There is something wrong with being on a diet while on holiday. Not only is it perverse — you are supposed to be on holiday — but it could quite possibly be immoral. Yes, immoral, or maybe just narrow-minded, or, at the very least, criminally incurious. You are in a new country, not your home, shutting yourself off from sampling the very best that country has to offer. Yes, there are sights to be seen and money to be spent buying souvenirs for people who will throw these souvenirs away after you have left. But closing off the very best part of you, making it subject to rules that curtail the full enjoyment of a country’s cuisine — making that stomach, in effect, work while on holiday — that’s just wrong. That is no way to travel.
This is what I’m telling myself, anyway. That diets are immoral while on holiday in Yangon. Because it would be criminally unfair to Myanmar. And I want to give Myanmar’s cuisine every chance, as many chances as a good-looking white guy in the entertainment industry could possibly hope for. Taylor Kitsch- and Justin Bieber-level chances. That’s how generous I want to be to Myanmar. Because I suspect that food may be getting a bad rap.
Patrick, who lives in Yangon, had been telling me I should try out the food in Myanmar for a while, and I agreed that I should, in the way that one agrees they should go to the dentist, or finally get around to listening to that new Eminem album. Which is to mean, it would probably never happen. But one night (in Bangkok), Patrick told me something that was so simple that it blew my mind: Myanmar food is delicious to the Myanmar people. Just as Thai food is delicious to the Thais — something that Thai people don’t really consider, because they think whatever Thai people like must be liked everywhere else too. In Thailand: balanced flavors, different textures, good aroma=good. In the US: rich, creamy, salty, sweet. What is good in one country is not necessarily good in the other. What are the culinary values in Myanmar?
Denigrated as oily and salty by Thai people, Myanmar’s food operates along a wholly different set of values: heavy even when it’s light; highly flavored; filling. It’s food that asks to be remembered, well after the meal. All dishes — even the salads — adhere to this rule. The one time I went to Yangon in 2006, the only meal I honestly remember was Chinese-style hotpot. Who would I be if I didn’t want to try real Myanmar cuisine?
Perhaps the most famous purveyor of Burmese cooking is Feel, an unassuming cafe on a nondescript street in what I’m told is the expatty part of the city. Once inside, customers are expected to grab the first seat that comes available and then somehow navigate their way through a vast curry buffet amidst a crowd of equally-hungry Burmese customers. Happily, Patrick takes charge, ordering a delicious beef curry, a sweet-and-sour fish, a chili dip strongly resembling Northern Thai nam prik ong, and a tart, crunchy pennywort salad that still coats the tongue even after it’s gone (“Heavy even when it’s light,” Patrick says). There’s even a clear refreshing soup that tastes of pickled bitter gourd. Even after all that, Patrick eventually gives in and orders the tea leaf salad — arguably Myanmar’s most famous dish and a mishmash of textures and pungent, bottom-heavy flavors that never skew acid. “Real tea leaf salads are never sour,” Patrick says. Everything is delicious, even if it’s different from what Thais would say is good.
Later, in Bagan, we get a different view of Myanmar food at an outdoor vendor set up in the shadow of one of the temple’s parking lots. When we ask one of the guards if he knew of a good place to eat lunch, we are totally unprepared for him to ask his friend to take over his post, and wait with us(!) while my notoriously snail-like daughter slowly makes her way through the temple. He takes us through the parking lot to the far side of the bric-a-brac vendors, and we entertain thoughts of him killing us only once. Finally, he leads us to a vendor set up behind a makeshift stove and set under a blue tarp, orders for us, and sits with us while we take our first bites. What they served: a clear, oily (but not unpleasantly so) spicy soup with pork; a salty-spicy salad of acacia leaves and minced meat; stir-fried snake gourd with eggs, and honking big fluffy omelets piled on top of rice bulked up with beans. This type of hospitality was not uncommon during our trip to Myanmar. It got to the point where we hesitated to ask for the bathroom, for fear someone would end up driving us to their home.
It was an important lesson about Myanmar, its people and its culture, and one that may not have been learned, had I been on a diet.