The Food Vortex
“Is that a fish eye?”
“No, it’s vegetarian soup.”
“Um. Looks exactly like a fish eye.”
Yeah, that was a fish eye. I scooped it out of the soup and hid it under a small mound of rice. Eating is a little complicated here, and yesterday we found ourselves in a Burmese Food Vortex: everything we bought to eat was wrong, weird, or both.
There’s no shortage of interesting and delicious food in this beautiful, gentle country. Especially when you’re carrying a wallet full of kyat. Every 5 steps in the city, you come across pure yummy, especially on the street corners, where I prefer to forage. The little voice in the back of my head says “Hmm. Her fingernails are filthy. Where is she getting the water to wash that spoon? Is that dish made with the grotesquely gutted-and-splayed chicken I see on every block covered with flies and roasting in the sun? How screwed am I if I get Burma belly today?”
And then I eat it anyway, and it’s usually wonderful. We have loved the crispy, greasy samosas and flaky pancakes stuffed with vegetables. One of my favorites is what I’ll call Burmese Diner food: several wonderful little dishes like stewed eggplant or tomato, roasted cauliflower, mango pickle with bamboo shoots, smokey yellow lentils, or pickled tea leaves, all served with a bowl of rice and eaten with a spoon.
While there seem to be Indian, Thai, and Chinese influences, Burmese food is distinctive, and I’m hot for any cuisine prepared or adorned with the combinations they use: peanuts, garlic, onions, ginger, spicy peppers, and fresh herbs — all served with a side of lime and salty hot pepper oil.
Avoiding meat isn’t important to me. I don’t mind the fish eye in my soup, though I wouldn’t eat the eye itself. But it is to John, so I’ve been gamely trying to communicate this special need with food vendors. So far, not a single person has understood us when we tried the Burmese phrase we were told to use, “theq theq lo” meaning lifeless or no living thing. Only one person we tried buying food from spoke enough English to assure us that she had vegetarian options. But eating no living thing has a different meaning than “no meat,” and all of it is more complicated in a country that basically runs on fish paste. Generally, one of us will pull a fish bone out of our mouth at some point during every meal.
I also want to point out that we make this harder on ourselves. Burma is only 5 years opened to the west and there are only a few guide books and blogs, but we’re trying hard to avoid eating in the recommended tourist places. We want to eat what and where the locals eat. This also means that we (mostly) pay what the locals do: typically well less than $3 for a big meal including beers and Cokes.
Most places we stop in aren’t traditional restaurants, but more like a bunch of chairs and tables grouped together on a dirt floor under a tarp, with a few big pots boiling on wood stoves in the back. Usually there’s a TV playing WWF or Animal Planet, and generally it’s all about tea first, food second.
But wait. We were talking about the fish eye. So after a week of deliciousness at every meal, last night we went out to a Myanmar ‘diner’ and ordered “no meat” (after failing with theq theq lo). We were served soup, rice, and 7 little vegetable and tofu dishes. First came the fish eye situation, and then as we tried each dish, the smell and taste of fish grew more powerful, and finally progressed to skeevy. I had to stop eating altogether. John ate a little more, but also gave up. We paid and left quickly, both incredibly guilty that more than half our meal was sitting uneaten on the table. In a country where the GNI is <$2000/year, we’d left roughly 50% of a day’s wage behind.
So much for yesterday. Today has been amazing for food. We’ve cleared the Vortex, and all systems — and bellies — are Go. For now.
PS I got another fish eye in my soup tonight.