Deep into the monsoon you get few seasonal fruits. Looking into my photo archives I can spot seasonal fruits recurring from year to year. But there are no records from August. I looked at the fruit bowl on our table today to refresh my memory of what we eat now. Apples and pears, the hardy fall backs for every season, lined the bottom of the bowl. A sweet lime kept them company. The Family loves them even when they are a bit desiccated, as they are now. A few juicy plums, the remnants of the summer’s harvest, loll in their satiny scarlet. A large green guava rounds off the collection. The guava harvest is now, but these peak season fruits turn out to be large and flavourless. A bright green rose ringed parakeet flew by the window, rolling its beady eyes and screaming derision at my collection of fruits. I wish I had that flamboyance.
Khow Suey and various other exotica pass as representative Myanmarese food in restaurants in India. The truth is that these are uncommon as the main meal even in Myanmar. This selective treatment in Indian restaurants is deliberate, because normal food and high cuisine in Myanmar is not so different from eastern Indian food. Without this selective focus it would be very hard for a restaurant in India to sell itself as exotic Burmese. In normal Burmese meals rice is a staple. Beans and vegetables are standard accompaniments, made relatively less spicy than their Indian versions, but otherwise very similar. Meat and fish appear on the plate, again cooked in ways that would pass without comment in India. Myanmar sees widespread use of salads; this is not traditional in India. The pickles are different, but then India has so many kinds of pickles, you would not notice that this is foreign. This is what you see on the plate in the photo here. You can also see that beer is a common aperitif. The papads and the remains of the peanuts which are served with it are not so different from the normal Indian practice. There is a wide choice of drinks available. Many of the sweets are also fairly similar to eastern Indian sweets: candied fruits, and coconut and rawa based sweets similar to the Bengali pitha. In the photo you see a local sweet which turned out to be not so different from an Indian chikki. These similarities are very apparent when you walk through a market.
Since a significant part of our visit to Myanmar was spent along the Irrawaddy river and other water bodies, we ate a lot of fresh water fish. There is a huge variety, just like India used to have before the rise of modern mono-pisciculture. Frying is common, but also many of the preparations steam fish with various ground herbs. Thin curries similar to eastern Indian ways of preparing fish are also widespread. I kept seeing the batter fried prawns which you see in the featured photo all along the Irrawaddy river.
I’ve written earlier about my first impressions of the street food of Myanmar. The striking similarities with India became more apparent as days went by. There is a lot of raw fruit available. Like in India, unripe fruits like mangos and guavas are eaten with salt and spices. You see a vendor in the photo on the left in the panel above. Street vendors sell a variety of sweets as you can see in the middle panel. A lot of this was completely unfamiliar to me. They range from fried pockets to baked and steamed things with the consistency of custard. The photo on the right shows boiled eggs. In most parts of India now the only eggs you see are chicken eggs from battery farms, although I remember much more variety from my childhood. As you can see in the photo above, this variety is still visible in Myanmar: there are boiled duck’s eggs in the lot. The lady also sells Burma cheroots! The flask she is drinking from had green tea.
A particularly Burmese snack was the monbao you see being made in the photo above. The batter which the girl is ladling into a little container is sweetened rice flour. This is then covered with an earthenware pot and baked on the stove in front of her. This stall was extremely popular. Although I wanted to taste this new food, the queue ahead of me was too long. I had the impression that the word monbao is used for a range of tea time sweets.
The pounded mushrooms which you see in the photo above were also new to me. The lady was selling a single variety of mushrooms: the white ones in the bowl near her left hand. She would pound each into the flat brown sheets she has stacked up in front of her. You sprinkle some of the chutney and chopped onions on them and they are ready to eat.
It was interesting that some kinds of Indian food are strong favourites in Myanmar. Many people recommended their favourite place for “palatha” (paratha) and “puti” (puri). I gathered from this that these fried bready stuff do not exist in the local kitchen, but have become hot favourites. The image of Indian food this gives to the locals is less distorted than the Indian image of Khow Suey as standard Burmese food. During my couple of days in the Shan state I asked for Khow Suey once and only got fried noodles with pork. I found that khaw swe is just the Burmese word for noodles.
I saw this scooter parked outside the Manuha temple in Bagan. The sliced guavas hanging from the basket at the back, and the plastic bag full of spices reminded me of my childhood when I would spend my little money on buying treats exactly like this.
I began to discover street food in Myanmar today. The simplest are roasted corn on the cob and roasted sweet potatoes, like in the featured photo above. (Did you notice a funny thing about the stall: it has a mirror?) And the food gets more interesting from there. Ice cream is a great favourite: from the intensely coloured sorbets like the one you see in the photo here, to wonderfully creamy durian flavoured ice creams. On a Sunday it is easy to figure out what are particular favourites. In the middle of the day ice cream was the big draw. Tea shops are next in popularity. This is familiar enough to give me a handle on the rest of the food.
I discovered one more fact which explained what makes it possible for school children to have roadside snacks: there is a 50 kyat note. So all the blogs and travel sites which said that the lowest currency note is 100 kyat are wrong.
A very popular snack later in the day was a spicy mixture of various things tossed together. You can see two kinds of guavas (the white discs with green skin), papaya cut into long strips, onions chopped into small pieces, tamarind (the dark matter) and a familiar tart tasting red fruit which I could not put a name to. All this was mixed with a secret sauce from the pot. This is very similar to many Indian snacks like bhel.
A fast drive through Uttar Pradesh is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sensual overload. You can drive for hours without seeing people. There are signs of humanity all around you: bicycles abandoned for a while, tilled fields, well laid out lines of trees marking land boundaries, but no people.
And then you come into a small town, where there will be a great bustle of cars and scooters, of people selling food, or just standing around and chatting. In the little time that I spent taking this panoramic shot of an unremarkable cross road, a small crowd gathered around me. Their pride in their town was reinforced by looking, over and over, at my photo on the tiny LCD screen of my camera. Or maybe I was misreading their interest, maybe they looked at the photo so intently because they wanted to see what a fresh eye found in this familiar chowk.
The countryside is not wild at all. There are seldom many birds apart from the usual crows and magpie robins. One of the most remarkable exceptions was a skyful of pariah kites, cheel, as we passed the enormous garbage dump outside Rampur. There will be a few butterflies, like this Cabbage White. Uttar Pradesh is densely populated, contrary to what your eyes tell you. These are the subtle signs you need to read.
Occassionally you might see someone selling fresh produce by the wayside. Perhaps cabbages, perhaps guavas. I always thought that guavas served out by roadside fruit sellers with rock salt was peculiarly Indian, until I bought exactly the same combination from an old lady in Vietnam.
Interestingly, there is not too much roadside commerce. Other states have many more fruit sellers by the road. But then they have many more people on the road. It is interesting to ask why. I have different answers from different people. Some say that people take buses between villages and towns, and these do not stop randomly at roadsides. Maybe. Another person put it down to lawlessness. That’s unlikely to be generally true. Relative lack of affluence is another theory. Maybe partly. Perhaps it is a combination of these and more.
So you will have to get into a town to eat. Even the tired, dusty, small towns often have a reasonable restaurant or two. We walked into one in Rampur and had pretty good dal, roti and tandoori chicken. And, of course, remarkable kitsch.