dirt roads through Burmese countryside. Our suspension-less 80’s era Toyota wagon was by far the smallest of the dozen or so cars we saw on the road, but it made the experience all the more authentic. It also kept us eye-level with the periodic herds of cattle with which we shared the road. The region, in Shan state, is one of the most fertile regions of the country, and the ride was filled with scenes of rolling farmland dotted with enormous Banyan trees and the occasional golden hill-top pagoda. As much as anything else, our trip to Burma has been one of gorgeous natural scenery.

We spent most of our 24 hours in Mandalay planning our departure. Mandalay is a sprawling and dusty city that serves as the hub for Burmese and Chinese businesses mining, drilling, and trading in Burma’s resource rich north. Although there are a few ancient palace complexes outside of the city, we opted to forego them to squeeze in two day trekking trip another 7 hours north. There are certain cities that you know will take more time and effort to enjoy than you have, and Mandalay was one of those cities for us.

The trekking trip, based out of a small town called Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) brought us to more of the same scenery as our Inle-Mandalay car trip, but it was great to enjoy things at a slower pace. We walked through tea plantations, fields of bright yellow sesame flowers, and got to see plenty of ever-fascinating low-tech rural farming contraptions including home built hydro-electric dams, an ox-cart mounted gas-powered corn kernel remover, and a foot-pedal hay chopper consisting of a bent bamboo limb and a 12 inch cleaver.

The trek included a home-stay in a small tribal village. It’s always hard to know what to expect when you’re told you’ll be visiting a community touted by guides and tour books as “untouched”. Despite many experiences otherwise, in my mind I always picture a primitive scene out of a National Geographic documentary. Despite knowing better, this ultimately leads to a slight twang of disappointment upon arriving to find people watching TV, drinking CocaCola, and wearing modern, western clothing.

In Pankam, I certainly had that moment of disappointment. After all, the town is a short, albeit treacherous, motor-bike ride from a well-connected town. The houses have tin roofs, everyone wears machine-made clothing, and many families have motor bikes. Taking a step back though, I realized I was in one of the least connected places I had ever been. In a town of 100 families, only a couple of homes have electricity, in the form of car batteries. People collect their water from a central town well and cook over wood stoves. As with the rest of Burma, there are very few mass produced packaged foods, virtually none of which are western brands. The only formal commerce we saw was at a local stall that sold snacks, cigarettes, and warm sodas. I’ve done trips similar to these in other countries and stayed in towns with no running water and limited electricity. It is always enlightening and refreshing to see a community that lives very differently from my own. However, I think the lack of western influence in Burma really sets my experience in Pankam apart.

It’s taken a few weeks to figure it out what exactly it is about this country that has made it so fascinating to visit. No one feature or experience of Burma has stood out as a single highlight. Rather, the scene of the country and culture as a whole is what really makes this place worth seeing, and seeing sooner rather than later.

Still no luck uploading photos, but we’ve got tons of great ones ready and waiting!

An unexpected post on an unexpected successful second day at Lake Inle

Sneaking in a quick half hour of internet in the middle of a jam-packed day in Burma.

We woke up early this morning and met Asher – a UPenn law student whom we first met in Yangon, and happen to bump into again last night – for a bike ride around Inle Lake. Based on the Lonely Planet map, we planned to take a 5 mile ride to the In Thein pagoda, a site of 1000+ crumbling 17th and 18th century stupas on the western edge of the lake. They’re usually visited by boat, but we didn’t get a chance to make it there yesterday, and a 5 mile bike ride looked like a piece of cake!

Well, an hour and a half in we chatted with a local on the side of the road who informed us that In Thein was a further 3 hours down the road… After another 45 minutes on our bikes, a stop at a local market, and a lucky tip from the only other westerners visiting the same market, we devised a hair-brained scheme to rent a boat to take us and the bikes to the pagoda, then back home at the end of the day. We managed to hire a reluctant driver and his boat, which was definitely not outfit for tourists and, ended up with a
smashing-success of an off-the-beaten path (i.e. not in Lonely Planet) afternoon. The crumbling stupas at In Thein were really gorgeous and, as seems to be the trend in this country, we were very lucky to get a chance to see the few remaining structures there which have not been restored into to relatively characterless gold-painted plaster mounds.

Our second day cruising the lake on our way back to town was no less scenic than the first, and felt all the more authentic and noteworthy sitting on the floor of our boat totally unfit for tourist use with our new traveling partner. After our return we experienced a beautiful sunset, if not quite a gustatorily (sic) noteworthy experience, tasting wine at the Red Mountain winery, one of Burma’s two vineyards located in the hills surrounding the lake, and are now headed to a traditional puppet show before dinner.

Again, our deepest apologies for the lack of photos, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed for faster internet in Mandalay in a few days.

Burma: a welcome change of pace

5 days without internet is the longest we’ve gone in a quite a while, and although we’re certainly remiss not being able to post more often for you all, being forced to unplug has been one of the many pleasant surprises of Burma.

We spent our first 2 days in Burma in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. Yangon is truly like no city I have ever seen before. Many of the British colonial era buildings in the city are still standing, most of which have undergone virtually no restoration and often seem to
stand moldy and crumbling as modern ruins. However, it’s clear that within the next year or two, this won’t be the case. We’ve heard that investment, trade, and development has skyrocketed tremendously in just the last few months, with trade restrictions from the US and elsewhere being lifted. I’m sure we arrived here just in the nick of time to see one of the last (if not the last) large, relatively stable, and resource rich country not completely tied into modern western trade, technology and culture.

The highlight of our two quick days in Yangoon was sunrise at Shwedagon Pagoda, a giant gold clad Buddhist Stupa capped with a golden Hti (crown) encrusted with thousands of precious stones and topped with a 76 carat diamond (or so we’re told, it was far too high to actually see). We also walked past countless colonial era buildings, sampled highlights of the local fare, and even visited the Yangon synagogue which served a Jewish community of several hundred at the turn of the 20th century, but now is only just a tourist attraction taken care of by one of the dozen or so Jews who have chosen to stay in Burma.

In addition to the multitude of regional ethnic Burmese groups, Burma is home to a large Indian population, most of whom came over as workers or traders during the British colonial period, and Burmese food is greatly influenced by southern Indian cuisine. After 5 weeks of soupy spicy food in China, we’ve been ecstatically chowing down on Burma’s rich and mild curries and chewy chapati breads since we arrived. Indian-style sweet and milky tea is also the centerpiece of Burmese social culture, and the streets are lined with small tea shops full of men sitting at knee-high tables drinking and chatting.

We’re currently at Inle Lake, a magnificently scenic landscape of fishermen in dug-out canoes, water villages of houses on bamboo stilts, and endless acres of tomato farms grown floating on beds of marsh. We took a boat tour of the lake today, and tomorrow will be biking around the edge of the lake to see some local temple ruins.

We’re eager to post all of the beautiful photos we’ve taken of this truly unique country, but don’t have our fingers crossed for fast enough internet any time too soon unfortunately, so stay tuned!