Food is the ingredient that binds us together— Unknown
The idea for this blog came as I wandered around Mingalar Market in Nyaungshwe on the edge of Inle Lake in the heart of Myanmar (Burma). I was walking around the market with Myo Myo, a local Burmese woman with whom I’d made contact the previous day asking about the possibility of a cooking class to better understand the basis of the delicious Burmese food I’d been eating over the previous three weeks. Although the market is pretty busy every day, by chance the day I had chosen was one on which Inle Lake’s famous five-day market was being held, so-called as it migrates from one rustic lakeside village to another on a five-day rota system. On these days local Shan and Intha people, as well as numerous Pa-O villagers from the surrounding hills, converge to sell their wares and produce. All of which meant that the variety and quantity of produce was even greater than usual, from mounds of ripe avocado, tomatoes, fresh green vegetables, garlic, ginger and limes to baskets piled high with dried fish, containers of dried tumeric, chick pea flour and the ingredients needed for one of the local specialities, lahpet thoke or femented tea leaf salad. In ancient times, fermented tea leaves were used as a peace symbol or as a peace offering between kingdoms at war. Now, a lahpet tray is the traditional expression of hospitality offering to houseguests.
But today was not to be a tea leaf salad day. Instead Myo Myo suggested we make avocado salad, green leaf soup, eggplant (aubergine) curry and a tofu curry, accompanied by a tofu thoke (salad) prepared by market women by combining sliced fried and ‘raw’ tofu in a small plastic bag with shredded cabbage, coriander, shallots and a delicious garlicy dressing. I’m generally not a fan of tofu but this was nothing like the soya bean curd tofu with which I’m familiar as a European. Burmese tofu from the Shan region is made from chick pea flour and has a completely different taste and texture. It’s basically made like polenta – with which I’m much more familar! Once you’ve boiled it up you just let it set and then cut it up into pieces. Then you can fry it before adding to curry and other dishes. I’ve found a great recipe for making chickpea tofu which I intend to try once I’m home but Myo Myo told me you can add different things (e.g. garlic, tumeric) to the mix, as you would with polenta, to change the taste and colour.
Once we’d purchased everything we needed for the cooking lesson, we jumped back on the bike and headed to Myo Myo’s home. The most surprising thing is how few ingredients are involved in each dish but how good they all taste. As a Brit and regular visitor to Sikkim I am very familar with making curries from India, but the base for a Burmese curry is completely different…no heavy spices, essentially just plenty of garlic, ginger and shallots ground into a paste and fried off in peanut oil with tomatoes, a touch of tumeric and a splash of fish or soy sauce to taste. Vegetables, fish and/or meat can then be added to the curry base to produce the final product. You can find a version of this recipe here but Myo Myo’s version is a traditional family recipe which forms the basis for the curries served at her family restaurant so I’m sticking with this one!
Anyone heading to Inle Lake should check out Myo Myo’s cookery class and/or eat at Linn Htet Myanmar Traditional Food, the family restaurant located at the corner of Mingalar Ashae and Yone Ghi Streets right next door to Mingalar Markey in Nyaungshwe. You can contact Myo Myo directly via her Facebook page