Monday, 3 June 2013

Mogok - the Valley of Rubies (Part 3)

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
At a Shan khao swe noodle stall in Mogok

My mother’s family is from Mogok, a gem-mining town bordering the mountainous Shan State, remarkable for the fact that it’s where ninety per cent of the world’s rubies come from.

In fact, my great, great-grandfather was U Hmat, known as the Ruby King of Burma, who famously traded in precious gemstones in the late 1800s, and was rumoured to have been knighted by Queen Victoria in absentia. 

Sadly, the money has long since gone, but till at least 2002, one of my uncles still had shares in a ruby mine - we visited that year, and I remember seeing a big whiteboard with a list of the biggest gems and their sale prices. I also remember seeing a bowl full of unpolished rubies and briefly considering pocketing a couple (Alfred's anecdote wasn't far from the truth).

My great, great grandfather, U Hmat
"U Hmat was great here in the days before any Englishman had come within sight of Mogôk. He is not a foreigner… but a native of the soil. He lives some distance from the market-place in a rambling wooden house on piles…. At one end he has built himself a strong-room of brick, in which lie hidden, according to popular tradition, rubies of extraordinary value. U Hmat is seldom seen abroad. He goes, it is said, in terror of his life; and his courtyard is thronged with retainers, who make for him a kind of personal bodyguard. But in bygone days he travelled every year to Mandalay with a present of rubies, and was received in audience by the king. He is a builder of many monasteries and pagodas; but is said to be less lavish in this respect than most of his compatriots in Burma. He is believed accordingly by his European neighbours to have `his head screwed on the right way.’ His character for economy is the topic of very favourable discussion at the dinner tables of the settlement, and it is a commonplace of opinion that he is the only Burman at the mines who is not a fool. Let it be added that he is the father of a pretty daughter, whose jewels are the despair of every other woman in Mogôk, and that he keeps her in strict seclusion, lest some adventurous youth should steal away her heart, or her person, or both. He has been good enough, however, to show me some of her most beautiful jewels." 
V.C. Scott O’Connor, 1905, The Silken East

Although most of my mother's side moved down to Yangon, her two brothers decided to stay in their childhood home, dividing it into two for their own families. And so we would undertake a six-hour journey by pick-up truck from Mandalay to Mogok up a narrow, winding mountain path to visit them all. 

The route was made all the more treacherous by the fact that, insanely, it was open to two-way traffic, so our precarious progress was constantly punctuated by a honking horn to let on-comers know we were coming.

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
On the road to Mogok

Halfway up the mountain, we’d always pause at a little village called Shwenyaungbin (Golden Banyan) to stretch our legs and for the driver to have a rest. The smouldering smell of wood burning marked this recognised truck stop, where we’d draw our tiny stools closer to the fire and indulge in jar-zun hin, an intense smoky broth packed with sweet, charred shrimp, earthy wood-ear mushrooms and slippery bean-thread noodles. With a sprinkle of smoke-roasted chilli, a dash of fish sauce and a squeeze of lime, every spoonful warmed us and dazzled our tastebuds.

We’d also stuff ourselves on fried slices of floury potato, piping-hot from the wok (so much better than chips), and steaming tubes of bamboo crammed with sticky rice, which we’d peel open immediately, gladly risking third-degree burns to get to the fragrant goodness inside. 

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Jar-zun hin -  mung bean vermicelli soup

This feast was always followed by mugs of hot, sugary, milk-powdery coffee and slabs of mohn(t)-juh(t), a kind of sweet, biscuity bread like those packaged French Toasts. Forget motorway services – this was the way to stop off in style. As we watched the embers crackle and glow, we felt happy and toasty and replete.

And when we eventually got to the top, we’d be greeted with open arms and hot water bottles, as, in contrast to sultry Mandalay, Mogok was definitely a hill town with chilly weather to match.

Extremities dealt with, we’d warm ourselves inside with dish after dish of pork – stewed, braised, fried, roasted, steamed and even pickled; never mind rubies, in Mogok, pork was king and every little bit was used, head to tail and everything in between. 

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Burmese black pudding with crispy fried garlic and onions

So valued was this meat in my mother's birthplace, that the Mogok slang for wages was we(t)-thar bo - literally "pork funds" - and people would say cheerily, "I'm off to earn today's pork funds now" (cf "bringing home the bacon").

One of my favourite Mogok snacks is still pig intestines that have been seasoned and hung up to dry like salami and then cut into chunks, salted and stir-fried until crunchily crisp. And whilst these we(t)-oo jao(t) went beautifully with a plate of steamed rice and some garlicky greens at suppertime, I’d make sure to squirrel away a salty bowlful to snack on like the finest pork scratchings whilst gossiping with my cousins and drinking cups of green tea.

Pork rinds, Shan sausages, and bright red we(t)-oo jao(t) pig intestines

The next day, while the world was still misty, we'd have pouring showers where I insisted that they boiled a kettle of water for me (for which I was deemed a wuss). Then my younger uncle would take us for a stroll to the nearby Shan market, where we'd buy, yes, more pork, but also vegetables and other food for the day from the chattering stall-holders, and eat bowl after bowl of Shan tofu and Shan khao swe noodles, and try to spy discreetly on the tribes-people who had also come to town, both to buy and to sell.

Then my cousin would appear on her moped, somehow elegantly dressed in a denim jacket, htamein, flip flops, and an old Army helmet in lieu of a crash helmet. She'd offer to take me for a ride and we'd whizz around the narrow streets, between countless red-roofed houses, enjoying the cool breeze.

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Strawberry sellers

The sad thing about Mogok being the land of rubies is that "foreigners" aren't allowed to visit, unless they have legitimate business  - for which read gem-trading reasons. 

My husband, a pesky foreigner, has applied to visit on numerous occasions, and each time he's been turned down. I couldn't go without him, so until things change (and I hope they will), I won't be able to return. 

I miss Mogok, and it's becoming more of a distant dream as time passes.

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen