I have to confess I haven’t cooked anything – not one thing – since moving to Mae Sot six weeks ago.
Once I went to Tesco Lotus and bought some items with the view to cooking them, but when I got home hungry I unwittingly bit into a raw mackerel, then spat it out on the floor, then spent the remainder of the evening cleaning up mackerel juice and scrubbing my hands instead of cooking (or eating). And that was that.
For budget reasons though (and to avoid diabetes/high blood pressure/obesity), I will need to start. To get the ball rolling I decided to take a Saturday morning class at Borderline – a store and gallery that sells handwoven crafts and art and makes very good Burmese vegetarian food – and learn how to shop in the local market.
My guide, Bo Bo, was a man in his early thirties from Shan State who (like many here) is planning to go back to Burma sometime in the next few months. He was calm, friendly and very fit, with both arms covered in tattoos.
Bo Bo explained that the market is divided into three parts – first Thai, which blends into Burmese, which blends into the Burmese-Muslim covered market.
We mainly shopped in the open-air Burmese stalls.
As someone with pale skin, I was struck by the high levels of sun sense amongst the locals. The methods depend on which part you’re in: baseball caps, loosened headscarves, warm glowing umbrellas, thanaka cream, those conical Asian hats designed to protect from sun and rain while toiling in rice paddies, etc. I think the Burmese ones are made of bamboo. They’ve also (like many things here) been known to double as a political symbol.
This woman has Thanaka on her face. It’s a distinctive yellowish-white cosmetic suncream made from ground bark, and one of the only ways I decide whether it’s better to say ‘mingalaba’ (Burmese hello) instead of ‘sawadee ka’ (Thai).
Thai man in a cap
Betel leaves, pressed into intricate whorls, can be found everywhere. They’re used to wrap up the wood-like areca nut (‘betel nut’) along with tobacco, spices and lime, a calcium-containing substance that’s meant to aid digestion. This little bundle (a ‘betel quid’) acts as a mild stimulant, like drinking a cup of coffee.
New leaf – betel leaf
Chewing betel quid is a widespread habit in Asia. It’s believed to have medicinal properties but has unfortunately been linked to a number of diseases including gastritis, kidney stones, birth defects and oral cancer.
Most ironically, it’s rumored to be good for dental hygiene – this has not been my impression. The dentition here is not good. The leaves deliver tannins which stain a deep dark red, and some of the patients I’ve seen give the impression that they have a mouthful of blood and rust and are chewing on shards of their own rotten teeth.
Betel nut – deceptively pretty
Bags of lime. Hmn.
But betel was not on our shopping list (although, despite the carcinogens, I am curious to get a betel buzz and watch my spit turn red).
Some essential ingredients, whether you’re Thai or Burmese, Buddhist or Muslim (or even farang ): rice, dried chilies, limes, eggs and a wide variety of fresh vegetables.
Another new fruit…
Custard applies on a cart – like a pile of sweet grenades
Dragon fruit – more exciting on the outside
And some more familiar ones.
Incandescent banana bunches
They somehow seem more vivid scattered around in the morning market heat, as opposed to ordered and spaced out in an air-conditioned supermarket.
I was so drawn to these watermelons that I asked to buy one so I could take a bunch of photos without feeling too awkward.
Somehow I ended up with four, that ended up in Bo Bo’s backpack. I don’t think he was too thrilled. Watermelon is not the lightest fruit.
Fermented fish paste, or ngapi, is a staple of rural Burma/Myanmar, especially the Irrawaddy Delta. I noticed it was a recurring thread in the autobiography ‘Little Daughter’ by Zoya Phan, a young Karen woman who was forced to flee her village at the age of 14 when it was attacked by the Tatmadaw (the Burmese Armed Forces). She is now a prominent activist living in the UK, where she has political asylum, and remains a vocal critic of the current Burmese government.
Fish paste seemed to be one of the few points of continuity for her and her family when they were living for many years in refugee camps in Thailand.
Karen comfort food – kind of like my cold Milo or macaroni cheese (except they don’t smell like putrefying flesh)
Other hallmarks of the daily Burmese diet.
Ingredients for the national dish, pickled tea leaf salad (otherwise known as လက်ဖက်သုတ်). In Burma, they don’t just drink tea!
Banana stems (note the scale – they’re huge!). One ingredient in mohinga, a popular breakfast that consists of fish soup with rice noodles and fresh herbs (and other things). It’s up there with tea leaf salad as far as iconic Burmese dishes go.
As a child of divorce, I have 3 little half-siblings aged 7, 5 and 2 years old. For some forgotten reason I call the middle one “Froggie” and when I first saw frogs in the market it sparked the idea of compiling a photo scrapbook of the creatures in Mae Sot to send to them.
But then I realised it would be like sending them a documentary on Guantanamo Bay.
Or a DVD of The Shawshank Redemption.
Or a storybook version of ‘Tales from the Crypt’.
Maybe it’s time to come up with a new nickname.
It’s a well known fact that Asians aren’t squeamish when it comes to their dead animals. Surrounded by buckets of slime-covered gizzards, beaks and feet and lone pulpy eyeballs, and bloody white entrails slopping out all over the place, I thought back to the neat little plastic-covered bundles of light pink chicken breast at the Herne Hill weekend farmers’ market.
In the Western world, where everything tends to be highly sanitized and over-packaged, there a lot of distance between us and the things we eat. I, for one, have never so much as seen a live headless chicken let alone slaughtered my own cow. And Anglo-Saxons like our meat very dead, in pieces (not all the pieces) and preferably a bit cute-looking.
A chicken foot stretches out daintily into the warm air, like that of a tired ballerina.
Asians also like to eat insects. But it seems Westerners are the odd ones out again – in fact we’re behind the food 8-ball.
Entomophagy – the human consumption of insects as food – is common in most parts of the world, in almost every culture, on every continent. It’s even currently being explored as a potential way to solve global food insecurity. And (like sushi in the 90s) it looks like it might just be starting to become ‘trendy’.
High protein, low-GI, crunchy and salty, a solution to malnutrition and global warming….what more could you want from a snack?
Mae Sot is a major Thailand-Burma trade hub. According to Bo Bo the fish here comes from either the freshwater Moei river, tracing the border, or the Andaman Sea in lower Burma, south-west of the Bay of Bengal. The source affects the level of saltiness so it’s important to ask about it before you commit (N.B. this is not going on my expanding list of phrases-to-learn anytime soon).
“Salt- or fresh-water?”
Heaped trays of sun-dried shrimp, shrunk down to thumbnail size. A handful is often thrown on the top of Southeast Asian dishes.
Another random reminder of being in a border town.
Thai army man with flowers
Mae Sot is adjacent to Karen State, Burma. Armed conflict between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese government is the world’s longest running civil war. Over the years it has spilled over into Thailand in fits and starts, mainly in the form of masses of displaced villagers. From what I understand, the fighting has been at a relative standstill since 2012. As it’s not an international conflict, I wonder what sort of role the Thai security forces have had (in Mae Sot at least).
After collecting enough fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains and fermented things we ended up in a Burmese tea shop located down one of the side alleyways.
Bo Bo and I had a very interesting Q+A about the history of tea and coffee in Burma and how it mirrors the political and economic upheaval of the past century.
I think the same must be true of the food. From what I can tell it’s infused with the complex myriad identities of this fractured country and its 60 million inhabitants – roughly two-thirds Burman and one-third ethnic minorities – living at the edge of Southeast Asia, squished in between two rising global powers India and China, and still struggling with the reverberating effects of their colonial and military-coup-dominated past. Although luckily it would seem the British had more of an influence on drinking habits than on the food.
All this makes a Saturday morning shop in the market more thought-provoking than a trip to Coles or Sainsbury’s.
 Foreigner in Thailand – generally a white person