|My grandparents' cook on the left and nanny on the right|
"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"
My father’s family hails from upper Burma, from the much more old-world town of Mandalay, and this is where most of them still reside, and so, whenever we visited Burma, we’d make the long trek up from Yangon to see them all.
The distance from Yangon to Mandalay is equivalent to that from London to Edinburgh, but modes of transport were decidedly more antiquated in these parts.
Yet, although it entailed a fifteen-hour bone-juddering train trip overnight on the hardest seats known to man, to an eight year-old MiMi with food on her mind, the journey to Mandalay seemed wildly exciting. At every stop (and there were many), countless smiling and chattering vendors would suddenly appear from nowhere and flock to our open windows, bearing baskets of wondrous things.
Bunches of fat, sweet bananas and prickly rambutan; kettles of steaming green tea; banana-leaf parcels of hot sticky rice and dried fish; "twigs" of chewy goat jerky tied into bundles with straw knots we'd have to unpick; and packets of boiled quail eggs which we’d peel clumsily and pop into our mouths one by one, savouring the pale creamy yolks.
|Breakfast at my grandparents|
On our bleary-eyed, early-morning arrival, we’d be whisked straight to my grandparents’ house in the centre of town for bowl after bowl of mohinga, heaped with crispy split-pea fritters, slices of soft duck egg, bouncy fish cakes, roasted chilli flakes, and shredded coriander leaves, with salty fish sauce and lemon wedges to squeeze on the side.
A bounty of piquant textures and tastes, mohinga is a breakfast of fish chowder and rice vermicelli, renowned as the national dish of Burma and a firm favourite of my two older brothers.
|Mohinga, the national dish of Burma|
As someone addicted to rice however, I was often more interested in the see-htamin that was also presented to us – a moreish golden sticky rice infused with banana leaf and scattered with ground sesame, garlic-fried onions, gloriously mushy yellow peas, and freshly-fried fish jerky called nga-boh(k) chao(k) which I’d demolish in seconds when no-one was looking.
The next morning without fail, my grandmother Pwa Pwa and her staff would be up at the crack of dawn to cook up huge pots of delicious curry and fluffy rice, in order to give alms to the local monastery.
|Giving alms to the monks|
An endless line of monks would solemnly parade past our house, as I attempted to be respectful whilst simultaneously ladling out equal portions into their offering bowls and trying not to drool as the tantalising scent of sweet cinnamon chicken or spicy soy beef wafted up to me.
Unsurprisingly, only the choicest ingredients and the leanest meat would be served up to the monks. I remember being grief-stricken when my grandfather Po Po told me they’d thrown out all the fat that they’d removed from the belly pork and bamboo shoot stew, as I’d greedily ear-marked the glistening chunks for myself.
Thus the food at home was always wonderful and plentiful, but where Mandalay really came into its own was lun-bay zah – literally “roadside fare” aka street food. The rules and regulations that gripped and sanitised Yangon had yet to infiltrate Mandalay – and this held true in other ways.
|My cousin and me on a side-car rickshaw in Mandalay|
Just one example: in Mandalay even these days, cyclists, motorbikes and side-car rickshaws outnumber cars and lorries, and there’s little in the way of signals and road-markings, so crossing the street means holding your breath, walking straight into traffic and hoping for the best. But the heat of Mandalay means that the pace of life is slow, so casualties are (relatively) rare.
And as for the street food – every day, my 6’4” Po Po would sit in his huge wicker chair in the open garage at the side of the house, so he could watch life go by and, more to the point, flag down every passing snack-seller. I’d be dancing around in the living room with the radio blaring, only to be interrupted constantly by my parents yelling, “Coconut chicken noodles are here!”; “There’s steamed banana pudding!”; “Come and get some pickled marian fruit!”
That last was the most entertaining to me as a child, as the pickle vendor would herald his arrival by beating a small gong, which to a Burmese ear sounds like “Naon! Naon!” and, as a result, such vendors are called naon naon thair ie “the bong bong sellers”.
|Passing pickle man|
In the rare likelihood that no vendors chose to pass by that day, there was a mohn(t) yay-bah pancake seller who sizzled her wares to order just in front of the house, sending seductive aromas of frying onion and garlic our way, and around the corner was a tiny night market (nyah(t) zay dun) which touted all manner of fantastic snacks and fritters such as mohn(t) lin-myah – crispy shells of batter stuffed with tiny boiled peas, shredded spring onions, tomatoes and quivering quail eggs.
|Mohn(t) yay-bah pancake|
And in every direction as far as the eye could see, there were more roadside stalls with their own irresistible specialities. I remember watching “The Burma Road” at the age of nine back home in England, when I spied the presenter Miles Kington eating Mandalay mohntee noodles – a delectable “salad” of fat, blowsy rice noodles, tomatoey chicken curry, chillies, leafy coriander and sharp, sliced raw onions.
In raptures, I jumped up and shrieked to my mother, “I KNOW that stall! I've BEEN to that stall! It’s right next to Po Po and Pwa Pwa’s house! I’d kill to be there right now”.
Even now, although my grandparents have since passed away, the pancake seller is still frying away in front of the house driving everyone wild with the scent of sizzling onions; the street vendors continue to strut past daily with their panniers of plenty; and that night market still bustles away, surrounded by crowds satisfying their snacky cravings.
The only difference is that these days we catch a plane from Yangon to Mandalay – the railway romanticism is lost, but our eager stomachs are filled that much sooner.
Next time: To the hills of Mogok and beyond
|Frying away at the night market|