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Myanmar's melting pot of flavours

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The Straits Times

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It is said that the building up the road is inset with thousands of glittering diamonds and rubies.

 

Meanwhile, I am in a light and airy, bamboo-and-glass pavilion overlooking a lake dotted with purple lotus flowers.

 

Inside, there are decorative reclaimed mangrove roots, lamps that represent the moon and stars and a painted golden circle inspired by aikido philosophy: a reminder to be dedicated and humble.

 

I am served, among other dishes, seared foie gras with caramelised apples, star anise and spiced balsamico; truffle ravioli sprinkled with slivers of black truffle from Italy; home-marinated Norwegian salmon with glistening baubles of Sevruga caviar; and glazed scallops nestling on a green mango salad with pomelo and peanut crackers. Finally, a trio of chocolate pudding, fresh mango and dulce de leche ice cream.

 

It is contemporary, international fine dining that offers myriad tastes, textures, colours and temperatures alongside an excellent wine list.

 

I could be in New York, London or Singapore. But I am in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), in Myanmar, which was previously Burma.

 

Seeds (www.seedsyangon.com) is a new-fashioned style of restaurant - it opened in February 2017 - that cocks a snook at Yangon's colonial past. It is the creation of chef Felix Eppisser - who bagged a Michelin star for his Zurich restaurant in his native Switzerland - and his co-owner and wife, Lucia.

 

When I leave the restaurant, I pass the Shwedagon Pagoda, the aforementioned building that is set with thousands of gems and also embellished with enough gold leaf to decorate Paradise. I couldn't be anywhere but Yangon.

 

There is a gastronomic revolution underway in Myanmar.

 

Until recently, the country lagged behind its Asian neighbours - the foodie big shots of India, Thailand and China - and its cuisine was one of Asia's least known.

 

But now Myanmar is catching up.

 

It has just begun showing off its international and local culinary expertise and indigenous ingredients; in September last year, MasterChef Myanmar was launched to a nation that is increasingly curious about food; and visitors have now started being invited by Amala Destinations (amaladestinations.com), a Singapore tour operator, into private homes and kitchens for home-cooked meals and cooking lessons.

 

The country has been opening up since 2015. In parallel, there has been a growth in culinary variety and quality, especially in Yangon.

 

Mr Edwin Briels, a business owner and expatriate Yangon resident of 15 years, says: "In the past, it was difficult to find anything but Bamar food (from Myanmar's main ethnic group), and a few Indian and Chinese restaurants. Now, there's a range of high-end Western restaurants alongside a mushrooming of venues offering Myanmar's (very different) regional cuisines - everything from Kachin and Shan to Mon and Chin food."

 

Ye Htut Win, judge of MasterChef Myanmar and founder of Sharky's restaurants, adds: "Interest in good food is growing among Myanmar people, who are now better travelled at home and overseas, as well as through the spread of social media in the last few years."

 

Meanwhile, a sign of how much the locals already enjoy food is that a standard Burmese greeting to locals and foreigners alike is, "Sa pyi bi la?", which translates as, "Have you had your lunch yet?"

 

So, to the foodie highlights of my three-week holiday.

 

The newly launched Bagan Foodie Tour (book through www.amaladestinations.com) in Bagan, central Myanmar, is a big hit. It includes an evening tasting of traditional temple foods at the 11th-century Min O Chan Thar pagoda, accompanied by the light of candles in storm lamps and the tinkling of pagoda bells in the air.

 

I sit on a wicker mat to sample snacks such as "mummies and daddies" (quail's egg in a chickpea flour batter) and pennywort akyaw (like tempura) served on a traditional lacquer tray - food, unsurprisingly, more authentic than that to be found in Singapore's Peninsula Plaza, also known as "Little Burma" - with the background "music" of stridulating crickets and the chanting of monks.

 

The tour also encompasses a guided walk and a Grasshopper Adventures bike ride (www.grasshopperadventures.com). We go to a market boasting piles of dragonfruit and Chinese apples and to a food festival where watermelons are being carved with elaborate Burmese temples and flowers.

 

Then we visit a cottage industry producing fermented soya bean paste, where bare-chested men clad in longyi (a sarong-style garment) stir cauldrons with bamboo paddles. Women sit on bamboo floor mats gauging the weight of soya paste lumps - using their palms as "weighing scales" - before packing them.

 

There is also a 30-dish lunch of local specialities in the itinerary - based on the meals of the last king of Bagan, who would order 300 dishes. It is served under a tamarind tree overlooking ancient pagodas.

 

As with any Burmese meal, t'amin (rice) is central to this feast, plus side dishes and curries - the mildest in Asia - that blend Burmese, Indian, Chinese and Mon influences. And there are plates such as snake gourd curry, taro stem and ginger, tamarind and pickled tea leaf salad - the flavours predominantly savoury, salty and tart.

 

For pudding, there is a lump of jaggery (palm sugar), washed down with green tea.

 

Next, to another winner: my cooking class at the Tin Tin Cookery School (book through www.amaladestinations.com), which opened in 2016. This time, I am in a traditional stilt teak house on Inle Lake, eastern Myanmar, the home of Tin Tin.

 

A table is set with baskets of fresh vegetables, sauces and spices. The walls are decorated with a photo of the late Myanmar leader General Aung San, wicker baskets, pillows and conical bamboo hats.

 

A "boat shop" - a longboat - stops outside the door to deliver our freshly picked groceries: paniers of aubergines and green peppers.

 

Ms Tin Tin, a genial woman sporting a Shan top and longyi, teaches Shan cuisine, which is similar to that of northern Thailand.

 

I hone my Burmese culinary skills under her expert guidance as well as that of her niece, the latter with thanaka (wood-based) make-up daubed on her face. Mr Naung Naung, my guide, translates.

 

First, we chop and prepare our ingredients, including green tomatoes. "They're from the floating gardens," says Naung Naung, "so they're juicy."

 

Next, I learn to create dishes such as Shan pumpkin soup, spring onion tempura and steamed Mekong River catfish in banana leaf. Then Ms Tin Tin demonstrates how to cook it over charcoal in vessels made from clay mixed with river sand (from the local pottery village of Naung Bo).

 

Afterwards, Mr Naung Naung and I eat what we have prepared, sitting at a traditional low table. "It's usual," he says, "for the hostess not to join her guests eating in a private home."

 

Finally, to Yangon again and to Sharky's (www.sharkys.com.mm). It is time to meet the gastro eminence of Myanmar, the aforementioned Ye Htut Win, founder and self-dubbed "chief artisan" of Sharky's - with three pioneering, organic restaurant-cum-delis in Yangon, Bagan and Ngapali.

 

Mr Ye Htut Win has single-handedly created the beginnings of a food culture in Myanmar that mixes local resources and Western traditions.

 

He has experimented with varieties of grains, tomatoes and spinach that can take the steamy heat, and located a remote place along the Indian Ocean where he harvests salt flakes from the sea.

 

He has introduced micro greens, rocket and gluten-free bread of golden teff, rice wheat and buckwheat to the country.

 

He has also improvised - using local buffalo milk - to make Italian-, French- and Swiss-style cheeses: He was the first to make cheese in Myanmar, influencing an entire generation.

 

It does not stop here. Mr Ye Htut Win also makes his own charcuterie and artisan gelato, rears his own corn-fed chickens and dry-ages striploin (from 45 up to 150 days).

 

"To concentrate the flavour and have less fat," he says, as we taste every dish.

 

The bread is so good that I wish I could buy it globally; the chicken flavoursome; and the mango ice cream better than any found in Italy.

 

While filming MasterChef, Mr Ye Htut Win discovered the huge diversity of Myanmar's ingredients - hardly surprising in a land that is 971 times larger than Singapore.

 

He was struck by the "multi- dimensional tastes and unique flavours" he found in regional foraged foods, wild herbs and veggie-focused menus.

 

He believes "farm to table" - with premium local ingredients, ethnic cooking and foraged wild herbs - will be the country's next big thing.

 

On my final day, I sit over a steaming cup of green tea suffused with the flavour of roasted sesame seeds. I am in the Yangon Excelsior (www.yangon-excelsior.com), the country's latest, hottest hotel opening: a stylishly contemporised reincarnation of the erstwhile colonial headquarters of Steel Brothers exporters.

 

"Myanmar food is great, isn't it?" asks Mr Briels from across the table.

 

I confess to him my love affair with the country's fermented tea leaf and dried shrimp salad. I talk about the delicious meals I have had on this trip in private homes, including the lunch cooked by a Palaung tribeswoman in her traditional home amid the stupa-topped hills near Hsipaw; another enjoyed in a house in an isolated Shan village near opium fields.

 

I wax eloquent about our guided visits to vibrant, traditional markets, especially the Nyandaw market - with its several unidentifiable species of mushrooms and three types of mustard leaf and where we breakfast on rice noodles and ground peanut soup for 63 Singapore cents a bowl.

 

All this in the colonial town of Pyin Oo Lwin with its half-timbered, turn-of-the-last-century mansions.

 

But back to Mr Ye Htut Win. He sees an upcoming generation of top chefs emerging in the country from MasterChef Myanmar.

 

"Not only for European-style cooking," he says, "but for Myanmar cuisines from fine dining to street food, where less oil is used, flavours are more balanced and primary ingredients play a starring role."

 

He himself cooks with passion. "Interestingly, there's no word for that in Burmese."

 

It is likely soon there will be a word for "passion" when it comes to food.

 

Caroline Phillips is an award-winning journalist who reckons the King of Bagan got it right by having 300 dishes at a meal.

 

The writer's trip was sponsored by Amala Destinations, a travel service that specialises in private personalised journeys.

 

GETTING THERE

 

Fly from Singapore to Yangon on Singapore Airlines, Jetstar, Myanmar National Airlines, Myanmar Airways International or Air KBZ.

 

You can also continue your flight immediately to Mandalay on Singapore Airlines.

 

Singaporeans do not need a visa to enter Myanmar.

 

Travellers of other nationalities can check if they need to apply for an online visa, which can be secured in 24 hours, at evisa.moip.gov.mm

 

TIPS

 

•Be adventurous. Travel by ox cart, horse and carriage, longboat and bike. Also, do not be scared to travel off the beaten track to places not normally on the tourist map.

 

•Take off your shoes before entering a temple or someone's home. However, do not let the soles of your feet face anyone - it is considered offensive.

 

•Try everything you are offered - you may develop a taste for tea leaf salad.

 

•Leave your designer handbag at home - even the crazy rich Burmese do not show off - and simply join the rest of the country in sitting on the floor to taste home-cooked food.

 

•The "green season" from June to September is one of the best periods for a foodie tour as there are plenty of tasty fruits and vegetables, plus the Myanmar mangoes are simply the best in the world and worth flying there for. (They are imported into Singapore, but difficult to find.)

 

•The best experiences in Myanmar are often not found online, so switch off your travel app and talk to your tour operator to ensure you enjoy a tasty and authentic experience.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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