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On the Road to Mandalay


By the old Moulmein Pagoda,
Lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin',
And I know she thinks o' me
Less than a fortnight ago, I found myself on Kipling's fabled road to Mandalay.

Hubby and I had landed at Mandalay International Airport, about an hour's drive from Mandalay proper - "international" being a mildly amusing misnomer as the only planes which fly in and out of this white elephant come from within Burma itself, apart from the occasional flight to Kunming.

The journey to the centre of town is a joy - noisy, dusty, beautiful and bumpy with all manner of picturesque traffic like sidecar rickshaws, scooters and beasts of burden.

I love Yangon with all my heart, yet it's not till I get to Mandalay that I feel that I've truly come home.
But that's all shove be'ind me -- long ago an' fur away,
An' there ain't no 'busses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;
An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."
Mandalay was never actually home for me, but it's where my beloved grandparents lived all their lives, and I've been back and forth since I was eight years old, so in some ways I feel like I grew up there.

My father and both brothers were all born in Mandalay, but to my everlasting chagrin, I first opened my eyes in the rather more prosaic Margate.


One of the other reasons I adore Mandalay is the plethora of street eats.

Safety rules and regs are few and far between in Burma (for example, car seatbelts have yet to manifest themselves), but a few years back in Yangon, some jobsworths saw fit to sweep away all the roadside vendors and most of the street cafes.

But in Mandalay, such places persist and for this I am truly grateful.


Our first port of call is this Indian tea shop called ပန္‌းသခင္‌​ (Hbun Thakin or Flower Lord), where we hunker down on tiny stools to be served one of the finest breakfasts known to man - a metal platter of aloo poori.

First thing in the morning, nothing beats dunking huge, crispy, fresh-fried puffbreads in luscious curried potatoes, tamarind sauce and okra stew.

On the side, there's samosas to snack on, cabbage shreds and onion chunks to crunch, lime to squeeze, and tiny chillies and mint leaves to chew.


My father plumps for his favourite dish of samusa thohk - samosa salad, about which the great Madhur Jaffrey had this to say:
"One of the most unusual Burmese-Indian creations in the market is a samosa salad. Two very Indian snacks, deep-fried, savoury pastries and split pea fritters, along with boiled potatoes and tomatoes, are crumbled and dressed with lime juice, as well as a sauce made with dal, rather like a thin, south Indian sambar".
Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible (Ebury Press, 2003)


No! you won't 'eed nothin' else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .


And now we're actually home, back in cold and blustery Blighty, and I'd give anything to be back on that roadside, sipping cups of hot green tea and chewing on sprigs of mint.
I am sick o' wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,
An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones


ပန္‌းသခင္‌​ Tea Shop
Junction of 80th and 35th Street

Watch take-away samusa thohk being made:

(Excerpts from Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling


Dan said…
Fascinating post MiMi, really interesting to read about Burma and it's food. And I love Kipling.
Barb McMillen said…
So interesting and wonderful food photos. Thanks for sharing this with us! I also enjoyed the Kipling references.
WOW. No wonder you are longing to be back!
Dennis K. said…
The food looks delicious meemalee! It's morning and I'm starving!
YUM! Pooris (Bengalis call them luchis)and potato; definitely my fave fried breakfast!
chumbles said…
Beautiful post. Sorry to rave, but good writing salves the wounds that life brings and your writing is exceptional.

Gods, I'm guessing you're a copywriter or in advertising, but your metier is as a travel/cookery writer; you have a gift for it. One of my friends was a professional travel writer and another a very good anecdotalist and you combine both. PLEASE think about doing it for a living. AND you take excellent photos!
meemalee said…
@Dan - Thanks Dan! It's a bit strange for me to write about Burma but I'm glad people seem to be interested.

@Barb - Thanks, and whatever people might think about Kipling, he did write some beautiful poems :)

@A Scot in London - I am glad to be back in England but I do miss Burma

@Dennis K - I am always hungry :p

@TheFastestIndian - Ooh luchis - good to know that word :)

@chumbles - And your words are balm for my soul. Also, would you like to be my agent? :)
S said…
MiMi, fascinating photo-essay. the photos are gorgeous and i like the brief, concise captions. such a nice post. it's amazing how pakistani and burmese food have some things in common- aloo poori, samosas- so many others which i cant think of right now. i went with my friends to a restaurant in San Francisco called Burma Star- it's one of my most memorable meals. now to get that khao suey recipe from my mum in law this christmas when i am in pakistan! xx
meemalee said…
@Shayma - Ah, the Burmese love their South Asian food!

Oh and I've heard good things about Burma Star - and other Burmese places in SF.

Yeah, I'm saving my ohn-no khao swe recipe for my book :)
Suz said…
What a lovely read and great pics too. The photos and descriptions of the food are seriously evocative. I'm wondering if I stare at the pictures hard enough, the food will appear in front of me. Sadly not, methinks.
meemalee said…
@Suzler - Aw, thank you. I've often wished that Mike Teevee's TV was real :)
Hollow Legs said…
I don't know anything about Burmese food, so this has been really interesting reading. Such a shame that street food is being targetted by the beaurocrats - ruining it for us all.
meemalee said…
@Lizzie - Burmese food has, as expected, similarities to all the other Oriental cuisines, but also has South Asian influences. I'll definitely be writing more about it.

As for street food - I was reading the leaflet my GP gave me before we went on holiday and it said "Under no circumstances should you eat food from street vendors". Pffff :)
chumbles said…
I try to keep my comments limited, but I have to second your reaction to the leaflet; like all NHS advice it's "How can we avoid being sued", rather than saying "Use your common sense and look at how the food is prepared and cooked, and use your sense of smell!" I'm guessing that a restaurant with its prep facilities out of sight is more of a risk than a street vendor, in fact. Would that be true in your experience of Burma?

And I'd love to be your agent, if only I knew what that meant ;-)
meemalee said…
@chumbles - Most restaurants in Burma have kitchens pretty much right in front of the customers so I never worry about eating out in Burma :)