Through the window of the slow-rolling Mandalay express train, a mango seller on a station platform deftly throws a packet of young green mango slivers –stained with sweet, orange turmeric– into my hands. Slightly smoky and sour-sweet, with a bag of chilli salt, even the most common of street snacks in Burma can surprise with a flavour twist of heady spice and a hit of colour.
During the days I spent travelling in the country, the Burmese cuisine was a constant revelation, from fragrant Indian to homely Shan noodle dishes; nutty Middle Eastern-like salads and tooth-aching teahouse sweets. Meals set the rhythm of our trip – and during gruelling days on the road, the rhythm was 24/7.
‘Express’ in name only, the 15-hour Yangon-bound train trip from Thazi, in the Mandalay region, is a moving snack cart of samosas, watermelon, sickly sweet instant tea, soft drink and sesame toffee brittle. Vendors make their way perilously through the massively overcrowded economy carriage to feed the captive diners, before jumping off at the next stop. With over 10 hours of journey ahead through the golden dry-season countryside, it seemed best to try a little of everything and turn the journey into a sampler of convenience foods.
As each bare rural station comes into view, more basket-bearing food vendors appear at the windows. Some sell straw containers of ripe yellow raspberries, others with ready-made fried chicken and vegetable curries, quickly dished out into polystyrene containers. When the creaking locomotive lurches on, my spiced mango seller rearranges the fruit in the basket balancing on her head and vanishes from the tracks.
Burmese hospitality is a given, but it was especially apparent on our train ride: passengers share cigarettes and sunflower seeds, strangers calm upset babies and for wide-eyed foreigners, buy fruit and bottles of water. The young soldiers across the seat even throw our polystyrene out the window for us.
Arriving in Yangon 12 hours later, our aching bodies compel us to the narrow outdoor bbq and drinking hotspot Street 19, in Chinatown. Ordering a Myanmar lager at one of many busy street cafes, I peruse the glass counter for skewers of barbecued morsels to snack on while we revive - and a whole fish to be grilled for later, its skin crisp and flesh soft.
Quail eggs, marinated lotus slices, rows of gelatinous okra and spiced tofu come to the table in a skittle of beer glasses and aluminium dishes. Vegetarians would be well served in Yangon but best of the bbq snacks is a rolled chicken skewer: like a tiny beef olive, wrapping finely sliced carrot and perhaps spring onion.
Yangon is a haven for foodies. Walking down the bustling market streets off Anawrahta Rd presents endless occasions for tea stops and Indian snacks.
At yoghurt stall Shwe Bali, tubs of mild, tangy yoghurt curds are blended with ice and sugar for excellent lassis - strawberries can be added to the mix too. Taken with a South Indian-style idly, filled with caramel shredded coconut and bought on a sugar-whim from one of the many stalls lining the street, afternoon tea – the first round, at least - is complete.
Just around the corner, at an outdoor teashop, we stop for a second round of tea. The cafe owner lifts a large drum kettle and performs long, aerating pouring and straining. The tea that is served to us is strong and deeply satisfying -a small cup of it almost causes me to weep. With a dollop of condensed milk, it is the best yet.
Burma’s teahouses were for many decades famous not for tea but as intellectual meeting places and conversation seats. Through decades of extreme repression, they turned into hotbeds for informing and spies. At breakfast one morning in a teahouse we visit, portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi which proudly hung on the walls the evening before, vanish at the arrival of local police.
Although the teahouse staples of deep fried biscuits, sugared paratha and sweet bean donuts seem like a plausible breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, as my travelling companion reminds me, you can’t live on sugar alone.
At the Feel restaurant in the Dagon Tsp area of Yangon, a popular chain, a hearty dinner menu is presented in a steaming display of fragrant curries. Crowded with waiters, I point greedily at a rich-looking beef curry, tempered with a slick of red oil. A jam-like onion sauce covering plump langoustines also looks amazing, and with it I pick a potato curry, an eggplant salad, a whole tray of feathery dried fish and crunchy accompaniments and two dishes of piquant sauces. We better get one of the famous lahpet thouk tea-leaf salads, too, I think.
Before the meal, par-boiled vegetables and peppery leaves are served with a fermented fish sauce akin to prahok. Tealeaf salad is a riot of textures; sesame, crunchy peanuts and beans mixed into the creamy-tasting yet sourish fermented tealeaves.
Tamarind courses through much of the flavours, and an icy concoction of sugar and tamarind juice in a tall glass complements our rich, oily dishes well. The babaganoush-like smoky eggplant salad, served at room temperature, is silky and garlicky and with the avocado and tomato, coarsely chopped with lime juice and red onion, are meals in themselves.
Leaving Feel, with a clutter of unfinishable sauces and breads spread across the table, I realise it is our last supper in Burma. Our short time has been invigorating, both in the elegant city of Yangon and the long days spent on rail. A pang of sadness hits me, right downto my stomach.