My taxi wound its way through an endless arterial road. We were heading towards Yangon downtown. Whenever the car stopped, which was often, I fanned myself – in vain – with the city walking map I found at the airport.
It felt like 90% humidity and close to 40C (100F). This is not Sydney winter anymore.
I was travelling alone, going into a country that I knew almost nothing about. When we were flying into the airport, I looked out the window and saw rice paddies, with golden stupas (pagodas) that stood out for miles around. If I were a child, I would have held my breath from sheer excitement. I whispered to myself, I am looking at a Burmese stupa. I am in Myanmar. I am a traveller in Myanmar. Exotic, humid, colourful, unknown Myanmar.
The taxi wound its way past concrete walls inscribed with the curly, circular Burmese script. Past men and women wearing longyis. Past a school where girls and boys wore white shirts and green longyis. Past more people, fruit stalls, durians, traffic, and there was my hotel.
That afternoon was a jumble of noise and wires and food stalls and people and more moments of holding my breath – as I walk between street stalls, past more durians, into the traffic to cross the road. Streets of British colonial-era buildings, decaying before my eyes, fern and moss reclaiming them for the swamp that Yangon was built on. Footpaths covered by street stalls, pedestrians walking, fearless, slow and longyi-clad, on the road.
Then I saw the Sule Pagoda, standing in the intersection of major roads, all lacey decorations and gold, rising gracefully, brashly from its surrounds. I was standing on a pedestrian bridge, half of the bridge blocked by clothing and hat stalls. One of the vendors tapped me on the shoulder. “Sule pagoda”, he pointed, “Chinatown”, he pointed in the opposite direction. A big smile that said welcome to Myanmar, teeth stained red with betel; and a dazed answering smile from me.
The next morning, I found the paratha vendor. There are many of them plying their trade around Chinatown, but this stall sold a mean paratha. This is the breakfast paratha of my dreams. Freshly fried, flaky, light, layered, quickly cut into pieces, with a generous swivel of condensed milk and a splash of sugar. Never mind the savoury version or the one folded around an egg, this is all about fried, condensed milk, and sugar.
Then there were Burmese salads. Cooling, savoury, spicy, and a little sweet. Some were sublimely simple and others a marvel of mix and balance. For texture, there were peanuts, fried broad beans, fried split peas, other unknown fried things. For creaminess, the vendors added roasted chickpea powder. Herbs, chillies, green mangos, vegetables, known and unknown.
Here is a pomelo salad based on the recipe in Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor. This recipe uses a few ingredients for that mix of texture and flavours. I’ve also had simpler versions that were so refreshing in the heat (and blimey, the heat – !). The simplest was over breakfast at the Strand hotel, just pomelo mixed with orange juice and julienned mint leaves.
Pomelos are giant citrus fruits. Give a small child a pomelo, and you have a modern-day vision of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders. Pomelo is a drier, more sturdy fruit, so if you use grapefruit, be ready to leave out the juice that will collect in the bowl after you have peeled each segment. Don’t have some of the ingredients? Try substituting for something else (within reason!!) – the result will be different, but probably still delicious.
Taking a bowl of this to Angie’s weekly linky party at Fiesta Friday!
Pomelo or grapefruit salad
(adapted from Naomi Duguid)
2 medium grapefruits or 1 pomelo
3-5 stalks of thinly sliced shallots (optional: soak in cold water for 10 minutes and drain – this reduces the peppery onion-y taste)
2 tablespoons fried shallots (or fried broad beans)
Thinly sliced coriander (1/4 cup)
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp neutral-tasting oil, or oil that has been used to fry shallots
1 tsp dried shrimp powder (Dry shrimps are available from Chinese/Asian grocers. Soak dry shrimps in water for about 20 minutes, then blitz to a fiber-y powder in a food processor.)
1 tbsp toasted chickpea flour (Chickpea flour or besan is available from Asian and Indian grocers. Toast a small amount in a heavy-bottomed frying pan until it is slightly more golden and no longer smells raw. Stir all the while to prevent burning.)
1. Segment the grapefruit or pomelo. Using a sharp knife, peel the fruit and cut away as much white rind as you can, and the fruit is exposed. Hold the fruit in your other hand and use the knife to separate the flesh from each segment from the rind or membrane.
2. Place the pomelo or grapefruit segments in a large-ish bowl. Add all the dry ingredients including the shrimp powder and chickpea flour. Then add the fish sauce and oil. Toss thoroughly and combine.
Tagged: breakfast, Burma, Burmese salad, chickpea powder, colonial buildings, condensed milk, coriander, Fiesta Friday, first impressions, fish sauce, fried shallots, grapefruit, longyi, Myanmar, Novice Gardener, paratha, pomelo, Rangoon, shrimp powder, street photography, street stalls, travel, travel photography, travel photos, travelogue, wanderlust, Yangon