Financial Daily
from THE HINDU group of publications

Monday, November 12, 2001



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Feeding off earth's bounty

Anuradha K.Rajivan

Slurp! Slurp! In Myanmar, the sound of a meal is as important as its taste. Sitting at low wooden tables, the five of us look forward to enjoying a hot village meal after a morning of travelling by boat and foot, and hours of debate about development wor k in the remote villages of Myanmar.

As we wash up and settle down to our meal, a sudden quiet descends. We can all smell the food! It is time to eat and relax a bit, before getting back to writing aide memoirs. We are in village Or Ra Yan in Waing-Maw township of Kachin State, which lies n ear the border in Myanmar. This is a restricted area and travelling in this region requires permission.

Sitting close together around the small, round wooden table set with five bowls, helps create a convivial atmosphere. It also makes it easier for us to help ourselves from the variety of dishes before us. A large bowl with a clear, sour soup, enhanced wi th tempting fresh greens, is placed in the middle, from which we help ourselves. There are a couple of soup-spoons which all of us have to share between us.

Hot n spicy food, just for you

There is no concept of jhoota whatsoever! It took me a week of common eating to get over my inhibitions for picking up a spoon used by someone else and sticking it again and again in the soup bowl along with everyone else! The soup, of course, was delici ous!

The meal in Myanmar is generally accompanied by a variety of clear as well as laden soups. Pumpkin leaves, bamboo shoots, beancurd, mustard leaves, coriander, mint, lemon grass, vermicelli, dal, radish, mushrooms, even tamarind, eggs, shrimp, fish, beef, pork, green chillies, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and turmeric are all used in soups in various combinations.

In many upland and inland villages where people are mainly gatherers and still follow slash-and-burn farming, just about any shoot or young fruit is added to soups, especially in season when trees and plants burst with new life! Each shoot, leaf and frui t has its own its own distinct flavour. Not only that, the combination of ingredients is virtually infinite! Even eels and fish-heads are popular ingredients!

The soup is to be savoured right through the meal and not finished off as a first course. It is great to freshen ones mouth with soup between other courses.

There are several other dishes laid out in our dining hut. Lightly cooked, fresh mustard greens, tender boiled brinjal, a salad of raw cabbage cut fine and onion greens and dressed with lemon and peanut oil and some other flavour which I later learnt was fish sauce, eggs, fried fish, curried chicken, and some tempting looking crisps. Though we were not served pork, mutton or beef on request, it is rather difficult to be truly vegetarian in Myanmar.

A large bowl heaped with rice is passed around from which each of us helps ourselves. There are no spoons, forks or chopsticks. Like in India, rice is eaten with the hand. Different curries, vegetables and salads are the accompaniments. Red chilly and ga rlic paste is used as a pickle, adding a dash of sharpness to those who want it.

My mouth is already burning from a generous helping of the paste! Water is not served during the meal. Slurps of soup help down the rice. The crisps taste good, though their taste and ingredients did seem a little unfamiliar. I learn that they can range from rice wafers, gram flour fries, fish or prawn chips, to deep-fried fish bladder and buffalo hide.

Desserts galore

Having had my fill, I rise to wash my hands when I spy bowls of mango, papaya and pineapple chopped into bite-sized pieces, ready to be served. Toothpicks are also provided to spear the fruit. The mangoes are delicious and the pineapple not the least bit sour. And, though I am full, I manage to sample all three. They help douse the fire of the chillies that is still lingering on my tongue. What a meal it has been!

The variety in food is almost limitless. It can come from the water bodies, the land and the forests. Ponds and rivers not only provide fish and shrimp, but also water-greens such as Hawaiian spinach. Like in India, tamarind, mango powder, coconut, chill ies and turmeric are commonly used ingredients. Besides, bamboo shoots, palm fruit and forest produce such as larvae and grasshoppers also form part of the Myanmarese diet.

Fish bladder, pork intestines and buffalo skin is fried into near-transparent crisps. Eels are added to soups. The leaves of the pumpkin, marigold, green pea and tamarind, besides the flowers of the silk cotton tree, and other buds and shoots are also ea ten. Apart from pickling, food is also fermented and preserved by burying it in the soil. This forms a delicious treat.

A pleasure that is eating

A stroll down to the market for dinner reveals hundreds of people dining out. The young and the old alike are seen tucking into food from small, wayside eateries. Doesnt anyone cook at home? I wonder. But, why should they, when prices are so reasonable.

These are no fancy restaurants here. Right in the middle of a crowd of shoppers, walkers, roadside vendors, women, children, dogs, ... are neatly laid tables, on which are tooth picks and tissue kept in round containers labelled Myanmar Beer.

The local beer and non-alcoholic drinks are served on demand. There are no separate liquor shops as we have back in India. Shops are shops. Only drugs are considered illegal in Myanmar. While alcoholism is not reported to be a big problem (even women don t complain), drug addiction is.

People of all classes, travellers, the obviously rich, the poor, families, students, all go to the same eating joints. It is not uncommon to see women dining out on their own. Many young women come with children in tow. Some do their accounts while waiti ng for their order, while others are seen practising their Japanese (learning the language is quite popular). And, to my surprise, I do not notice a single case of sexual harassment or eve-teasing. In fact, the people are surprised when I ask them about their reactions to eve-teasing.

The food is hot and fresh. The fast turnover ensures that nothing ever goes stale. In fact, if something on the menu runs out, instead of suggesting an alternative, the shop assistant just pops into another shop and procures the order!

Dawn to dusk, its eating time here!

For the outsider, the early morning breakfast in Myanmar comes as a surprise. In Yangon (Rangoon, the capital) and elsewhere, having a full rice meal as early as 6 a.m. is quite common! On my morning walks, I often found the hotel staff digging into larg e, multi-layered stainless-steel tiffin boxes! Similarly, the last meal of the day is also had quite early, between 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. being quite normal. Perhaps, a practice that stems from the countrys agrarian economy, and which continues due to a l ack of electricity. In States like Rakhine, electricity is available for just two hours a day.

On the streets of Yangon one finds lungi-clad men, women and children, seated around low wooden tables placed around shady trees, tucking into fresh food which is seasoned on the spot. Much of this food is not Myanmarese. In fact, it is a heady combinati on of Chinese, Thai and Myanmar food. Noodles and vermicelli are quite popular. Often, when people eat out, they prefer to order non-Myanmarese food. Roadside tea-shops are almost always full.

I quite enjoyed the hot mohingar (a kind of hot and sour soup with vermicelli, vegetables and crisps) bought from a tea- shop by the side of a cinema theatre screening, hold your breath English Babu, Desi Mem! Hindi movies, I found, are quite popular in Myanmar and one can find posters of Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai and Shahrukh Khan stuck on the bamboo walls of village huts.

Traditionally, the table setting in Myanmarese homes is simple, with little to distract from the food. Flowers, candy and other decorations are not allowed to dilute the importance of food. One is not supposed to interrupt anybodys meal with conversation . Unnecessary talking about other subjects may be mistaken as a sign that the food is not that good. It is polite for guests to concentrate on the food alone and ask for more. Hosts displaying a lot of flurry and bustle, loudly instructing their servants to refill bowls, even wastefully, fanning their guests or shooing off flies, are all taken as complements to the guests, making them feel wanted.

Pickled tea, which is had with an assortment of roasted nuts and sesame seeds, is delicious. And though it may not appetise my Burmese friends, I find that a layer of beancurd with pickled tea and on bread, makes a great meal!

For dessert, the unusual looking rambuttans taste refreshingly delicious. They are somewhat like leechies from the inside, if one is able to muster up the courage to peel them. On the outside, they look like brightly coloured, poisonous sea creatures -- red-orange yellow, the size of ping-pong balls, oval in shape, with hairy feeler-like protrusions all around! Rambuttans, which I was later told grow on trees, do help to round off the meal rather nicely.

And I must hasten to add that though I ate so much that was unfamiliar, not once did I suffer from indigestion or a queasy stomach!

Pic.: One of the road-side eateries in Myanmar.

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