Arriving in Yangon, Myanmar is a much less stressful affair than neighbouring metropoles such as Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Rather than the overwhelmingly chaotic, Blade Runner-esque hustle and bustle of those hugely overpopulated cities, Yangon feels composed and almost serene. There's a noticeable lack of skyscrapers; instead the streets are lined with British colonial-era buildings, gilded Buddhist pagodas and an old school, charming ambiance. Time feels like it should be savoured rather than rushed.
I was invited to Yangon to cook with my friend John Chantarasak, a fellow Londoner and Thai chef with whom I share a love of all things weird and wonderful in the world of food. We'd bonded at Glastonbury many years ago and ended up collaborating on a few occasions with a twisted melange of Thai-Mex food which wasn't afraid to break all the rules of authenticity and was big on flavour and fun. We had much the same planned for the six-course meal that we were set to cook at Burma Bistro in Yangon, but before any of this was to happen, we embarked on a whirlwind adventure of epic proportions around Myanmar with our lovely hosts: Lady Goo Goo, a local food enthusiast and curator of this whole experience, and Winnie, the owner of one of the few organic farms in Myanmar.
The foundational flavours of Burmese cuisine boasted their way into our palates at our first meal in Yangon through a huge bowl of the national dish, mohinga – a fish soup made using rice flour, lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, rice noodles, dried fish flakes and a boiled egg. It was a perfect introduction to the country's flavour profile: slightly funky, nourishing and earthy, but not too spicy like some Thai soups, heavy like Indian curries or overpowering like Malaysian laksa.
The foundational flavours of Burmese cuisine boasted their way into our palates at our first meal
After filling up on all manner of other local specialities like spicy samosas, luscious tofu curry and sweet, nutty satay, we wandered the streets of Yangon, getting lost amid the plethora of street vendors hawking everything from fresh fish on rickety carts to steaming hot flatbreads out of makeshift streetside tandoors. The traders that caught my eye were clutching emerald-green banana leaf trays artistically strewn with oodles of laphet (funky fermented tea leaves), rice, noodles, dried prawn, boiled potatoes, kaffir lime, ginger, ngapi (fermented shrimp), sesame, peanuts, chilli and garlic oil.
These contrasting ingredients were deftly brought together by the vendor into a salad known as athoke. However, to call it a salad would be a disservice – this mind-bending dish has a flavour that attacks the taste buds with every mouthful: teasing funk from the laphet, crunch from the nuts, sweetness from the prawns, piquancy from the chilli – all rounded off and complemented by the acidic thump of lime, lemongrass and kaffir leaf. The precision and balance was impeccable and seeing it put together within seconds of ordering in the rowdy market reminded me just how special Asia is, and how far behind we are in the UK when it comes to access to cheap, delicious food.
A 12-hour overnight bus journey took us to Shan Province and the banks of the magnificent Lake Inle. Beneath a Mars-red dawn sky we weaved our way through the waterways of the lake, its banks dotted with ramshackle huts. We were on our way to meet a local entrepreneur and philanthropist who knew the ins and outs of Shan and Intha cuisine and wanted to show us around. At a roadside noodle shop just after sunrise, we ate tofu nway, a rich and restorative breakfast rice noodle soup with snow pea tofu and sugarcane, khao swe (a simple dish with peanut oil and bouncy homemade noodles), tohu jaw, (crispy, chewy tofu fritters) and kalaw, a fermented tofu and pounded green chilli soup. It was all very delicious and very Burmese.
The influence of China, Malaysia, Thailand and India was there, of course, but this was no mutton dressed as lamb: this food has its own identity, history and ingredients. Yellow rice cakes, steamed rice dumplings, hot buttered roti, fermented black bean, twice-fried tofu and sugarcane syrup are all used in abundance, with real technique and care – the resultant flavours are quite unlike anything else I've eaten.
A visit to the local Nyuang Shwe Market conjured romantic images of what real food markets should look like: throngs of locals bartering for goods under a rickety tarpaulin canopy; farmers proudly displaying their produce of dried fish, fresh vegetables, fermented pastes and fresh herbs. Big cauldrons of soup bubbling away, the smell as captivating as the look of the tribal elders stood behind the wood-fired hearths. With steam bouncing off the parapets, produce overflowing everywhere you look and hordes of people all over the place tasting, buying and conversing, the atmosphere was exhilarating. We ate chewy and slightly grainy steamed buffalo skin, pork blood rice and all manner of weird and wonderful local specialities that were unique to this market.
With each dish we consumed in this 'research phase' of our cooking adventure our ingredient list grew, and after a visit to Organic Valley Farm to pick vegetables for our meal, the six-course menu started to come together using the influence of Mexican, Thai and Burmese cuisines. While Mexican and Thai food is flavour-packed, direct, often acidic and very spicy, we found Burmese food – like the people and cities I encountered – to be more restrained, balanced and composed. Some of our menu items took their genesis from a Mexican or Thai dish and were adapted to Burmese ingredients, like fish skin chicharron, whereas others were entirely new, like midnight fried chicken with pork fat jungle curry. We could never have summarised this cuisine in one six-course menu, but we took what we experienced and included as much as possible to try and celebrate a wonderful cuisine that deserves more attention from the world of gastronomy.