Burma (Myanmar)

Min ga la ba, or hello! Derek and I were uncertain about whether we should be globetrotting in Burma this weekend, or whether we should be covering this Southeast Asian country when we get to the end of the countries whose names start with “M”, since the current Burmese government identifies the country as Myanmar. The United Nations recognizes the country as Myanmar, but the United States Department of State still refers to the country as Burma, because it sides with an opposition party in the country which doesn’t support the name Myanmar. But many American media sources use “Myanmar” now, and even President Obama, during his 2012 visit to the country, called the country Myanmar.

We’re not sure where we stand on the Burma/Myanmar name controversy. On one hand, we think we should respect countries, like individuals, by referring to the names they want to be called. But there doesn’t seem to be consensus among the Burmese people themselves, either. Since the people and the culture still generally identify as Burmese, we’ve decided for simplicity’s sake to call this country Burma in this post.

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It’s been about a month since our last entry, and we’re glad to get back into globetrotting. I began preparing earlier in the week by fermenting tea leaves for a salad (more on that later) and toasting and grinding rice. The toasted ground rice went into the first Burmese dish of the weekend, mohinga, a rice noodle soup that’s often eaten for breakfast in Burma. So, naturally, we wanted to eat it for breakfast on our globetrot, and found a vegetarian version, which we also modified by swapping canola oil for peanut oil, and soy nuts for the peanuts, because of Derek’s allergy. The dark pieces you see in the photo below are cubes of purple yam, which we also roasted instead of deep-frying.

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We watched a short travel piece in the morning, which introduced us to four regions of the country, including its largest city and former capital, Yangon. Mohinga also gets a mention in the video, though theirs looks quite a bit different from the version we ate for breakfast.

For lunch, I made two dishes, one of which was a chickpea tofu soup. “Chickpea tofu soup” may be a little misleading as most people would assume the tofu would be the usual soy product. But the Burmese make chickpea tofu, which is made from chickpea flour, rather than soy. For our recipe, we didn’t make blocks of tofu, but heated water and chickpea flour together to make a thickened soup base. The result was a very thick, filling soup, even though I omitted the chicken in the recipe.

Our second dish was fermented tea leaf salad (again, a vegetarian version). After fermenting over two days, the tea leaves were very tangy. You can see the salad in the middle of the table here, flanked by our two bowls of chickpea tofu soup. Derek, our primary photographer, added his teal-colored Buddha statue in the upper right for a little more flair.

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We had a lazy Saturday afternoon, and then in the early evening, we walked into Allston to have dinner at Yoma, a Burmese restaurant. The small restaurant had several large photos of Burmese temples and pagodas, and other Burmese artwork on the walls.IMG_2465

I ordered the Happy Tofu, a dish with pumpkin, egg, tofu (the soy kind), and potato, and Derek had the beef bamboo, a dish with beef, bamboo shoots, tomato sauce and spices. After eating rice noodles and soup for two consecutive meals (the mohinga and the chickpea tofu soup), it was nice to eat our entrees with rice.

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Back at home, we watched the 2012 documentary They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain. Robert H. Lieberman, an American novelist, filmmaker and professor, stealthily shot the documentary footage over two years, talking with ordinary people and Aung San Suu Kyi, the chairperson of the National League of Democracy in Burma, who had been under house arrest for 15 years by the military junta.

On Sunday morning, we ate more mohinga, and watched a video about Yangon, which was remarkably more positive about the city than the They Call It Myanmar documentary. The short video also seems to be a little more recent than the documentary, so maybe there has been some positive change in the country. (The purpose of the video seems to be to promote tourism in Myanmar for a Thai airline company that flies to Yangon, though, so that’s definitely a factor in its positive outlook.)

For lunch, we had some more chickpea tofu soup and fermented tea leaf salad. Afterwards, I made a Burmese semolina cake. The recipe just so happens to be from a restaurant I liked as a grad student in Pittsburgh, Spice Island Tea House. I must have ordered the cake at the restaurant at some point, though I don’t remember what it was like. Derek and I enjoyed some of our warm cake with black tea, our nod to the Burmese practice of taking tea.

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The video we watched earlier in the morning about Yangon had mentioned that Burma was known for its rubies, and in the afternoon we watched a short documentary that discussed ruby mining in Burma in more detail. The industry is largely run by the government, and the working conditions are poor, leading the documentary makers to dub the precious stones “blood rubies.”

Derek’s dinner was Indian-inspired, since Burmese cuisine also has Indian influences. He prepared masoor dal, made with red lentils, and chapati, a whole-wheat flatbread.

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Our weekend in Burma was quite full, especially with respect to food, though we realize that there’s a lot to Burmese culture that we’ve barely touched upon. But as the country continues to open itself to foreign visitors, we hope that more aspects of the culture will become more accessible here in the United States.

– Jess

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