NOSTALGIA NOODLES by Guest Blogger, Tihana
I met Tihana about seven years ago in a writing class. She wrote about ghosts from the Orient and characters who practiced Kung Fu and supped on shark soup. When her latest travel adventure took her to Burma, a country at the top of my future travel list, I made her promise to blog for me. Nostalgia Noodles takes us on a hungry train ride from Mandalay through breathtaking hills and valleys and on to Hsipaw, North East of Mandalay. The train built by the British was designed to improve trade to this Northern State, once under British rule. All on board!
I had been on the train since 4 am that day and had only had a boiled egg and a piece of white bread for breakfast. There hadn’t been very much to buy at the Mandalay train station asides from some packets of wet tissues and water bottles with broken seals.
The train journey to Hsipaw was supposed to take about 11 or 12 hours, more or less, rather more than less, actually, because trains in Burma are notoriously unreliable.
I had bought an Upper Class ticket, thinking that perhaps tea would be served, or some sweets, or even lunch. It wasn’t the case though, and the only notable advantage of paying 8 USD instead of 4 USD for the Ordinary Class was the access to cushioned seats.
The other passengers in the carriage were mostly foreigners. A friendly Australian traveler shared a mandarin orange with me. Her husband was commenting about the terribly sweet instant coffee they serve in Burma, the only type one seems to find there. From the window, I was looking at the hills and fields, chicken running around shacks, children running around cats and dogs, all bathed in the yellow light of the January sun. The scenery was enchanting. However, I was getting hungry and was slowly chewing the acidic little mandarin, hoping for a proper meal soon.
Then, at one station, where we should have stopped only 3 minutes or so, the train came to a complete halt. Many passengers stepped outside. I did as well, my camera ready. On the platform, in the shade, women in colorful skirts, their cheeks painted with the white thanaka paste, were selling their wares: eggs, packages of cookies, grilled chicken, pork and unidentifiable vegetables on skewers. One woman, crouching behind her portable stove, was frying what looked like tiny plump chickpea flour cakes. A half a dozen of those cost 200 kyats, or 25 cents. I ate twelve cakes, savoring each bite, letting it slide down my throat, still hot, very greasy, the most delicious street food, feeling the hunger disappearing.
Everywhere you go in Burma you will find a market, big or small, and see street cooks and street vendors, mostly women, squatting next to their baskets and stoves, sometimes behind stalls and tables. For a few hundred kyats, never more, you can buy grilled corn, grilled animal bits, fish balls, spicy roasted nuts, fruit, sweets, flat soy patties, noodles, and of course, these wonderful chickpea cakes.
The big markets, such as the ones around Inle Lake, where villagers flock to every few days to buy and sell and socialize, are an experience by themselves. Many villagers reach them by small, motorized boats that are parked, almost piled up, on the lakeshore. The markets are huge and sprawling; I found it easy to get lost in them for a couple of hours, wandering from stall to stall, looking around, and taking photos.
The vendors aren’t pushy, as they can be in other countries. They sit and chat with their neighbors, arrange and rearrange their products. The women sometimes laugh, sing quietly or cajole their children. There is no rush, no real sense of urgency; things just go by. From early in the morning until the afternoon the market is living.
On one side of Nampan market, on the southeast side of Inle Lake, I saw a few hairdressers and barbers doing a brisk trade. The ground was scattered with long black hairs. Normal, I thought, market day is also haircut day.
Next to the hairdressing section were rows of buffaloes and carts, surrounded by flies, and then several stalls of beautiful, colorful flowers one should buy as offering to the temples. There were stalls with Chinese beauty products, with all sorts of knives, with medicines of unknown origin and expiry date, with mountains of rice and hills of cauliflowers, with baskets of tomatoes and bunches of herbs. And of course, there were food stalls, where one could sit down, take a rest, slowly slurp a bowl-full of hot noodles while watching puppies, chicks and babies play around the tables.
Burmese cooking has an undeserved bad reputation. It’s bland and oily, you may hear from disgruntled travelers. To those complaints I have three simple answers: request chili sauce, don’t eat the oil that sits on top of curries, and get inspired before you travel by reading Naomi Duguid’s fantastic book “Burma, Rivers of flavor” You will find in Burma plenty of tasty curries, all sorts of fresh salads including a slightly bitter tea leaf salad that balances well the richness of the curries, stir-fried vegetables, rice, noodles in soups, noodles without soups.
Alongside the chickpea cakes, the noodle soups are my favorite Burmese dishes. I regularly had them for breakfast, but also for lunch. They were such a satisfying, comforting meal, a much nicer way to start the day than with the ubiquitous fried eggs. I particularly loved the ones I had in Hsipaw, in the cold early mornings before going trekking for the day.
There are plenty of variations, as Duguid’s book illustrates. Some of them, called mohinga, are made with fish-based broth. Some are made with chicken and some with chickpea flour, which gives the soup a silky texture.
Back at home, I tried to make my own, based on a combination of Duguid’s recipes and the ingredients I could easily find in Canada.
Here’s what I came up with, and what I will eat when nostalgia strikes. Unfortunately though, I haven’t found yet a recipe for the chickpea cakes.
(For 1 person)
Water, just enough to cook the noodles
Thin rice noodles, fresh or dry
A few pieces of garlic, chopped
A small piece of fresh ginger, chopped coarsely
(You could make your own, but if you don’t want to, these oils can be bought already prepared at any better supermarket or Italian grocery)
A teaspoon or two of harissa paste (or any similar thick spicy tomato paste)
A handful of roasted peanuts
A small bunch of pea sprouts
Chopped tomatoes, fresh or from a can, a spoonful or two
Two or three dried chilies
Ground black pepper
Lots of fresh coriander
Put the water, chopped garlic, ginger and salt in a pot. Cook the noodles in the water according to the instructions in the packet. Add the pea sprouts 15 seconds before they are ready. Drain the noodles and pea sprouts while saving just enough water to have the noodles sitting in a soup without being covered with it. Pour a bit of oil over the noodles, according to taste. Add the rest of the ingredients, according to taste. Mix well. Eat while the soup is very hot.
If you’re eating it for breakfast, do as in Burma and have it with a cup of black tea or sweet instant coffee. For lunch or dinner, pair the soup with a light lager beer.