Spice: the final frontier

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 10:44am

Every day at 11am about 1,300 monks queue up for lunch at the Mahagandayon monastery near Mandalay. The temple area is bathed in the distinctive burgundy hue of their robes. Their meal is usually paid for by one family or villagers who have clubbed together - and there is a two-month waiting list for the honour.

The monks are well fed: there is usually soup, rice and a vegetable dish. The Myanmese love their food; they buy the ingredients fresh every day (refrigerators are uncommon) and the country's bounty of produce drives their cuisine. The rich farmlands around Mandalay provide peanuts for roasting or turning into cooking oil, copious green vegetables - including metre-long beans, okra and a variety of tomatoes - and countless varieties of rice from the paddy fields of the Irrawaddy River Delta around Yangon.

Early one morning, we stop at a small market on the outskirts of Mandalay. Carts sell mohinga, a clear fish soup with fine rice noodles that the locals eat for breakfast, and freshly made rice or wheat noodles, which they eat at any time of day. A particular favourite is the local speciality: Mandalay mondi, a rice noodle dish with chicken curry.

While the women buy flowers to offer later at the temple and thanaka (white powder derived from tree bark) to apply as a sun screen, they're also getting down to the serious business of buying food.

Myanmese cuisine is a balance of salads and curries mild and spicy, with influences from the countries that border it - Thailand, China and India. Most interesting are the salads: lephet thoke, known as Myanmar's national dish, is fermented or pickled green tea leaves with chopped tomatoes, among many variations.

Then there are banana blossoms cooked and served with pork; and butter beans fried with garlic. To these are added roasted peanuts and chilli flakes, dried shrimp and anchovies, fish sauce and lime juice, fried shallots and garlic, and pickled mango and ginger. Each is served in a little dish for everyone to add according to their taste. "I love pickled tea leaves with fried garlic, roasted peanuts and sesame seeds served with some rice," says San Phyo Aye, who was born in Yangon but now works as a guide on the Road to Mandalay, a boat that cruises on the Irrawaddy River.

These toppings are what really brings Myanmese cooking to life. They are also added to the thick, rich meat and vegetable curries.

"This is the very famous jungle bean," says San Phyo Aye, pointing out what looks like a pile of glossy conkers. Apparently, they need to be boiled for two hours to make them palatable, and the locals love them. "We eat them in a meat curry with steamed rice or just as a snack. People say they damage the kidneys, but we love the taste."

We pass a stall selling a huge selection of dried shrimps from the delta. They range in size from tiny to big and plump, and the price increases with the size. San Phyo Aye tells us Myanmese like to choose the shrimps that are the least salty as they don't like too much salt. The stall next door sells eggs - hen, quail and duck. The last are usually added to the breakfast mohinga dish, along with a choice of accoutrements.

Then we turn into a row of spice stalls, heaped high with brightly coloured powders. There's yellow and orange turmeric for making curries, as well as turmeric root to grind your own, and vivid red chilli powder. "That's for adding colour," says San Phyo Aye. "The chilli flakes are for the tart taste."

Meat takes up a smaller part of the market, and it's a smaller part of the cuisine too. "With greens and rice readily available, beef and pork are extras at the Burmese table," says Naomi Duguid, who has travelled extensively around the country and is the author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor (published by ArtisanBooks). "In central Burma [where Mandalay is] they are served as intense curries, and in outlying areas, they are more often cooked together with vegetables."

Sweet things figure, too, although not traditionally as a dessert. "In Burma sweets are for pleasure, for those moments in the day when you're not eating a meal and just want a little pick-me-up," says Duguid.

Fruits also satisfy the sweet tooth. "It's the season for custard apple," says San Phyo Aye, "a very rich and sweet fruit. And this is wooden fruit," he adds, picking up something that resembles a worn brown cricket ball and can apparently do damage if it falls on you from a tree. "It has a hard texture, but we can eat it. To make it tastier, we add jaggery [cane sugar]."

Like Thailand, Myanmar has a fledgling but growing wine industry. Red Mountain Estate vineyard near Inle Lake in Shan state, for example, makes wines that you can buy throughout the country. Central Myanmar has a cool climate and good soil, and the estate has been set up with the help of an experienced French oenological team.

Aboard the Road to Mandalay cruise ship, we try two very decent Red Mountain reds and two whites - a pinot noir, a shiraz, a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay.

In the market, we are offered a sticky rice snack - leftover sticky rice wrapped around jaggery and soya bean powder then fried with coconut on top. Less appealing are deep-fried crickets.

"Some people like to buy them fried; others buy them fresh, take the innards out and stuff them with ginger before frying," says San Phyo Aye.

We stick with the sticky rice.

Three restaurants to try in Mandalay:

Canal Mandalay 22nd Street
Green Elephant
Block 801, 27th Street
Lashio Lay
65 23rd Street