Mohinga and Fermented Tea Leaves: Eating on Location in Myanmar

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[Photograph: Jimmy Tran/Shutterstock]

The crew and I sat around on squat plastic stools waiting for our breakfast. It was still dawn, and the early morning fog was lazily making its way upward between the tree-lined streets. We decided to forgo the free hotel breakfast of white toast and fried noodles and walked next door to the stall serving mohinga, a fish soup that's often called the national dish of Myanmar.

It was our fifth day in the place formerly known as Burma, where we were to spend four weeks on location to shoot a micro-budget feature film. The movie was a fictional story, but even though it had nothing to do with food, the budget included all the Burmese fare we could fill ourselves with.

I first tried Burmese cuisine more than 20 years ago, at a restaurant called Burma Superstar in San Francisco's Richmond District. A single bite of fermented tea leaf salad rocked my world irrevocably. It was unlike anything I'd ever tasted, a wonderful contrast of bright and earthy, crisp and chewy, tart and salty, rich and fresh. I couldn't get the combination of crispy garlic chips, tangy-herbal pickled tea leaves, savory fish sauce, and spicy ginger out of my mind. At home in southern California, I became a frequent visitor to Yoma Myanmar and Daw Yee Myanmar Café in the San Gabriel Valley.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

After decades of enjoying Californian renditions of classic Burmese salads and curried soups, I was finally in Myanmar. Walking through the markets in Pyin Oo Lwin, located in the highlands, about a nine-hour drive from Yangon, I tried to take it all in: the women and children with their faces decorated with thanaka, a traditional sunblock made from ground bark; the vendors, sitting cross-legged on woven mats, at the open markets where they hawked their wares. Giant bunches of bananas hung from bamboo rafters. Locally grown papaya, dragon fruit, and watermelon were piled on carts at every corner. At all hours of the day and night, we dodged families of two, three, and even four people balanced precariously together on mopeds, speeding down the dirt roads.

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[Photograph: Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee]

Back at the mohinga stall, my mouth watered as I watched three women squat beside an open charcoal fire, frying tofu and stirring a large vat of garbanzo bean–thickened soup. They ladled each of us a bowl, the fish soup brimming over with soft rice noodles and tender pearl onions, garnished with lime, crisp lentil chips, chopped cilantro, half a boiled egg, and all the chili powder we wanted. The soup was savory and filling, fragrant from the fish sauce and the lime juice we squeezed all over it. This was a breakfast fit for kings, and it cost us just 700 kyat (pronounced "jet") each, less than 60 cents.

Local ingredients shape Myanmar's cuisine, but the nation's culinary traditions have also been influenced by those of its neighbors—most notably China and India, but Thailand as well. It's a diversity echoed in the Burmese language. The alphabet's beautifully ornate circles and diacritical marks can be traced to Chinese, Mon, Tibetan, Tangut, Brahmic, and Pyu scripts. Both language and cuisine are a testament to the dozens of different tribes and ethnic groups that make up the Burmese population. The government recognizes 135 different ethnic tribes, the most prominent of which are the Bamar (hence the name "Burma"), Shan, Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Rohingya, Khmer, and Mon.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Of course, colonialism left a lasting impression on Myanmar's cuisine, too. Following three Anglo-Burmese wars (between 1824 and 1885), Burma was a British colony from 1886 through 1942, when the Burmese tried to take advantage of the uncertainties of World War II to gain independence and ended up falling under Japanese rule. On our visit, the British influence was still palpable, especially in the town of Pyin Oo Lwin, where we were making our film—a former summer holiday destination for the Brits. In true English fashion, tea is served in the afternoon, napkins are folded, and the beer and whiskey are plentiful, cheap, and not half bad.

After World War II, General Aung San (father of the much-lauded Aung San Suu Kyi) unified Burma's tribes and negotiated independence for Myanmar. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by political rivals in 1947. Burma enjoyed a brief period of tenuous independence, but a military coup in 1962 led to decades of an iron-fisted dictatorship and ethnic violence, resulting in the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In 1990, the country held elections for the first time in nearly three decades, with Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party winning a majority of the seats. But the military government refused to cede power and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest until 2011. In November of 2015, though, the socialist-democratic NLD party won an overwhelming number of seats in the government through a momentous free election. It was in this political climate that I enjoyed my first bowl of mohinga, made more delicious by Myanmar's newly brightened prospects.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

As we finished our breakfast, the ticking clock reminded us of our impending deadline. In between shots, we looked forward to more breakfasts, lunches, and especially our late-night dinners—the ones we could linger over after the day's work was finished. Most of our meals were served with rice, the staple starch in Myanmar. We piled heaping mounds of it onto our plates, topped with a variety of steamed and curried dishes: soy-stewed beef with hunks of taro, long green beans sautéed with translucent slices of onion, tender pieces of eggplant dressed with whole garlic and chili paste. The condiments were often the best part of a meal—the smoky chili powders, tangy pickled mangos, and the vast variety of ground chili peppers that lit our mouths on fire.

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[Photograph: Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee]

A shan khao swe (Shan-style noodle) restaurant that looked like someone's house from the outside quickly became our favorite casual joint. Once you walked through the doorway, the place opened up into a series of rambling rooms housing tables and low seats, surrounding a courtyard garden of water lilies, hanging orchids, and a strange assortment of monkeys carved out of coconut shells, suspended from bamboo rafters. We ate our fill of the house specialty, but also enjoyed other noodle dishes, topped with slices of soft-braised pork belly, whole chicken drumsticks, or shreds of beef, sitting in a savory broth and garnished with chopped cilantro and stewed tomatoes.

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[Photograph: Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee]

Breakfast wasn't always mohinga. When we didn't have an early call time, we ate a leisurely meal at an Indian tea shop. There, we began our mornings with chewy naan dipped in a purée of light yellow beans, or paratha stuffed with the same cooked beans and topped with crispy pieces of fried garlic.

Scouting for locations, props, and costumes, I became familiar with the vendors selling fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and spices in the open markets. I would often return to the set after a prop-finding mission with egg crepes filled with generous handfuls of shredded coconut and sprinkled with sugar, folded into delicious hexagons, or an afternoon snack of paper-thin savory crepes (khout mote) enclosing a filling of garbanzo beans, tomatoes, and chilies. They were crisp, hot, and greasy, so good we didn't care that they were wrapped with yesterday's newspapers.

As soon as the call to evening prayer sounded from the mosque across the street from our main shooting location, I'd look for the lady with the samusa cart. The samusas—mild Burmese cousins to the Indian samosa—were wonderful on their own, but even better when she tossed them into a salad with garlic chips, dried shrimp, and tomatoes.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

In Myanmar, anything can be made into a salad: pennywort (a flat-leafed aquatic plant), frilly-edged winged beans, crisp cucumbers, slippery noodles, or tart unripe mangos. When I was finally able to taste my favorite version—lahpet thohk, that fermented tea leaf salad I'd fallen so hard for back in San Francisco—it was like seeing a wild animal in its natural habitat. The restaurant, a Yangon destination popular for family celebrations, had colorful paintings on the walls and cloth napkins on the tables. The salad arrived in a hand-carved, elaborately decorated wooden dish with all of its ingredients arrayed beautifully by color. The fermented tea leaves were at the center, surrounded by crackling-crisp fried garlic chips, crunchy dried lentils and toasted peanuts, savory dried shrimp, nutty sesame seeds, chopped green chilies, fresh tomatoes, and ginger. With its perfect balance of bright, tart lime juice and deep, earthy, salty fish sauce, it was, without question, the best lahpet thohk I've eaten in my life.

It's no wonder that the dish was shared as a symbolic peace offering after treaties were signed between warring kingdoms in Burma's earlier days. With my belly full of lahpet thohk, I went to bed content, the flavors dancing in my mouth and hope for Myanmar's future in my heart.