“I am not the kind of girl, who should be rudely barging in on a white veil occasion”
So sang Taylor Swift, and so I thought of myself, yet here I was awkwardly gatecrashing a wedding.
I was in Thaylin, a small town a 30 to 45 minute drive from Yangon, across a bridge made by the Chinese to commemorate the two countries’ friendship, on a half-day cookery course run by Flavours of Myanmar.
Earlier that day, after being picked up from my hotel by a taxi, I’d arrived at the school, and been greated by William, the owner of travel agency Myanmar Good News Travel, and the founder and teacher of the class. A ‘warm’ greeting doesn’t even begin to cover it. William was exceptionally welcoming, presenting me with a gift of a longyi over coffee, and chatting to me about Myanmar cuisine and culture.
I was fortunate that there was just me that day, although there are normally around four to eight people in each class, and he has space for up to 16. The price stays the same regardless, $75.
After a quick Burmese lesson he drove me to the local market, which, with the sellers calling out their wares in singsong voices, reminded me a little of the East End of London. I was tasked with picking up ingredients that we needed, and doing so in Burmese only! My faltering attempts at the language were greeted with smiles; the stall-holders are clearly used to William’s students!
Afterwards, shopping basket heaving with fresh ingredients, we headed to the local monastery to give alms to the monks, and it was here that I somehow managed to crash a wedding. It was being held in the open downstairs hall, and as I arrived the beautiful bride and her groom were wandering around the tables, saying hello to the guests at the wedding meal. Weddings are actually secular affairs in Myanmar, with just a short blessing given by a monk, but people use their local monastery for the reception. I was encouraged to go and meet the bride and groom, awkwardly shaking hands, and somehow ending up having my photo taken by the official photographer! It was one of those fantastically random and hilarious, but truly special, travel moments.
Despite an offer to join them for a meal (remember how I said the Burmese were very generous?), we headed upstairs to visit the master monk and offer alms. He was seated in his old teak chair, conversing with a couple of locals sat cross-legged at his feet. He does this every morning, and people come with alms, or to ask advise and chat about matters with him. William translated so I was able to ask him questions about Buddhism in Myanmar and his thoughts on politics. The one thing that really stood out for me was his hesitancy for change. He said fewer and fewer young people come to the monastery as they are becoming caught up in Western culture and ideas. He worries that Myanmar will become too open to visitors and will lose its traditional, Buddhism-centered, culture.
Then it was back to the kitchen to finally get cooking! The class is held outside, under gorgeous, brightly coloured parasols, and the whole thing was exceptionally well prepared, with ingredients for each dish arriving already prepared on long trays for us to cook.
So what are the flavours of Myanmar? Well most dishes begin with the same trio of ingredients: garlic, ginger and onion. Dried shrimp paste or powder finds its way into many dishes, and the Burmese seem keen on quite sour tastes. The food is definitely less sweet than Thailand; a different balance of similar ingredients. Myanmar cuisine also takes influences from many other countries. India is just the other side of the Bay of Bengal, and there is a large immigrant population so spices and curries make frequent appearances. Chinese dishes and ingredients also feature, although the traditional food from both of these countries has been adapted to suit Burmese tastes. There are also plenty of dishes specific to each region and ethnic group within Myanmar. Shan noodles, from the North-East of the country, are especially popular!
We prepared a total of 10 dishes, although quite a few were just quick assembly jobs. We stopped for a snack in-between preparing every couple of dishes. The menu started with the traditional peppery gourd soup which is served alongside most meals to refresh. I’d tasted it the day before at a street food stall, and been slightly taken-aback by the intensity of the pepper – it’s no wallflower of a soup!
The main dishes were served alongside lentil rice cooked with herbs. William promised me that once I had eaten this rice I would never go back to the plain stuff. It was surprisingly sweet, fragranced with cloves, cinnamon and cardamon, but the perfect accompaniment to the three headliners it went alongside: chicken curry, river prawns cooked in tomato paste, and braised fish in a light soy sauce. They were all surprisingly simple to cook, and together a perfect example of the different sides of Myanmar cuisine.
Our side dishes included a carrot and wing bean salad, stir-fried vegetables and an amazing tealeaf salad served with crispy nuts and beans. It was presented in a bowl, with the tealeaf in the centre, and other ingredients in a little sections around the outside. You pile a mixture of these onto a fish cracker and then take a big bite!
One thing I had already learnt is that the Burmese are big fans of condiments. You order one curry, and ten separate little pots appear alongside it. One of these is almost always balachaung. It is said that a Burmese man or woman cannot go more than three days without it, and when they travel they take a tiny pot of it with them. A mix of shrimp powder, peanut oil, turmeric, onion, garlic and chilli, it can be sprinkled on anything – pizza, sandwiches, steak – to make it taste Burmese. William said that when he was young his mother would make a massive batch, and tell him and his siblings that it was mean to last for two weeks. It would always be gone in four days!
Whilst cooking William also explained a little about food culture in Myanmar. Apparently chefs try to be as quiet as possible with their pots and pans, as bashing a spoon on the edge of one is thought to bring discord to the family – must remember that one! He also said that guests are meant to have “long hands”. Whereas in the UK it is polite to ask your host to pass you something, in Myanmar you are meant to get stuck in yourself. You show your appreciation of the food by sampling each and every dish.
I had the most fantastic day at William’s cookery school, and it’s already a highlight of my entire trip. The class has clearly been very well thought out, and it was well paced and very diverse. I heartily recommend it to everyone who comes to Yangon, and it was worth staying an extra day in the city for!
Course: $75 for half a day (I arrived just after 8am and left about 2.30pm) My taxi to the course was included, my taxi back wasn’t. It cost 7000k.