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Taste of Travel: Myanmar

Food for the Soul : Burma's culture, as well as its food, is steeped in spirituality


YANGON, Myanmar — It had been raining for days, a steady drenching that left the earth soggy and the country's dirt roads like a wet sponge. Finally, the weather cleared, the roads set and my Burmese friends and I embarked on a trip to the city of Bago, about a two-hour drive to the northeast of this capital city, formerly Rangoon. Our final destination was to be Way Bu Buddhist Monastery, where, knowing my interest in Burmese food, I had been invited for lunch by Nelson Bagalay and his wife, Florence--friends of a Los Angeles friend and benefactors of the monastery. Our lunch was to be held in a small building that they had donated.

What we found there was an intriguing array of dishes set out on a low table. We sat down on woven mats around it.

A dozen women dressed in typical meditation clothing--a brown longyi (sarong), white blouse and brown shawl--clustered nearby, watching my reaction to each bite of the food they had cooked. A little girl fanned me as I ate, and I noticed that she had hair shorter than a boy's. Florence explained that a respected monk had dreamed that children in this area would die unless their hair was cut off.

Lunch was delicious and quite different from what I have eaten elsewhere in Southeast Asia. A tangy leaf called chin baung made one dish extremely sour, while the sour taste in a vegetable soup came from tamarind. Mango salad was tossed with yellow bean powder, ground peanuts, dried shrimp, onions and chile. We also ate hard-boiled eggs in red curry sauce, pork cooked with eggs, sardine curry and many other dishes, all accompanied by rice.

The table was then carried away and replaced by another--this one laden with sweets, including cooked bananas combined with rice noodles and shredded coconut, candied pineapple, rice cakes and a snack of fermented tea leaves called lapet that is immensely popular with the Burmese people.

The head monk, U Cun Din Nya, joined us. Just back from Bangkok, he treated us to exotic foods he had acquired there, including the candy called Turkish Delight, and a hot, sweet gruel made from packets labeled "Instant Nutritious Cereal," manufactured in Singapore. Lunch ended when our onlookers adjourned to an adjacent hall for meditation.

Burma is like that, with its culture, as well as its food, steeped in spirituality.

I also found that complex flavors--such as those experienced at this lunch--were the rule, rather than the exception.

And then there was the oil. The lapet glistened with sesame oil. The tomato salad was oily. Curries swam in oil turned red-orange from the seasonings. Oil is expensive in Myanmar, so using it generously shows that you are rich and magnanimous.

For dessert, the Burmese make the same sort of rice flour and coconut milk confections found throughout Southeast Asia, but they are less sweet. A good place to sample them is the big market, Bogyoke Aung San, in downtown Yangon.

With meals, you can order tea, instant coffee, Mandalay beer or soft drinks. My favorite drink was orange Pokka, a juice made with pulp. At Shwe Ba, a leading Yangon restaurant, I sipped Snoopy brand bottled water and listened to Elvis Presley songs playing somewhere in the neighborhood. At another meal I drank a red Bordeaux that I had picked up for a song in a snack shop. And an Englishman living in Yangon told me that he buys premium French champagne regularly for $15 a bottle.

Food is also cheap, unless you go to luxury hotels and fancy restaurants that draw an international crowd. Lunch for three at Shwe Ba, for example, was less than $4, including drinks and dessert.

And I found that good restaurants often appear deceptively humble, even crude. Shwe Ba looks like a big, dark shed, and after dining you rinse off your hands at a water tank in the dusty parking lot. Yet this restaurant is famous for the quality of its food. I ate wonderful chicken and eggplant salads there, and delicious curries of shrimp and fish.


The Burmese are ardent Buddhists, and I noticed more monks out and about in Yangon than in Thailand, which is also a Buddhist country. During my several visits to the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center--where people go to live and study meditation--I learned that students from many countries follow an arduous routine, rising in the dark for a long day of group and private work. Peering into a meditation hall, I saw what looked like ghosts--silent forms shrouded in mosquito netting that was suspended from the ceiling. At night, I passed meditators roaming the grounds slowly and silently.

They are restricted, like monks, to two meals a day, but they ate very well, judging by the lunch I attended. My friend, Khin Lei Nwe--a sister of one of my Burmese friends in Los Angeles--had spent three months at the center, shaving her head like a Buddhist nun during this spiritual retreat. She had invited me to accompany her to lunch because she knew I was interested in food, as well as meditation.

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