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Food of Myanmar

Myanmar is a country nestled between India, Thailand and China.  It is at a cross roads of culinary delight.  The textures, flavors and the spices (both from a flavor and a heat standpoint) of these three countries make them home to some of my favorite cuisines.  I knew nothing of Burmese food before we started planning this trip.  I had never been to a Burmese restaurant and come to think of it, I don’t believe I had even seen a Burmese restaurant in the United States.  I chocked that up to the isolationism of the totalitarian regime.  There were few refugees from Myanmar making it to the United States – the influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s spurred the growth of Little Vietnams in various cities as well as expanding the American palate to embrace these non-American flavors including Vietnamese Fish Sauce, which you’d be hard pressed to find before the refugee influx.

Despite never eating Burmese food, I was extremely excited to have 10 days of basking in the culinary bliss that I just assumed would be an amalgamation of Indian, Thai and Chinese.  I was looking forward to trying curries filled with various types of protein (beef, pork, chicken…I wasn’t expecting the Burmese to have anything too exotic like dog or snake in their curries).  I figured we would switch between eating these great curry dishes to eating noodle soups, each with a varying level of spicy and flavor.

I was mistaken.

Well, that’s not 100% true.  We did eat curries with more traditional proteins (beef, pork and chicken). We did get noodles from time to time.  The food was not the heavenly blend of food from the three neighboring cultures.  It really was a relatively bland effort.  We tried different preparations of the food as we moved around the country and as we did, we would find a slightly different take on the same beef or fish curry.  Nothing I had wowed me. I didn’t create an ever lengthening list of things to try again or to track down back in the US.

That being said, we did have one dish that I really enjoyed and would order it again in a heartbeat, if I could find it again.  Shan Noodle is a dish from the Shan province in Myanmar.

A lunch buffet with numerous curries.

We went a little wild at the buffet.

My first Shan Noodle from 999 Shan Noodle.

A great shrimp spicy noodle dish served as breakfast at the airport.

A series of Burmese food.

I’m enjoying a Myanmar Beer, which was a staple lunch drink for me.

Chicken Curry wrapped in a banana leaf.

Grilled Spicy Fish.

The best meal in Myanmar, a Shan Noodle Family Recipe.

The chef/owner of Myat That Kavng Restaurant.

While we only had one meal that was bad (I think the beef had turned, but the hotel restaurant at the Pristine Lotus cooked with it anyway), most meals were bland, yet perfectly sustainable.  We weren’t able to find the flavorful food the locals eat.  Our guide, who was a local, said that we were indeed eating the local food, which was disappointing.  I was hoping we could find the Myanmar equivalent of the delicious peasant food of France or Germany or the wonderfully nuanced noodles the Vietnamese people eat.

One of the main goals for me, when traveling, is to explore the local cuisine. One of the main things I look for when planning a trip is the food. I was disappointed in that aspect of our trip to Myanmar.

What is your favorite dish from Myanmar?  Do you have a Burmese restaurant back home you like to visit?  Other than Shan 999 or Myat That Kavng where should I have eaten on my trip to Myanmar?

Favorite Places and the Resulting Lost Opportunity

One of the key benefits of travel is the ability to frequently try new things. One of the key detractors of travel can be the lack of consistency, lack of the known, the comfortable. When traveling, you can be met by newness every time you turn a corner. That newness, that unexpectedness is both the most exciting part and the most nerveracking part of travel.

When you find a place that you love, be that a restaurant with great food, a bar with excellent service, a bookshop with friendly and knowledgeable staff or a boutique that has the perfect gift, do you find yourself returning to that place time and time again when you visit that city? I do. When in LA, I visit The Lobster (Santa Monica) in Toronto, I dine at Barberian’s. When in Portland, we eat and drink at Departure. In New Orleans I always get an Absinthe from a dive bar abutting the cathedral. These are my go to places. They have special meaning to me and I love sharing these experiences with my travel companions.

The problem with these familiar places not only shines during travel, but while home. Every time you visit one of your regular haunts, you miss the opportunity to experience something new and magical. You feel comfortable, but you don’t push yourself to try something new.

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Paris (if you follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Google+ you already know that). We returned to Le Marais (4e Arrondissment), the same neighborhood we stayed in during our first visit in 2011. We stayed in a different hotel this time. We ate at different restaurants this time. Three of the four nights we were there, we stopped by a small cafe on Place Saint-Catherine and ordered a bottle of rosé. Each day we were in Paris it was over 30C each day, so a late night rosé was quite refreshing. We had the same server each night. Our final night we stroll up, take a seat on the Place and our server came up, took my hand and pulled me from a welcome handshake into a big bear hug. He asked, in French, if we would like a bottle of rosé tonight. He was welcoming. He was happy to see us. Yes, he was making money off of us, but he appreciated our loyalty.  We appreciated the sense of home despite the fact we were more than 6,600 kilometers from our actual home.  We will return to this cafe on our next trip to Paris.

Place de Vosge – Le Marais.

What are you missing? Does what you get from visiting the same place out weigh the possible opportunity for something better elsewhere? When you travel, what do you push for? Newness with each experience, or a level of comfort?

Air KBZ Economy (RGN-NYU-HEH)

There are a few ways to get around from city to city in Myanmar. You can hire a driver and depending on where you are going, your travels could take an entire day. You could take the romanticized route and take the train. Unfortunately the trains are not as efficient as those in Europe and the journey can take 12 to 18 or more hours. These trains are not the equivalent of the Orient Express either. The trains are old and bare bones. I really contemplated taking the train for one of our legs, but did a bit more research and found that the leg I was really reviewing often took 24 to 36 hours and that would be utterly awful.

We decided to fly, which was the recommendation from our local guides. I was and little nervous about the domestic carriers in Myanmar because they had some safety issues historically. Those issues are all but gone now. There are a couple of carriers you can choose from. Most of our flights were on Air KBZ.

The terminal at Yangon. Large open spaces with lots of opportunity to bypass security.

Why does airport carpet look so awful everywhere in the world? Another shot of Yangon Airport.

When boarding the Air KBZ flight in Yangon this gentleman walked around the terminal, reminding us it was time to board.

I had never heard of Air KBZ  before, but this Myanmar based carrier operates a series of flights on various circuits. The flight starts in Yangon, goes to Bagan then continues on to Heho (serving Inle Lake) then back to Yangon. There are other circuits too.  These routes are operated by ATR-72 (both 500s and 600s). The ATR-72 600s are brand new and the 500s are not that old.

The Departures Board for Air KBZ

Our handwritten boarding pass for Air KBZ. On this leg there were no assigned seats – just a free for all.

A sticker from Air KBZ, so you don’t accidentally board the wrong flight.

Our beautiful ATR-600. This new plane in the Air KBZ fleet was modern and comfortable for the less than 60 minute flights.

The trip from the Yangon Terminal to the Air KBZ flight could have been walked in a couple of minutes, but we all piled onto a bus and drove the 300 meters.

We flew Air KBZ twice, once from Yangon (RGN) to Bagan (NYU) then next from Bagan to Inle LAKE  (HEH). Both of these flights were less than an hour and were really nice.  It doesn’t compare to EVA Royal Laurel Business Class or Thai Royal Orchid First, of course, but the planes were new and clean (ahem….I’m looking at you, United) and the strive onboard was quick, efficient and friendly.

My knees were quite snug on the Air KBZ Flights. For less than 60 minutes it is doable, but this pitch wouldn’t work on a long haul!

Each of our Air KBZ Flights had a meal. It was quickly served and quickly retrieved before landing.

The lunch box, filled with two types of tiny sandwiches, a cake of some sort and a milk chocolate.

The brown bread and cheese sandwich was my favorite — but that’s not saying much.

I couldn’t pick out the flavors on this cake. It was yellow and a little chocolate, plus a flavorless jelly on top.

You don’t have many options for you intra-Myanmar flights, but I’d highly recommend Air KBZ for these shirt hops.  Unfortunately, you can’t credit your miles to a mainline western air program, but it’s OK to skip the miles from time to time.

The noise cancelling headphones worked great on this turboprop. We are heading off from Yangon to Bagan here!

Deplaning was quick and painless. We boarded and exited through the rear door.

Have you traveled through Myanmar before? What was your preferred mode of transportation?  Did you have the long romantic train ride through the countryside or did you do as we did and hop on the nearest plane, which provided quick, inexpensive travel?

Cook Books – Use ’em or Lose ’em!

We have a ton of cook books. Cook books always play a major role as Christmas gifts too. Each year we probably add half a dozen to our library. In general, we look at the book immediately after unwrapping it and make these great plans on all the new things we’ll make, then fail to execute.  When we either have a dinner party or a free weekend, we’ll often pull a cook book and find something new to cook, then the book goes right back to the shelf.

Our cook book shelf is overflowing…

So many cook books and so little time!

I decided that I’d be meat free in January (also chose to be booze free). I needed to expand my meatless repertoire, so I pulled A Year in a Vegetarian’s Kitchen – grabbed some post it notes and went to marking interesting recipes. We found about a dozen that really spoke to us and since they were vegetarian it fit my nutritional changes for the month.

We made these recipes throughout the month and we’re really pleased with our selections. We tried so many great things in January, we decided to pick another cook book for February and will try this experiment again. While I’m not going to be meatless in February, I do plan to remain as mindful about my food as I was in January. It might be a bit tougher considering we chose Tommy Bahamas Flavors of the Southern Coast as our February book. We found another dozen or so recipes, but these recipes all require more work than our January selections, so adding these to our week night rotation will be tough.

It felt great trying so many new recipes in January and I can’t wait to work our way through this new book. How often do you use your cook books?  Seriously, how often?  Do you dig getting a new cook book as much as I do?  I love to give cook books just as much – it often means that someone will be thanking me for the gift by making something amazing out of their new book too.  Now that’s a win-win!

Street Food

I was chatting about travel at work last week (surprising, I know) and a colleague asked if I eat street food while traveling. The woman who posed this question isn’t a traveler, she takes her vacation each year to Disney World, or if she decides to go wild she goes to Disneyland. I’ve traveled (for work) with this woman before and she freaks out if we try to eat somewhere she’s never heard of – she loves national chain restaurants (Olive Garden and PF Chang’s).

I do eat street food. I like to be a traveler not a tourist. The locals eat street food and the reason I travel is to experience other cultures, including their food. Street food is usually very cheap too. I’ve had some great street food all over the world, including:

I’ve been fortunate and have never gotten sick from eating street food. I’ve gotten sick while traveling, but never from street food. When eating street food, I follow a few simple rules:

  • Always eat at places that have at line – the more people the quicker the food turns over. No customers mean the food ends up sitting out longer, giving more opportunity for bacteria to grow. Plus, if the food stall has a long line that means the local customers like the place. It has to be worth trying.
  • See and smell the food. If you see flies or other insects on the food, you should likely stay clear.
  • See the people preparing the food. Are they clean? Are their action sanitary?
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Shanghai Noodles Cooking on a Cold January Day

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Dumplings, Dumplings and more Dumplings – Shanghai

Street food can be a little scary – like most things, I say trust your gut.  If you think something isn’t right, you are probably right – stay away.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten from a street vendor?  Have you gotten sick from street food?