musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for October, 2013

Shan School Session

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While I was in Shan State last month, I had time to teach one day at the primary school in Tat Ein village, just a few kilometers east of Nyaungshwe. I was actually prepared to teach more than a single day, but for some reason the school was closed for two days during the middle of the week when I arrived. But when the schedule gets juggled like that, the kids make up the lost day later. In this case they had classes on Saturday and Sunday that week.

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Once again, the children were a joy to teach. Their smiles and enthusiasm always make each lesson a fun experience. But damn, does it get loud in that room! They have four classes going on at once — even though they only have two teachers this term to handle all the grades — and there are no walls between the classrooms, so with the other teachers yelling and the students shouting back responses (it’s the typical “rote method” of learning so often found in Asian classrooms) I sometimes found myself drowned out by the wall of competing noise.

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I employed my usual arsenal of goofy activities and games, getting the kids out of their seats and giving them some sort of reason to speak English language words. One activity prompted them to say “the same” or “not the same” when looking at two photos or drawings, some of which were similar but not actually the same. For one class (I taught one group in the morning and a different bunch in the afternoon) I also trotted out my trusty old animal game, one which forces the students to “act out” a certain animal without speaking the name of the critter. I show them a drawing of the animal and then they have to “be” that animal and let the other students guess what they are. Always a riot!

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I also brought some children’s books, a combination of Disney cartoon classics and Dr. Seuss stuff, to read to the students. They enjoyed these books in the past and they were a hit this time too. I even noticed some novice monks at the monastery looking through one of the books one afternoon during a separate visit. They can’t read everything in the books yet, but they love the silly illustrations! And hopefully, that will motivate them to read more.

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What’s Cooking in Myanmar?

As the year winds down, it’s beginning to look a lot like … Burmese food! Call it Myanmar cuisine, or the old familiar, Burmese, but the tasty and underrated cuisine from this country is ready to take its place at the world’s culinary table. Yes, I love the food that I’ve tasted during my travels in Myanmar (everything from noodle dishes such as monhinga and mondhi, to the amazing fermented tea leaf salad), but I’m not the only one; before this year is out, there will be three excellent new books about Burmese food available in bookshops and from online dealers.

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Just published this month is Ma Thanegi’s Ginger Salad and Water Wafers: Recipes from Myanmar. This is actually an expanded version of her An Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine that was first published in 2004. This new edition, published by Things Asian Press, includes gorgeous photographs by Tiffany Wan, showing you not only the wide variety of food featured in the book, but also many captivating sights from around the country. Chapters in the book cover: Soups, Main Dishes (various meat and fish curries, stews, steamed and grilled dishes); Soups; Salads (an incredibly diverse section, with recipes for Tofu, Grilled Eggplant, Pennywort, Long Bean, Green Mango, Ginger, Tomato, and Shrimp Paste salads); Vegetables; Relishes; Rice (there’s more to rice than you think: coconut rice, rice porridge, briyani, fried rice, rice salad); Noodles (don’t get me started, this is one of my favorite food categories in Myanmar cuisine, and Thanegi offers a wide range of recipes of the more popular dishes); Desserts and Snacks (fritters, pancakes, sauces). If you think that Burmese food consists of nothing but oily curries and greasy fried rice dishes, prepare to be enlightened!

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And the first bookshop in the world to have the new Ma Thanegi cookbook in stock? No, it’s not my shop in Bangkok, Dasa Books, but Golden Bowl Travel in Nyaungshwe’s Shan State. Shop owner Ma Ma Aye is very proud to offer Ginger Salad and Water Wafers to travelers passing through town. She is also stocking other titles by Ma Thanegi, including Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Nor Iron Bars a Cage, and the fascinating alternative guidebook from Things Asian Press, To Myanmar With Love.

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Earlier this year, Naomi Duguid’s latest cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor was published. As in her past cookbooks, Naomi not only showcases the food of the country or region, but also focuses on the people and culture. Naomi spends a lot of time in each country she visits and Myanmar is no exception. She has a true appreciation and love for the country, and it shows in her book. Here is one very good description of her book that I found online:

Interspersed throughout the 125 recipes are intriguing tales from the author’s many trips to this fascinating but little-known land. One such captivating essay shows how Burmese women adorn themselves with thanaka, a white paste used to protect and decorate the skin. Buddhism is a central fact of Burmese life: we meet barefoot monks on their morning quest for alms, as well as nuns with shaved heads; and Duguid takes us on tours of Shwedagon, the amazingly grand temple complex on a hill in Rangoon, the former capital. She takes boats up Burma’s huge rivers, highways to places inaccessible by road; spends time in village markets and home kitchens; and takes us to the farthest reaches of the country, along the way introducing us to the fascinating people she encounters on her travels. The best way to learn about an unfamiliar culture is through its food, and in Burma: Rivers of Flavor, readers will be transfixed by the splendors of an ancient and wonderful country, untouched by the outside world for generations, whose simple recipes delight and satisfy and whose people are among the most gracious on earth.

 

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Next up, scheduled for January 2014 publication is Robert Carmack’s latest food offering, The Burma Cookbook: Recipes From the Land of a Million Pagodas. Robert has travelled to Myanmar dozens of times over the years and knows both the country and it cuisine inside out. This is the product description of the new book:

The Burma Cookbook is a lavishly photographed cookbook and historic travelogue, tracing contemporary and colonial Burmese dishes over the past century. With its rich traditions of empire, The Burma Cookbook highlights the best of present-day Myanmar, including foods of its immigrant populations – from the subcontinent, down the Malay Peninsula, and Britain itself. The authors spent some ten years researching the book, while organizing and hosting culinary tours to uncover the country’s most popular dishes. The authors had exclusive access to The Strand Hotel’s collection of historic menus, pictures and photos, while contemporary photography by Morrison Polkinghorne portrays Myanmar street life.

By the way, Robert and Morrison continue to conduct their very popular “Food Tours” of various Asian locales. They have a Vietnam food tour scheduled from December 29 through January 5, and their next tour to Myanmar will revolve around the annual water festival in April next year. For more information, check their website:

http://globetrottinggourmet.com

And the common denominator connecting these three cookbook authors? Not only are they are all avid travelers, ones who give back to each country that they visit, but they have all shopped at my bookshop in Bangkok. I can confidently say that they are all good people with good taste — in both food and books!

 

Out of Focus and Off the Road

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One more tale from the trip I took with the monks to Kakku, along with some very blurry photos. As I detailed in a post last month, I encountered a problem with my camera lens the day before I was scheduled to take the monks to Kakku. I ended up borrowing a small digital camera from my friend Ma Pu Sue in Nyaungshwe, so a photo-less journey was averted. However, I failed to account for another possible glitch; using up the camera battery. Which is exactly what happened. But fortunately the battery didn’t run out until we had finished traipsing around the stupa grove and taking the majority of the photos.  

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I did remember to bring my faulty camera with me, thinking I could still coax the lens into operating, and it did, except that the focus was not quite what it should have been. Nevertheless, I took a few more shots of the monks posing in front of a pond, including a cute photo of one of the young novice monks holding a cat. Ah, if only that one had been in focus!

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On the trip back to Nyaungshwe out on a country road in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, our van had a flat tire. That’s one phrase I had already learned in Burmese: bein paut de! Our Pa-O guide, Nang Khan Moon, suggested that we walk around the small village on the other side of the road, which just so happened to be a Pa-O village, while the driver fixed the flat. The one monk who had been sick was still not feeling well enough to accompany us, so he stayed behind while the rest of us took a stroll down the dirt lanes of the neighborhood.

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I realize it’s difficult to tell from these hazy photos, but the village was quite attractive, and very clean and tidy. Immaculate is not strong a word. But there wasn’t a soul around. Nang Khan Moon explained that the villagers were all working at fields in the area and would return later in the afternoon. We passed attractive little thatched homes, most of which had firewood stacked neatly outside. I saw banana trees, papaya trees, tomato plants, and even some coffee plants growing at one house.

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About 20 minutes into our walk, raindrops began to fall, so we picked up the pace and made it to the shelter of a nearby automotive parts shop before the rain got stronger. While we were at the stop, the two youngest monks purchased padlocks. This confused me. For one, where did they get the money to use for this purchase? And secondly, what do they need padlocks for at the monastery? Is there a theft problem of some sort there? I’ll have to ask some local friends about that next time I’m in town. In any case, the young monks appeared to be quite smitten with their new locks. Hey, whatever makes you happy!

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A few minutes later, the van pulled up, a new tire now securely in place, and off we continued on towards Taunggyi. After stopping at one of the big hilltop pagodas in town, where I took yet more blurry photos, we piled back in the van (except for the sick monk, who was feeling so weak that he still wasn’t joining our walks) and headed back to Nyaungshwe. Yet another trip that hadn’t gone quite as planned, but as I told Nang Khan Moon, the flat tire was one of those “happy accidents” that gave me a chance to see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

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