By Nandita Gupta Dec. 20, 2016
A cooking class in Myanmar is an occasion to understand Burmese cuisine beyond the hackneyed khao swè – and dwell on long-buried family memories.
“Sorry, it will have to be a limited menu today,” Ma Pu Sue apologised. It had been our mistake, because we hadn’t been able to confirm our booking for the cooking class on time. But the “limited menu” that Ma Pu Sue mentioned, comprised fried fish with gravy, pork curry, tomato salad, tea leaf salad, plus accompaniments like pickled prawns, noodles, and rice. Only Burmese hospitality could have considered that spread inadequate.
Sahir, my husband, and I had been travelling through Myanmar for only a few days, but the variety of the country’s food had bedazzled us. We were determined to extend our Burmese repertoire beyond the khao swè that we routinely ate in the eateries of Mumbai. After being served all kinds of noodles for the first few days, we learnt that khao swè literally means noodles. What most Indian menus offer is a variation of the ohn no khao swè, prepared with coconut milk, and a breakfast staple. In fact, in the 10 days we spent in Myanmar, we encountered the ohn no khao swè only twice. Mohinga, a thick fish and noodle soup, we discovered, was the more popular breakfast dish.
Our curiosity slowly gave way to a small resolve to dig deeper into the country’s culinary depths. The best way to get an express course, we decided, was to attend a cooking class. Our teachers would be the couple, Pu Sue and Lesley who run Bamboo Delight, touted as the #1 Shan-style cooking class in Nyaung Shwe.
Finding Bamboo Delight turned out to be a little adventure. We had been walking for 20 minutes through peri-urban pathways, the sun beating down hard on our backs, when a tantalising mixture of aromas greeted us. In the midst of bamboo canopies and emerald green furniture, both plants and pans hung around like baubles. Walls were adorned with photographs of Pu Sue and Lesley’s family, local children, travellers, and the ubiquitous Aung San Suu Kyi, whose solemn portrait we had witnessed on many Burmese walls. In this eclectic bunch, we stuck out in our mustard aprons, clutching tea and trying to make sense of a series of indigenous bucket stoves.
Pu Sue and Lesley were expecting a large group for dinner, so the first part of the itinerary, a market visit, had to be scrapped. I decided to tackle the fish and Sahir, the pork. Within minutes, the couple had conjured chopped garlic, sliced onions, tomato puree, varied spices, and a jug of peanut oil.
My aunt, who had spent her childhood in Rangoon (now Yangon), had taught me a quick Burmese canned fish recipe to bide me through my hostel stint.
“First mix the garlic, ginger, and onions in the oil, and then place the pan on the fire,” Lesley instructed Sahir. This was a precaution he took so that nothing burnt or became pungent. He let us decide the amount of chilli, and then sprinkled what he called Burmese five spice powder. We couldn’t decipher how it differed from the mix used in West Bengal – perhaps a bit less cinnamon-y, we concluded after taking a whiff. Marinated pork went in next, keeping Sahir and Lesley busy. I beamed over my fish, a silvery Inle carp, which was frying in a vat of peanut oil, while Pu Sue managed the tomato gravy. Breathing in the heady aroma of the fish, I was transported back to my years away from home.
My aunt, who had spent her childhood in Rangoon (now Yangon), had taught me a quick Burmese canned fish recipe to bide me through my hostel stint. She had learnt it from dida, her mother. It had been an instant hit among friends and had been a fixture of many midnight snack attacks. As I fished out the carp, the skin crackling, I knew that while the hostel staple would always be an old favourite, the fried Burmese carp was the future, winning for its crispy freshness.
I was brought back to Bamboo Delight by Pu Sue and Lesley’s friendly chatter. Tourism, they told me, had been growing in Myanmar since the early 2010s thanks to political transformation. To ride this wave, they had built a library of English books for the children in their community and were contributing toward their education.
As the pork curry and tomato gravy stewed, we moved to the lepet thok, or tea leaf salad. It is considered a local Gatorade of sorts, known for its energy-giving properties. When I had first heard of the dish, I wasn’t exactly enthused by it, but I was in for a surprise.
The best leaves are picked for the salad and are fermented in lacquer ware. The fermented leaves were sap green, perfectly pungent. Into that base go peanuts, dried seeds, sesame, fried beans, onions, garlic, lime, and oil. It was a power-packed dish, sinful, nutritious, and filling – and its classification as a salad is a bit of a misnomer. I vowed to purchase its ingredients before I left the balmy shores of Myanmar.
The harsh sun of the day was beginning to set and the air took on a slight nip. We sat quietly around a table, as Pu Sue and Lesley brought in the fare we had just spent the afternoon tossing up. Sahir, not a fan of picking bones, decided to start with the pork, while I was more than happy to tuck into the carp. Pulling it apart with my hands, I remembered the canned version from my hostel nights. It felt like a crossing over, as if I were transitioning from my student life into the world of grown-up food.
At that table, I also thought of dida, who had moved from Burma to West Bengal in 1967. I’d heard that she had been an exceptional cook but the early death of her husband had led her to become a vegetarian. I imagined her as a young girl here, free of worry and without a care about the life she was going to lead, feasting on pork curry, fried fish, and steaming rice, and consuming bowlfuls of lepet thok before her exams.
Here in Pu Sue’s kitchen, I sat elated with the meal we had helped prepare. It really was a pity that we didn’t see the delights spread out in front of me on our pan-Asian menus. It felt liberating to have gone beyond the hackneyed ohn no khao swè, our collective understanding of Burmese food. Full to the brim, I made a silent resolve to whip up some of these treats from dida’s childhood for my loved ones back home – I knew I’d be taking back a bit of dida’s Myanmar with me.
Nandita Gupta is a wanderer, roaming the earth for food and stories. She believes in growing edible plants and is saving up to visit Machu Pichu, the Moon, and Mars.