Yan­gon Street Food

Taste & Travel - - Contents - by SUSIE EL­LI­SON

LADIES AND GEN­TLE­MEN, MEET James Brown. Walk­ing the streets of Yan­gon with this guy at your side is like be­ing handed the keys to the city — a god­send if, like me, it’s your first visit to Myan­mar, a fas­ci­nat­ing coun­try newly ac­ces­si­ble af­ter decades of seclu­sion.

“My man!” A pass­ing Cau­casian in a busi­ness suit high-fives my guide as we pause to in­spect a pile of deep-fried crick­ets.

We’re mak­ing our way down a street food alley, shaded by a canopy of um­brel­las from the still blis­ter­ing late af­ter­noon sun. To the right and left, lo­cals are perched on stools at low ta­bles, sip­ping, slurp­ing, munch­ing on delecta­bles pur­chased from ven­dors lin­ing both sides of the street. It’s a sight you’ll see all over Yan­gon, where life is lived as much on the pave­ment as in the mag­nif­i­cently crum­bling colo­nial build­ings that date from the pe­riod when Ran­goon (Yan­gon) was the busiest port in the Bri­tish Raj.

“Don’t eat the quail eggs in your first week,” cau­tions James as I eye some minia­ture pan­cakes be­ing flipped on a por­ta­ble hot­plate. “Also lettuce and cane juice. These things can up­set your stom­ach if you’re not used to them.” This is the kind of ad­vice I could use wher­ever I travel.

But no such wor­ries with the Gang­ster Snack from the next stall along. There’s no Made Man at the stove — per­haps it’s his granny whose whip­ping up a thin rice flour crêpe on a grid­dle, top­ping it with shreds of cab­bage and car­rot, beansprouts, green onion, boiled chick­peas and crisp fried soy­beans. Garam masala, hot chilies and a squirt of oil go on top then she folds the thing in two and hands it over in a square of grease­proof pa­per. It’s hot, spicy, crunchy, fresh and very fill­ing — just what a guy who’s been up all night needs, ac­cord­ing to James.

Next we stop for samosa salad, an im­pres­sive mash-up of chopped, deep-fried samosas and falafel mixed with boiled pota­toes, chick­peas, tomato and shred­ded cab­bage, sprin­kled with turmeric and salt, and doused in ta­marind sauce. Chick­pea broth is an op­tional ad­di­tion. I try both wet and dry ver­sions — “with broth” win­ning by a slen­der mar­gin.

We fol­low a line of lit­tle girls dressed in pink robes and car­ry­ing sil­ver bowls mak­ing their way from shop to shop down a side street. They are novice nuns, col­lect­ing alms. Or­ange robes are worn by monks, who are ev­ery­where in Yan­gon. If you get up early enough, you can watch them walk in pro­ces­sion each day at dawn, mak­ing their way to­ward the golden spires of the Shrewedagon pagoda, the city’s most fa­mous land­mark.

Yan­gon’s best known culi­nary icons are Shan noo­dles, Mo­hinga (a fish noo­dle soup) and Lah­pet Thoke (fer­mented tea leaf salad). Nat­u­rally, James knows where to find the best ex­am­ple of each. We duck down an alley and dodge traf­fic to reach King Tea House, an unas­sum­ing café in a ram­shackle colo­nial build­ing with a tree sprout­ing from an up­stairs win­dow.

“Is there a menu? “I ask, as the servers seem to be tak­ing or­ders tele­path­i­cally. “It’s on the wall,” says James, point­ing, “but ev­ery­one knows what’s on a tea­house menu. They’re all the same.”

But not all the same when it comes to Shan noo­dles — a bowl of sticky rice noo­dles topped with ground chicken, sesame seed, green onion, soy sauce and mus­tard greens, served with a clear chicken broth. Tourists usu­ally head for a dif­fer­ent es­tab­lish­ment that’s listed in the guide­books, — they don’t know what they’re miss­ing, says James. We also sam­ple a pork curry at King Tea House and a dessert made from black beans and palm sugar.

Next up is Pen­ny­wort Salad, or­dered in a neon-lit cafe­te­ria, with a pot of tea to wash it down. I love the fresh­ness of this dish — a tan­gle of cab­bage and pen­ny­wort laced with peanuts and red onion, mixed with crispy gar­lic, lime juice and sesame oil. It’s so good we sam­ple an­other ver­sion fur­ther down the road, this one with tofu and gourd mixed in and a zingy dress­ing of ta­marind, gar­lic, chilli and co­rian­der.

I’m feel­ing pretty full but we’re on the move again, James weav­ing ex­pertly through the traf­fic, field­ing more high fives (clearly he OWNS this town) to an alley where street food carts are set­ting up shop as the night closes in and the lights come on in a city that ap­par­ently never sleeps. Here we’re try­ing more pan­cakes — stuffed with ba­nanas, peanuts and co­conut.

Al­though I’ve been pac­ing my­self, three hours in I’m truly stuffed. But to end the evening, there’s dessert at Inwa Cold Drinks & Con­fec­tionery, an old-school bak­ery café and a house­hold name in Yan­gon. The spe­cialty of the house is a mag­nif­i­cent con­coc­tion of sticky rice, sago, gelatin cubes, tapi­oca, cen­dol (rice flour noo­dles), white bread and icy cold, sweet­ened co­conut milk.

I’m think­ing of ask­ing James if he can push me back to my ho­tel in a wheel­bar­row but be­fore I can get the words out, he leans across the ta­ble and says “This is the end of the tour but I can add some more places if you’re still hun­gry.”

Bless you James Brown, you may just be the hard­est work­ing man in the street food busi­ness.

PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Shan Noo­dles; Street­side hot­pot; Sausage ven­dor; Samosa Salad — dry ver­sion; Yan­gon’s his­toric dis­trict.

PHOTOS THIS SPREAD CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT

Gang­ster Snack on the grid­dle; Kitchen in a truck; Beau­ti­ful bunches of grapes; Mak­ing samosa salad; Fried cricket stack; Frit­ters; His­toric down­town Yan­gon; James Brown; Lo­cally grown corn.

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