Myanmar | Mastering the Art of Burmese Cooking

In my six years in NYC, I used my kitchen maybe three times a month. I didn’t exactly use my oven to store shoes, like SJP’s “Carrie” in Sex & the City, but I did (and d0) like going out to eat. Even if I wasn’t going out, I’d be perfectly fine eating cereal (or Chipotle) for dinner as I’d usually grab a bigger lunch at work to escape my desk.

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Even though I don’t cook a lot, when my local Sundara friends mentioned that Thuya’s sister May taught a cooking class {Pennywort Cooking Class} in Bagan, I wanted in on it. I was absolutely LOVING the Burmese cuisine, as I knew I would with my little taste at Cafe Mingala in NYC. During my visit, I was especially obsessed with the green tea leaf salad, a traditional salad that was incredibly delicious but at the same time completely unrecognizable to me. I needed to be able to recreate these tastes for myself and also wanted to share them with my family once I returned back home, even though my dad can be quite picky.

I mentioned the class to the friend I’d met on my 10-hour ferry down from Mandalay to Bagan, and she was interested too. The two of us met May in my hotel’s lobby in New Bagan around 7:30 in the morning on the second full day in Bagan. Our first stop was the local market to purchase our ingredients. I love walking through markets in places I visit to get a better idea about the daily life of the residents, but this was a much different market than others I’d been to. I’m not a vegetarian but it was still a little surprising to see pigs’ heads being cut up in front of us. I also hadn’t seen intestines for sale before.

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May asked what we wanted to make and I shared my love of tea leaf salad. She then asked if we’d like a curry as a main dish, and what meat we’d like in it. I suggested pork and my friend mentioned fish, as she hadn’t had any yet in Myanmar. I normally only like one or two bites of *fish* fish (but LOVE shellfish) – if you don’t remember this about me, it’s fine as my own mother served fish for dinner last night. We ended up getting ingredients for both the fish and pork curries so I knew I’d be alright, just in case I wasn’t into the fish.

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May taught us how to pick out different ingredients, like what makes a good okra (snap it at the top with your thumb!) and what makes a good baby eggplant (the star-shaped leaf just slightly unattached on the points).

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After the market, we went to a tea shop where many locals spend their mornings catching up with friends or conducting meetings. We had tea, coffee, and a treat of fried dough with a chickpea and fried onion topping which Dunkin’ or Krispy Kreme should get on, fast. As I hadn’t eaten breakfast, May also ordered me a bowl of mohinga, the traditional Burmese fish and noodle soup that I’d had at Cafe Mingala, but hadn’t tried in Myanmar since I prefer sweeter things in the morning. This mohinga was a lot better and way less fishy than the one I’d tried in NYC. I did make it my only mohinga of the month though, which is one of my few regrets about the trip. I will make up for it next time.

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We then walked over to May’s house, also home to the Kuthodaw Library, which celebrated its 10th anniversary that weekend. We found out we would be cooking in her backyard in front of her large garden. There were five huge (and heavy) pots, each above their own individual fire. Since I barely cook in a kitchen, I absolutely had never cooked this way before. I loved it.

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We started by cutting vegetables and peeling a cucumber for one of the salads. We then grated the cucumber into long strips and it came out looking like spaghetti. It was during this step where I admitted that I didn’t really cook a lot but May and my friend could probably have gauged that from my knife and grater skills.

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Our curries cooked for quite some time in their respective pots on the fire, and every once in a while we’d throw in more oil or onions and stir it around. I have an inkling it would be easy to recreate these in the crock pot at home, although it would be fun to set up a few fires in our backyard.

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At one point, I was using a mortar and pestle to crush the tea leaves for the salad. After we scooped the leaves out, I set the pestle back into the mortar. May advised me that I should keep them separate as it’s said to bring bickering into the family if you keep them together – if there is still food in the mortar, it’s okay.

When we sat to eat, I was shocked at how much food was in front of us. The dishes turned out to be (1) pork curry (2) fish curry (3) tea leaf salad (4) ginger salad (5) cucumber salad (6) pennywort salad that May made (7) raw vegetables and a tomato-paste-like dip that May’s mother made (8) white rice (9) soup. What. A. Lunch.

Of course I ran into what is the defining challenge of my life, not being able to fit as much in my belly as I want to, but I still ate a ton. I was especially impressed with the variety of salads we had to choose from and struggled determining which bite would be my last.

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After our lunch, May brought out a dessert, something reminiscent of Japanese mochi that I also loved. I was tempted to ask for a doggy bag, but I resisted as it was 100 degrees out and we were going to be in the sun for our next adventure.

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This was the first time I have built a cooking class into my travels, but it certainly won’t be the last. Thanks for an amazing morning and a full belly, May! ♥

xx

If you are interested in taking May’s cooking class in Bagan, visit her Facebook page! At the time of this post, classes are $20 USD, morning and evening, and the morning one includes the visit to the market (highly recommended).

> For more posts about Myanmar, click here.

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