Ask someone who’s been to Burma about the food and you’re likely to get a shoulder shrug, or maybe even a scowl. I spent hours sifting through online forums and magazine databases and printed research packets and came up with the same vague chorus: Not safe. Not Thai. Not good.
Lonely Planet, in their infinite road-hardened wisdom, offers up a section of tips “to help you persevere”, as if Burmese food were a desert marathon or a mysterious rash. We’ll do those jokesters one better and offer up a few ideas for how to turn the food here into one of best parts about a trip to Burma.
1) Start with coffee and donuts. Rise with the sun, when the light is soft, the heat is gentle and the city still has sleep in its eyes. Head to a local teashop, sidestepping roving coconut carts and young monks wrapped in pink robes along the way. Stoke your hunger next to the fires of the teashop tandoor oven, where someone will be stretching and toasting your daily bread with a nonchalance that belies the love and experience that goes into this ancient practice. Order samosas, stuffed with a mash of curried peas or wilted cabbage and potatoes. And vada, Indian lentil donuts as intensely savory as a Sunday pot roast with edges crisp enough to break skin. And, of course, that blistered naan bread, which comes with a bowl of creamy chickpeas and maybe a spoonful of sugar for slathering on top. Wash it down with a cup of black coffee with a twist of lime. Bonus points: Bring a local and convince him to bend his ear to the local gossip—these days no doubt concerning the Lady’s new role in politics and the constant parade of VIPs from the West—and offer up on-the-spot translations. I’m told teashops are where the country’s most pressing matters are discussed.
2) Follow the (en)trails. The open-air markets of Burma aren’t tame affairs. There will be piles of tiny tidal shrimp and hulking catfish whose whiskers still twitch before rigor mortis sets in. There will be goats’ heads and fish guts and puddles of burgundy betel juice. Purple mountains of shrimp paste. There will be blood. And somewhere, amidst the chaos, there will be a squat table with a round-faced woman wearing a generous smile and a few thick stripes of thanakha, which looks like war paint but is more about blocking out the sun. She will serve you a plate of rice, a pile of fresh vegetables to dip in a bowl of fish paste and chili, and a soup of wilted greens with a sour hit of tamarind. These are the staples of the Burmese lunch, the day’s main meal, and you will find them at nearly every place you eat in this country. Your only job is to point at the bowls surrounding that sweet woman—the goat meatballs, the tiny fish slicked with chili and pregnant with smoke, the bright pink cakes of rice paste and dried shrimp—eat with gusto and smile warmly when you leave.
3) Stalk a world-class cookbook author and force her to reveal the delicious mysteries of this elusive cuisine. We didn’t do that, exactly, but when we heard Naomi Duguid would be in Rangoon during our time here, we just happened to find ourselves staying at the same hotel. Duguid is the author of the region’s greatest cookbooks, the types of lush, sprawling tomes that routinely collect James Beard awards and cult followings. She’s also a personal hero of mine. Her books don’t just deliver the flavors of the Mekong or southern India or the far-flung regions of China, but the entire DNA of these places—the smells of the morning market, the sounds of the bread maker at work, the life story of the old woman that’s been hand-pulling rice noodles all these decades. Over our last few days in Burma, she generously shared her time and her wisdom with us, introducing us to the people and places that helped inspire her upcoming book, Rivers of Flavor, which will do a much better job than me at convincing the world of the brilliance of Burmese food when it comes out in September. Before Naomi, we had rancid crab and food poisoning; after her, we had some incredibly memorable meals and a deeper appreciation for the cooks in this country.
But it’s not Naomi you need (as luxurious as it was to have her on our side), just her sense of fearlessness and wonder. People come to places like Burma and fail to eat well because they’re afraid of ordering something they won’t like, of the awkwardness of having an unidentifiable pile of food that they just can’t stomach. There have been a number of things I haven’t liked here (shrimp paste, in particular, in all its fermented funk, is a tough one for me to stomach without more practice), but behind every minor miss has been a flavor that will follow me well beyond these borders. Naomi or not, open eyes, persistent hunger, and a relentless sense of curiosity are all you need to crack the code—here and anywhere. But here is as good a place to start as any.