In recent times, Myanmar has opened its borders to welcome the world to one of Asia’s most fascinating countries. Tourism grows every year in ancient Burma. The exotic Buddhist temples of Bagan and the intensely flavored Burmese cuisine, with it’s strong Chinese influence, are hidden away no more.
With a dozen different ethnic groups living in this kaleidoscopic country, the flavors of Burmese cuisine are a puzzle worth solving. The best place to get a taste, undoubtedly, is Inle Lake where a few cooking classes have cropped up, ready to teach curious travelers more about the local cuisine and culture.
Recommendations from fellow travelers took me to Myo Myo Restaurant, a small place with not more than five tables. The morning cooking lesson consists of five intense hours and a fully customized menu (there were only two of us) to discover the intricacies of Burmese cuisine. The plan could not be better. Lucky for us, a tour through the city’s large market was included in the day’s activities. Walking among the food stalls was an amazing sensory experience – multicolored vegetables, the strong smell of freshly caught fish, and the constant laughter of Burmese women as they strolled through narrow corridors singing local songs.
Myo, the owner of the restaurant, explained the various products displayed in the market while she searched for the best ones for our class. We also had time for local snacks of sticky rice and small fried fish, and we drank the best coconut water ever. Time at the market went by so quickly, but after two wonderful hours, we were ready to cook!
The first Burmese dish Myo chose to teach us was Sour Vegetable Soup. I love soups, especially Asian soups, but this one did not appeal to me. The base is made of fermented fish paste and the intense sour taste is a test for even the most dedicated foodie. I could not handle it, but if you dare to try it for yourself, here is the recipe.
Sour Vegetable Soup
1 small onion
2 red tomatoes
10 garlic cloves
Fermented fish paste
1 spoon of turmeric
1 spoon of oil
Cut roselle leaves, fresh bamboo, onion, tomatoes, and garlic and mix them with the fermented paste (use a little bit), the turmeric and the oil. Add a little bit of warm water and cook in a pot. After the first 5 minutes, add more water and cook it for another 20 minutes. Cover the pot. Then, add the coriander leaves and move away from the fire. Add one teaspoon of chicken powder and 2 teaspoons of salt, and stir and settle it.
The next dish we prepared was a salad, a typical course in Myanmar, and it was delicious! A salad? Yes, but not a common salad. The recipe is very easy, but some of the ingredients may be difficult to find. The combinations of flavors, especially the intensity of the tea leaves with the fish sauce and peanuts makes it addictive. After tasting it at Myo’s, I looked for it obsessively around the country.
Tea Leaves Salad
5 garlic cloves
A handful of fresh green tea leaves
½ spoon of fish sauce
½ spoon of chicken powder
2 spoons of oil
A simple tomato salad –made with just tomatoes, onion, smashed peanuts, fish sauce and garlic and turmeric oil- completed the healthy, but strong starters. Veggies in Myanmar are great. One of my favorites is okra or ‘ladyfingers’.
Like most Southeast Asian countries, curry is a popular main dish. We sampled two – one with chicken and potatoes, and another, a vegetable curry. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish the different curries that you find in that corner of the world. I wouldn’t dare to say which one is my favorite, but let me give you some advice. In Myanmar, it’s best to choose a curry that is not spicy. I’m used to spicy dishes, but my first week in the country I tried a spicy fish curry. It almost brought me to tears. After that, I made a point to choose the milder curries. Both of the ones we tasted at Myo’s were delicious.
After we’d spent two hours inside her tiny, rustic kitchen, it was time for pleasure. The best part of the day. We ate as much as we could, but it was impossible for us to finish it all. After the meal, Myo, and her husband joined us at the table and we enjoyed some interesting conversation. After such a generous, delicious meal we were in need of a long nap to recover.
One last bit of advice. Inle Lake is a quintessential Myanmar wine region. Wine lovers can taste local wines in one of the cellars located on the outskirts of the village. It may not be the best wine in the world but the experience is worthwhile – and the views are amazing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Ramos, freelance journalist, and solo female expert traveler. Her last trip around Asia lasted 6 months. You can follow her adventures on http://lanomadista.es