Golden pagodas, monks in bordeaux-red robes, fresh cut fruits (like watermelon, papaya, and pineapple) sold everywhere, street vendors, and sunny, hot weather: you get the picture and you know you have landed somewhere in Southeast Asia. It was my first time in Myanmar and I was soaking every detail, colour, and noise around me. During one of my first food stops my eyes got stuck on the menu line saying “green tea salad”. This was a new, intriguing, and to-be-tasted plate, for sure! Hmmmm, they didn’t have it for dinner, so I noted it on my list of things to try, my curiosity was awaken. When the next day we joined the Yangon Food Tours to experience and eat our way through different Burmese dishes and areas of the city, I simply had to ask for the green tea salad! Our friendly guide got this kind of worried look on his face and told me the best place to get it is a salad bar, but these are usually not open that late in the day or in the evening. So after some three hours tasting and eating several dishes from different parts of Myanmar, I made an appointment for a “salad bar lunch” few days later.
Before our lunch I was walking towards the meeting point and photographing the daily life in the hot streets of Yangon. In the one side street there was the daily morning market. Fresh fish, veggies, and fruits were being sold next to brooms and the local tobacco-chewing gum made from beetle nut. In the next street one lady was selling and cooking over 20 different warm dishes and the locals were having quick lunch break seated in from of the stall. Facing it there was the freshly pressed sugarcane bar. Few minutes and 2 cups of sugarcane juice later, my food guide arrived and we pretty quickly reached our destination located in one of the main streets of the centre.
A small and bit shabby looking bar with low plastic chairs. We took a seat in the middle of the place, there was no menu, and no other foreigners. The order was made and the lady went back to her small cooking corner full with different jars and containers. She put the fresh ingredients, the spices, some fresh lime juice, soya sauce, and other secret ingredients in a metal bowl. Then she mixed everything in the bowl before putting it on the serving plate. So coming back to the green tea salad! It is made with fermented green leaves, which looked almost like a green tapenade. The paste was mixed with tomatoes, fresh onions, sesame seeds, and peanuts. Salad number 2 was with fresh penny wort leaves, crispy onions, sliced fresh shallot, crushed peanut, thinly sliced tomatoes, salt, and lime juice.. I truly enjoyed the salad lunch and I am also pretty glad to have asked for this not so common dish.
So next time you are somewhere in the warm Asian continent and if people try to tell or convince you that Burmese (or Lao or any other) cuisine is not that special and is similar to that of Thai or other neighbours? Do not believe them! Ask, be curious, and try the less common, less known, and interesting dishes. Ask where to eat with the locals and don’t be shy to try something if it looks appealing to you or contain ingredients you like! And if you spot an avocado salad, go for it too. It’s a less complicated one – fresh fruit sliced and seasoned depending on the serving restaurant – and always different and good.