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

Posts tagged ‘monhinga’

Hotel Queen in Mandalay

During my many visits to Mandalay I’ve stayed at four different hotels, always searching for the “perfect fit”. Except for the first dump, which will remain nameless, they’ve all been pretty good, but the best of the lot, or at least the one that I’m most satisfied with, is the Hotel Queen.

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Located on 81st Street, it’s just down the road from my favorite restaurant in town, Aye Myit Tar, adding to the convenience factor, at least for me. It’s a longer walk to the place where I rent my bicycle, but at least the Hotel Queen’s location is a whole lot quieter than the chaotic area on 27th Street, near the Zeigyo Market, where I used to stay. I don’t miss the noise on that street at all.

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The rooms at the Queen are more than adequate (the usual hot water, AC, cable TV), but it’s the friendliness and attentive service of the staff that really makes the place shine. Ma Khin Thida and her crew do a great job of making you feel welcome, and the head of housekeeping, Kyaw Zay Htun, is a heads up fellow who always takes care of any special requests. These people are gold.

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Another bonus is the free breakfast. At many hotels and guesthouses in Myanmar this free meal usually consists of some bland “American Breakfast” offering such as eggs and toast, maybe some fresh fruit if you’re lucky. But the Queen offers a very ample breakfast buffet of Western and Asian dishes, with treats such as the Burmese monhinga noodles, and a good selection of fruit and juices. The monhinga, in fact, is so good that I’ll often have a second bowl. No wonder I can never lose weight on these trips, no matter how much I cycle around town.

http://www.hotelqueenmandalay.com/

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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!

 

Burmese Buzz

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Call it the Burmese Buzz, or the Myanmar Mood, but the feeling just won’t go away. It’s that heady, slightly intoxicating feeling that I get after experiencing yet another memorable, life-affirming trip. I’ve been back in Bangkok for three days now, but I’m still feeling Myanmar, thinking Myanmar, missing Myanmar.

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Which is odd, in a way; I’ve visited Myanmar over 20 times at this point, and the travelling back and forth has become a relatively routine matter. Once I’m back in Bangkok, I manage to switch from travel mode to work mode almost immediately, heading straight from the airport to my bookshop, taking only a short detour to drop off bags at my apartment. I stop trying to speak phrases in Burmese and revert back to Thai. But that’s sometimes easier said than done; after getting off the airport rail link in Bangkok on Tuesday I asked a motorcycle taxi driver to hold my bag, but spoke in Burmese. The synapses finally clicked and I managed to speak the correct language the second time around, but I still felt out of sorts.

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Maybe that was indication that acclimating back to daily life in Bangkok wasn’t going to be as smooth and effortless this time around, and perhaps the withdrawal symptoms would be more acute. I feel like I really bonded closer with many of my friends in Myanmar this time, so leaving them all behind and returning to Thailand has left me feeling sadder and more wistful than usual. I keep thinking about the good times and the little things that make each trip so special: I yearn for another bowl of monhinga for breakfast; I want to tie on a longyi and hop on my bike; meet friends and hang out on 90th Street in Mandalay; stop at Aye Myit Tar for curry and beer and the let the waiters fuss over me; visit the delightful kids and mischievous monks at the school and monastery in Tat Ein village. But alas, vacation time has ended and I really must try and put all that behind me for now. But only for a while.

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One of the albums on the MP3 music player that I take on my trips is Sin Za Ba by Linn Linn. I played that a lot during my eleven days in Myanmar and I’ve listened to it every day since I returned. I only understand a fraction of the lyrics in the songs, but the melodic music evokes a special mood and reminds me of the days I spent in the country. I listen to these songs and it feels like I’m back in Mandalay. Like most great music, the songs on Sin Za Ba resonate with me, soothe me, and inspire me.

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I guess it’s not too soon to start thinking about the next trip. I won’t be able to return for another seven or eight months, but at least I can start the process of mentally planning it all. Better the Burmese Buzz than the Burmese Blues.

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Road Food

Here are some observations, opinions, recollections, and comments, culled from notes I took during my recent trip to Myanmar:

 

It rained a lot during the trip, which isn’t a shock because it was indeed rainy season. One taxi driver in Yangon did not have working windshield wipers, but he did keep one stray wiper on the dashboard of his vehicle, and when it rained he grabbed the blade, stuck his right arm out of the open window and wiped off the windshield that way. Hey, whatever works!

 

Many locals that I talked to are not fully convinced that tourist arrivals have increased as much as has been claimed. At the very least the money from those hordes of tourists has not trickled down to them. In the case of package tour groups, many of them come on pre-paid deals and don’t spend much once they are in the country. Other high-end tourists often cocoon themselves in their swank hotels and never venture out into the dusty streets of the cities and towns of Myanmar, thus depriving local merchants of extra income. And then there are the backpackers, a notoriously stingy lot who insist on bargaining for the cheapest deals or just plain don’t spend any more money than absolutely necessary … except when it comes to beer.

 

The Inwa bookshop in Yangon — the one that used to be located across the street from the Traders Hotel — has moved to Pansodan Road. It was at Inwa where I finally — after checking a dozen shops in Mandalay and several more in Yangon — found a Burmese language edition of “Organic Farming” by Cho Han Kyu that a friend had asked me to buy for Daw Tin Tin Nu at the Maing Thauk Orphange. At first, the clerks at Inwa denied having the book until I told them that a friend in Taunggyi, May Hnin Kyaw, had bought a copy at this same store the previous month. With the help of my Yangon buddy Aung Zay, we located the book and then Aung Zay arranged to have it sent to Daw Tin Tin Nu. Adventures in book buying!

 

In Nyaungshwe I saw two boys walking down a road riddled with mud puddles, arms around one another, huddled close together … so they could both share the same set of ear buds and listen to music.

 

Wandering through an atmospheric grove of old stupas and temple ruins on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe that I had stumbled upon last year, I was saddened to see that a head had been decapitated from one particularly lovely statue. Reminds me of the depressing temple vandalism that’s robbed Angkor of some of its precious artifacts.

 

I re-stocked the first aid kits at two schools in Nyaungshwe, and also brought more medicine for the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery. The most “popular” medicine was anti-fungal cream used to treat head lice and other skin problems. There was such a demand from the monks, both at the school and at the monastery, that I had to go to two more pharmacies to buy enough for everyone.

 

One of the things I like best about Mandalay is the variety of teashops all over town. But these are not places you go just to sip a cup of tea. Teashops are where many locals go for breakfast and lunch, or just to shoot the bull with friends over a cup of tea … or juice or even coffee. There are plenty of big, shiny teashops where the waiters all wear uniforms and the menus are extensive, but there are also some smaller and funkier joints too. One of the little teashops I like to visit is near the railway station. It’s open 24 hours, looks a bit grimy, and the waiters are a rag-tag bunch of kids who aren’t lucky enough to have uniforms. But they have very tasty monhinga and every time I leave them a tip the waiters take turns shaking my hand. Politeness and appreciation are rampant over here. I like it.

 

One time at Minthiha, one of the “big and shiny” Mandalay teashops, I was asking Yan Naing Soe, one of the waiters, to help me pronounce a word in my Burmese dictionary. Another customer, walking by my table, stopped and asked if he could help me. No, but thank you anyway, I replied. These people are just so nice.

 

As much as I love the noodle dishes and other food at teashops in Mandalay, my favorite food is in Nyaungshwe. The Unique Superb Food House was excellent as always, but the best meals I had were at the homes of friends like Htein Linn and Ma Pu Su. Fabulous soups, salads, and curry dishes. And the vegetarian feast that we were served at the school ceremony at Tat Ein village was the best of them all.

 

In Mandalay I had to diplomatically juggle trishaw drivers, even though I didn’t really need their services very often because I had a bicycle. But when you hear tales of woe such as “I haven’t had any customers in 4 days,” you feel like you need to throw a little business their way. The guy that normally hangs outside my hotel, Maung Lwin, wasn’t around the night I arrived, so I used Hashim, a fellow I met about six years ago, to take me to Aye Myit Tar for dinner. I used him once more before Maung Lwin turned up again. He’s been meditating. I also bumped into two more guys I’ve used many times in the past: Myint Shin and Mr. Htoo. Myint Shin excitedly told me about the trip he’d taken two months previously: a Canadian couple hired him to travel with them around the country for three weeks. Not only was he paid well, Myint Shin got to experience air travel for the first time. And here I thought that giving monks a ride in an elevator was something special!

 

When I took the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay on the trip to Yankin Hill, they all brought along individual supplies of candy and gum, which they were more than willing to share with me. One of their favorite treats was packets of drink mix; the sort of instant sugary crap like Tang and Ovaltine that you mix with water. But these kids cut to the chase and just dumped the stuff into the palm of their hands and ate it that way. They also gave some to the monkeys at Yankin Hill.

 

In Bagan, I cycled to an isolated old pagoda to watch the sunset one day, accompanied by the young “Maung Maung Brothers” (Zin Maung Maung and Phyo Maung Maung) from New Bagan. They practiced their English with me in the form of a restaurant role play. I was the customer and they were the waiters. I would place orders such as; 2 plates of beef curry, 1 plate of tomato salad, and 2 bowls of vegetable soup. When I asked for 6 bottles of beer and 10 mangoes, they thought that was hilarious.

 

While in Nyaungshwe I went to the nearby village of Maing Thauk one day to visit the girls’ orphanage. A friend of mine from Hawaii had spent time last year at that orphanage, where she taught English classes and helped them start an organic farming project. When I told her I was going to visit, she sent me some DVDs and music CDs to take to the girls. The girls were positively thrilled with the gifts, but they also asked about my friend and wanted me to send their best wishes to her. It was obvious they missed her very much, and it was very heartwarming to see such gratitude and adoration from the kids. If my friend didn’t realize how much she is missed and cherished, she should by now!

 

At the airport in Bangkok I was struck by the hordes of badly dressed tourists parading around the terminal, some of them dressed more like they were taking a stroll on the beach rather than about to board an international flight. And of course there were a few of those befuddled “socks and sandals” characters in short-shorts wobbling around too.

 

This was a much more expensive trip than I had envisioned. Sure, there were unplanned expenses like buying all the school uniforms in Mandalay, but there were other complications too. The falling exchange rate was the biggest factor. Two years ago you got 1,200 kyat for one US dollar. Last year the rate had dropped into the 900s. This year the highest rate I got was 820 kyat in Yangon, and the lowest 750 kyat in Nyaungshwe. Rumors are that it may drop even further this year. At all hotels and guesthouses tourists must pay in US dollars, and those rates have also risen. Last year’s $20 hotel is now $25, for example. So much for bargain travel!

 

In between power cuts in Mandalay, I occasionally turned on the TV to catch up with world events on BBC. One day they had a feature on the “Digital Divide” and how various organizations are keen to give students in poorer countries free laptop computers, as well as trying to give them widespread online access, introduce them to cloud computing, and so on. Those sound like noble goals, but are they practical? I travel around some very poor regions in Southeast Asia and I see many towns and villages with not only no internet access, but no electricity, Free laptops for students? That will just give the kids another option for playing games. Honestly, people in the “developed” world are so obsessed with technology and gadgets, that they forgot that millions of other people around the world don’t have the luxury of playing with all these iThings, and quite frankly they don’t NEED all that crap. Before they start tackling the digital divide, perhaps these techno types might focus on more pressing issues in the third world: safe communities where children can play without stepping on landmines or being shot; roofs that don’t leak; schools with well-paid and properly trained teachers; dependable sources of healthy food and clean water. And keep your poisonous religion mumbo-jumbo out of the mix while you’re at it!

 

On my last night in the country I was in Yangon, and as I usually do, I had dinner alone at the Traders Hotel. Their dinner buffet is one of the best value-for-the-money meals in Asia. Not the most sumptuous of spreads, but more than good enough to justify the price. It used to be $16, but now it’s gone up to $20, which is still a very good deal. As I was dining, a middle-aged Burmese man approached my table and introduced himself: U Myint. He asked if I was enjoying my stay in Myanmar and of course I replied that indeed I was. Like so many locals that I’ve met here over the years, U Myint was sincerely happy that I was visiting his country, and expressed his appreciation for my visit.

 

The tax man is back! As of June 1, there is now a domestic departure tax at airports around the country. I discovered this new surcharge when taking a flight from Mandalay to Heho. I didn’t mind paying the 1,000 kyat (about US$1) tax so much, but the totally unorganized “system” they are using to pay the tax made me quite angry. In Mandalay, there is a tiny circular booth stuck in one corner of the terminal, staffed by three people who examine your ticket, take your money and painstakingly write out a receipt. This muddy process is slowed down even further by the fact that there is no queue system in place at this booth. It’s a total free-for-all; people pushing and jostling to slap down tickets and money on the counter, urging the overworked staffers to process them as quickly as possible. Chaotic? It’s beyond insane. This is the first time I’ve ever lost my temper in Myanmar. Really, I got so frustrated I started shouting. And then a funny thing happened after I started my crazy act; my ticket and tax were processed rather quickly.

 

Food Bliss

There are a lot of myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings about Myanmar — and that’s without even touching on the touchy topic of politics or even the “correct” name of the country. Suffice to say, the “Union of Myanmar” is a diverse country composed of many different states, and within those regional divisions are dozens — over a hundred, actually — different ethnic groups, all possessing a slightly different culture, cuisine, style of clothing, and language. Shan, Kachin, Wa, Karen, Intha, Bama, Pa-O, Padaung, Mon, Naga, Chin, and Rakhine are only a fraction of what can be found.

 

The cuisine found in the country is also a diverse and multi-faceted thing, so much more than the stereotypical oily Burmese curries and greasy fried rice dishes that most travelers expect to find. Noodles dishes such as monhinga, ohno kauk swe, and mondhi are great choices for breakfast. I often find that one bowl is not enough! There are also a wide variety of savory soups (everything from lentil and pumpkin to gourd and roselle leaf) and salads to sample. The salads, in particular, are some of my favorite treats, sometimes a meal in themselves. But don’t go thinking the salads are mainly composed of iceberg lettuce or some other drab ingredient. Among the many creative concoctions, my favorites include the famous fermented tea leaf salad, ginger salad, tofu salad, tomato salad with peanuts, and the leafy pennywort salad. There is even a spicy rice salad that I’m quite fond of eating for lunch.

 

If you are ever invited to a meal at someone’s house, do yourself a favor and accept the invitation. I’ve found the home cooked meals to be among the best ones I’ve had in the country. But one warning: your hosts will insist that you sample everything on the table and gorge to point where it feels like your stomach is going to explode (try not to think about that hilariously gruesome restaurant scene from the Monty Python movie). Thus is Myanmar hospitality!

 

On my most recent trip, by far the best meal I had was at a rural village school near Nyaungshwe in Shan State. The village was celebrating the third anniversary of the school’s founding (I’ll be doing a separate post about this school next week) and they held a special lunch for the donors after the morning ceremonies were over. The vegetarian spread they served us was incredibly delicious. I’m not sure who prepared it, or even where it was prepared (there is no electricity in this village!), but it was as close to a food orgasm as I’ve ever experienced. The very next day I was invited by my friend Ma Pu Su to her house for lunch and she dazzled me with another awesome spread of salads and fruit. She’s talking about offering a cooking class to our travel clients, and I think she should go for it. She definitely knows what she’s doing in the kitchen.

 

If you are travelling in Myanmar, throw away that useless Lonely Planet book (okay, rip out the maps and keep those) and start sampling as much local cuisine as you can. Personally, I think Shan State has the best mix of food, although I have a soft spot in my heart (and stomach) for those Mandalay noodles. And people wonder why I looked fatter when I returned to Bangkok!

 

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