Dozens of Naga tribes yearn to reunite the 3 million living in India with their 400,000 estranged cousins in Myanmar.
The king of the Konyak tribe sleeps in Myanmar, but eats in India – his house, village and people divided by a mountain border which serves as a vulnerable lifeline now severed by a coronavirus lockdown.
The Konyak are just one of dozens of Naga tribes, a people yearning to reunite the 3 million living in India with their 400,000 estranged – and much poorer – cousins in Myanmar’s isolated far north.
Many from Myanmar cross the border to attend school, sell vegetables or visit a hospital, as it is a days-long journey by foot to the nearest town in Myanmar.
Even in normal times, they live at the mercy of Indian soldiers guarding checkpoints against the threat of armed groups fighting for reunification.
Tonyei Phawng claims to be the 12th generation of his family to rule the Konyak, whose feared tattooed warriors once brought home their enemies’ heads as trophies.
His son, the crown prince, will one day take over in a lineage many believe possess supernatural powers.
Dressed in a tracksuit and trainers in his village of Longwa, the 43-year-old king described to AFP news agency in February how his Myanmar brothers were often stopped at the border and detained as they were trying to enter India.
“Their rights are denied.”
Days later, the border was shuttered, not at the whim of Indian soldiers, but because of COVID-19.
For the town of Longwa, which straddles the border, the shutdown has impacted the two sides differently.
The Indian government was providing some emergency rations, but Myanmar’s authorities were not doing the same on their side of the border, Longwa-based tour guide Nahmai Konyak, 34, told AFP by telephone.
Those living hand-to-mouth in Myanmar are finding it very difficult, he said. “We just can’t help them.”
Retreating British colonialists left behind the frontier after World War II, cleaving the Konyak tribe of 44 villages in two – alongside several other tribes.
The Naga on both sides enjoy some degree of autonomy, but there is a huge disparity in the level of development.
Indian roads lead right up to the frontier, bringing business and even some hardy tourists.
Over the border, off-grid villages with few schools or amenities dot thickly-forested slopes, connected by muddy paths in one of Myanmar’s poorest regions.
Thousands of Naga have taken up arms over the decades to try to win a united homeland by force.
The rebels splintered in the late 80s into two main groups, one fighting for the Naga cause each side of the border.
Civilians must pay taxes to help finance the groups and many families “sacrifice” a son to the resistance, says Myanmar Naga activist Jacob Ngansa.
But New Delhi’s relative investment is chiselling away support over the border, the 23-year-old admits with sadness.
“They are brainwashed by the Indian government.”
With India-Myanmar relations blossoming, these are ominous times for Naga nationalists.
Myanmar is hungry for new allies after being snubbed by the West over the Rohingya crisis, while India is keen to counter China’s regional influence over its smaller neighbour.
The allies recently held joint military exercises and Myanmar’s president in February signed numerous deals on his visit to the subcontinent – also reaffirming a pact to prevent rebels mounting cross-border attacks.
Politics over force
Other Naga unionists choose politics over force.
The newly-formed Naga National Party aims to woo the Naga vote in Myanmar’s elections due later this year.
Once they are in power, chairman Shu Maung says, they will work within the system to bring change. “You cannot live in your uncle’s house forever.”
The battle for the ballot box has already started.
Regional National League of Democracy MP Kail, who goes by one name, is Naga but says his immediate priorities are education, healthcare and food.
“Once we have those, then maybe the younger generations can take up the fight again for the dream.”
But analyst Bertil Lintner believes the best the Myanmar Naga can hope for is more autonomy within the country.
A united Nagaland is “never going to happen,” he says, not least because the tribes are so divided among themselves.
At a viewpoint overlooking Longwa village, smartly-dressed Rongsen Ao was one of the last tourists to make it to the border before it closed.
Excitedly hopping from one side of a demarcation post to the other, the 65-year-old Indian Naga doctor said he had fulfilled a childhood dream by seeing the frontier in person.
But his smile faded when asked about the Naga’s quest for a homeland.
“Everyone feels bitter about being divided…but this is beyond our control.”
Shan State is one of the most popular States in Myanmar for tourists, not only because of its cuisine, but also because of the different attraction it offers. It is located in the Middle Eastern part of Myanmar, and its capital Taunggyi is famous for the Hot-air Balloon Festival.
It is also famous for the beautiful Inle Lake, where the floating gardens, the fishermen village and the unique way of one-leg paddling will fascinate you.
For adventurers, Hsipaw and Kalaw are two great cities to be in touch with nature and do trekking while Kakku Pagodas are a must visit the religious site.
If Asian food is one of the best and most varied in the world, imagine a country with its own delicious cuisine plus a healthy dose of Asian ingredients and cooking styles. Burmese cuisine is also very healthy, favoring fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as fish products like fish sauce and fish paste and fermented seafood.
Here are three of the most popular and authentic Shan State dishes:
1. Shan Noodles
Shan noodles are one of the most popular dishes in Myanmar. You will find them in every teahouse and restaurant. You can have them either as a soup or as a salad, and in both cases, the sauce is the same. The noodles are different. The ones used for the soup are sticky and flat rice noodles, whereas the ones used for the salad are thick and round rice noodles.
To prepare the sauce, they blend tomatoes and then add salt, sugar, oil, sugar cane sauce and paprika. Then everything goes in a pot to boil.
2. Shan Yellow Rice Cake with Tomato Sauce
This is one of the dishes, when tasted, gets glued to your memory and taste buds forever.
For cooking the rice, there is no trick, just wash it, add water, turmeric powder for the yellow color, salt and a little bit of chicken powder.
There are two different tomato sauces, one to mix with the rice and the other to put on top of the rice cake.
For the first one, cut tomatoes in half, add salt and cook them in a pot until you have a sauce. Leave to cool. Remove the tomato skin. Then, you stir the yellow rice to make it a little bit sticky and mix it with this tomato sauce. Before pouring all the tomato sauce, separate some in a bowl and add turmeric oil. Use this mix to wet your hands and season the rice cake while you shape it.
The second tomato sauce to add on top of the cake is the key. To prepare it, heat oil and add onions, garlic, fermented soya bean powder, dried chili powder and turmeric powder. Then, add grained tomatoes, salt and chicken powder. At this point, you can also add coriander or spring onion and chicken or pork.
There is always another side sauce to add on top of the cake, turmeric and garlic sauce. Just heat oil, fry garlic and then add turmeric powder. Its crunchy-garlic touch is amazing. And any cracker like pork skin, bean or rice goes perfectly well with this dish.
3. Black Sesame Seed and Sticky Rice Cake (KhorPoat)
This is a very traditional snack in Shan State made with purple rice, black and round sesame seeds and salt.
It is really interesting to see how they prepare it. They, place the cooked rice into a stone “bowl” situated on the ground and add black round sesame seeds (already mashed) and salt. Then there is a “wooden machine” that smashes and mixes it to form the dough.
To sell it, they separate the dough into small portions of the same size and wrap it in the banana leaf so that it doesn’t dry.
The most popular and tasty way of having it is fried or barbequed, although you can also eat it raw. It is usually eaten in winters and served with brown sugar or jaggery on the side. It only costs between 100-200 kyats ($0.1 – 0.2).
Content and Picture Courtesy – Mr. Juan Gallardo, Writer at Myanmar Travel Essentials
Juan has traveled extensively to discover everything about Burmese cuisine, tasting traditional dishes cooked for him by the locals. It is these amazing dishes, the warmth of the people and the beauty of the land that is captured in his book “Delicious Myanmar”.
Myanmar’s rise from the ashes of political turmoil, cultural stagnancy and severe isolation is a monumental historic feat. The ushering in of democracy has adequately released it from the unsparing shackles of military suppression and has catapulted it onto the expansive path of progress, aggressive aspirations, development and integration with the mainstream global canvas.
Buried in its shadowy past has been its most delectable and distinct food experience, popularly known as the Burmese cuisine. Inhabited by various ethnicities and nationalities, Burmese food specialty varies from region to region; each region serving a specific delicacy with their own recipe and style of cooking. In effect, a trek through Myanmar’s coast towards the inland or traversing the northern and southern regions of Myanmar are sure to delight one’s epicurean journey.
An authentic Burmese palette blends in varied flavors – hot, sweet, sour and salty, by serving multiple side dishes and accompaniments along with the main dish. For example, bitter leaves, dried chilies and salty fish paste may accompany a mild curry. It is this richness that makes it so unique and appetizing, and worthy of being placed on the global cuisine frontier.
Situated on the crossroads of gigantic civilizations of China and India, and bordering the countries of Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh, Myanmar has naturally and inadvertently acquired their distinct characters and culinary influence, while exploring and retaining its own novelty. From the gamut of Chinese dumplings and boiled vegetables to the Indian inspired curries, samosa and biryani, Myanmar staple food has remained constant for years: rice.
From driving the country’s economy as being world’s largest exporter, rice has become the bedrock diet for many people in Myanmar. Htamin Jin in Burmese, rice is usually served with curry, soup and multiple condiments that a Burmese cuisine is characterized of. Either boiled or relished as flat noodles, from being a breakfast or a light snack to being savored as a dessert on the streets, it remains the backbone of any Burmese meal.
Rice noodles or locally known as Mohinga or Mohinka. It is a favorite dish among the locals, enjoyed as breakfast and also as a filler light snack in between meals. These round rice noodles are served in fish paste and shallot broth with a hint of onion garlic adding to the flavor. Topped with veggies, boiled eggs, sliced banana pith and akyaw fritters, it is usually sprinkled with dried chili, lime and coriander. Its preparation varies throughout the region, depending upon the availability of ingredients.
A salad for Burmese people is an aggregation and experimentation with diverse elements. An unusual mixture of everything which is crunchy, salty, spicy and sour is concocted as a salad. Laphet Thoke, the most popular and thoroughly enjoyed salad constitutes pickled green tea leaves interfused with amalgamation of sauces, and crunchy and sour assortments; sesame, shrimps, ginger, lime, fish sauce, peanut oil, peas, nuts etcetera. It can be served as a snack or accompany a plate of rice.
Nan gyi Thoke, dry rice noodles in the shape of spaghetti is also a salad based dish, relished with chicken, fish curry and garnished with chickpea flour, chilies and turmeric.
The Northern interiors of Myanmar are famous for Shan Noodles, reflecting country’s predominant Buddhist group’s delectable food trails. Served in chicken or pork broth, it is seasoned with garlic oil and sesame with pickled vegetables. In comparison to southern or coastal Burmese noodles, Shan noodles are bland and simple in texture.
Another dish that exhibits Shan specialty and deserves to be mentioned is fish rice or commonly called Shan style rice. Served with the sides of raw garlic and leek roots, it’s oily and is cooked in turmeric.
Curried noodle soup, Khow Suey, is another dish fundamental to Burmese cuisine. Its ingredients involve coconut milk, curried chicken and egg noodles. Like any other Burmese dish, this too gets accompanied by disparate condiments. However, as per the availability of ingredients, its recipe can be tailored to one’s preference.
Tea houses cannot be given a miss while talking about the eclectic Burmese cuisine. These are the small and scattered tea and snack hubs brimming with voices greeting political affairs and social customs with great gusto and zest. Bursting with a medley of Chinese, Indian and local dishes; noodles, steam buns, samosas, the local tradition of tea shops have evolved as an integral part of the Burmese cuisine.
Burmese desserts, colloquially termed as moun, usually gets its sweet flavor from its corresponding ingredients than sugar itself; sticky rice, fruits, grated coconuts act as sweeteners. Moreover, they are relished as snacks like semolina flour with coconut milk, pancakes with raisons etcetera.
If the food trajectory of Myanmar feeds the nonvegetarians quite sufficiently, vegetarians are served adequately well too with fresh vegetables and fruits available abundantly. Also, the Buddhist sanctity prevalent in the country makes vegan diet an essential part of everyday life of Myanmar.
With Burmese bounty ready to be served on the world platter, and geared to exhibit its vast regional spread through plethora of its native treats and cuisine, the World awaits Myanmar’s food treasures to satiate its South East Asian appetite in glory all renewed and rediscovered.
Myanmar has a very rich and unique culture which attracts a lot of foreigners to it. The uniqueness of this beautiful country also extends to its cuisine. Myanmar has so many different mouthwatering local dishes to offer that can completely make your taste buds addicted to Myanmar food. People on this country not only cook their food differently but have a somewhat special way of eating food too which can be seen as a ritual. The whole family sits together for dinner and all of the dishes are placed together on the table. This is done to enable people to choose what and how much they want to eat along with combining different dishes in their own way to match their tastes and preferences. The dining tables are low and people usually sit on the floor while eating. The dishes are somewhat oily and they don’t use much spices either but yet there are many mouthwatering options available for those who want to try Myanmar’s cuisine.
Let’s have a look at three of the most popular foods in Myanmar
Tea Leaf Salad
Tea leaf salad or lephet as it is called in local language is surely one of the most popular Myanmar food item. It is prepared using fermented tea leaves and is prepared in two different ways: either as a dessert or as a pickle. Additional additions such as shredded cabbage, sliced tomatoes deep-fried beans, nuts, peas, garlic oil and chilli are also made.
Mohinga is so popular in Myanmar that it can even said to be the unofficial national dish of this country. It consists of round rice noodles which are served in a broth of herbal fish- shallot which also contains crunchy pith of the banana tree.Hard-boiled egg and deep-fried vegetables are often added as toppings. It is a popular breakfast dish but is sometimes consumed as lunch or dinner as well.
This is a kind of a noodle soup that is extremely popular in Myanmar. The dish is from the Shan state of Myanmar and is prepared by combining thin, flat rice noodles with a broth of marinated chicken or pork. Toasted sesame and a little garlic oil are also added for enhancing the flavor. Shanhkaukswè served with a side of pickled vegetables.
The unofficial national dish of rice vermicelli in a fish-based broth of onions, garlic, ginger, and lemon grass – all topped with sliced banana blossom, boiled eggs and fritters (akyaw). Sounds like a strange choice for breakfast, doesn’t it? But after almost a month of fried egg breakfasts, this soup provided a welcome change. The best: at the family-run roadside stand in Meikthila near the bus stop to Bagan.
2. Chapatis and Curry in Mandalay:
This chapati stand needs no name; everyone in Mandalay knows it. It’s difficult to decide which facet of the chapati production line impresses the most: the women rolling the dough or the guys tossing and frying the chapatis. And the taste is no slouch either. To give your chapati some company, opt for a dose of meat or veg curry from giant cauldrons. The veg curry and daal were both tasty – and bottomless. Between dips, scoops and swabs, enjoy life as it swirls on the street and tables around you. Location and Cost: Mandalay, 82nd and 27th Streets, 700 kyats (less than $1).
3. Barbecue Street in Rangoon (Yangon)
Although barbecue usually implies meat, we went all vegetarian. Herbivores and carnivores alike will find an endless choice. Opt for food that looks fresh and select your desired atmosphere. The grilled okra, broccoli, mushrooms, and tofu all rocked, particularly when washed down with a cold draft beer. Location and cost: Rangoon’s Chinatown between Mahabandoola and Anawrahta Streets. Cheap, as in two people eat for less than $3.
Anywhere on the street, particularly in Rangoon. Sample them on the street corner, on the train platform, in the circle train. Try ’em, try ’em often. Some even feature hints of cinnamon and star anise. Try also the samosa soups (samusa thouk), where samosas are scissored into a light broth and topped with fresh herbs, onions and greens.
5. Burmese thali.
Bus journeys in Burma often take twice as long as they should. As a consolation, your bus will usually stop along the way at a roadside restaurant or two dishing out vast multi-course thalis (rice, soup, vegetables, curry, chutneys) that run $1.00-2.00 for all you can eat. Quality varies. We enjoyed our best experience on the way from Meikthila to Bagan. Roadside Restaurant Rule of Thumb: if the food looks fresh, go for it. If the food looks tired, give it a pass.
6. Flan and coffee near Sule Pagoda (Rangoon)
Wake up, walk down the street, and smell the coffee. Literally. We followed a strong coffee smell down the street to Let Ywe Sin, a hole-in-the-wall place that offers a lively local crowd, delicious coffee and flan. Audrey, not normally a fan of flan, is now a convert. Even better, a dish of flan and two coffees runs $0.80.
Location: 128 Sule Paya Road (a few doors down from Aroma Cafe and Castle Internet Café) in Rangoon (Yangon).
7. Fish with green chili curry
Does the thought of green chili make your belly boil? If so, give this dish a try. It was surprisingly light – a fish filet high on taste and low on heat. And the best refined fish we tasted during our travels in Burma. Price was reasonable, too. For a companion dish, try the pumpkin curry.
Location: Unique Superb Restaurant at Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake).
8. Kausuetho (khow suey)
Burmese yellow rice noodles turned with an Indian-slanted spice masala, herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice (or vinegar). As our vendor prepared the dish with her bare hands, we wondered whether our stomachs would abide it. The taste: terrific. Toilet emergency factor (TEF): none.
Location: Bago. From the main street hotel strip, cross the bridge and turn left into the local market. Look for the piles of the bright yellow noodles near the entrance.
9. Burmese lunch near Teak Monastery (Mandalay)
The food was decent, but the women who work here made the experience. They start out shy, giggling and skeptical. Then they end up like this. Oh, and you get an all-you-can-eat (they will be shoveling you full) Burmese thali featuring mung beans, green beans and various vegetarian stews sided with hot sauce. We forgot to ask what the dishes were named because we enjoyed the company too much.
Location and cost: Down the street from Teak Monastery in Mandalay, 700 kyats (less than $1).
10. Nepalese food and chutneys
Burma’s diversity also translates into a variety of available ethnic restaurants. No matter what you order – stuffed paratha (stuffed flat bread), curry, or rice, be sure to feast your eyes and mouth all over the accompanying chutneys.
Location: The Everest Café in Kalaw takes the prize for variety and quality of chutneys: radish, hot pepper, cabbage, mango pickle and tomato salsa. Also try the appropriately named Nepalese Restaurant in Mandalay (on 81st Street between 26th/27th) – great methi paratha (potato and fenugreek stuffed flat bread) and lassi.
11. Lahpet thouk
A salad of pickled tea leaves served with various crunchy bits and sauces (fried peas, peanuts and garlic; toasted sesame, fresh garlic, tomato, green chili, crushed dried shrimps, preserved ginger) and dressed with peanut oil, fish sauce and lime. Unique and delicious.
Location: Green Elephant Restaurant in Mandalay (27th and 6th Streets).
12. Trekking food
Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake with Sam’s treks, get a guide (ours was named Alex) and enjoy home made food three times a day. Dishes might include pumpkin and ginger soup, tomato slaw with lime juice and peanuts, pumpkin curry, and braised okra with sesame. Bonus treats include spicy salsa from the local village. Cost: Guide, accommodation and food = $8/day.
13. Guacamole and “Special Eggplant”
Guacamole in Burma? You better believe it. An American tourist taught the cooks at a local vegetarian restaurant how to churn out delicious guac with baked pappadums (paper-thin bread). A bit more local authentic: the candi mi po tho, a dish featuring roasted eggplant stir fried with spring onions, peanuts, garlic, sesame seeds and a dash of hot pepper. We returned and enjoyed a private lesson on how to make this flavorful dish.
Location: Moon Vegetarian Restaurant just inside the gates of Old Bagan, north of Ananda temple.
14. Hinto (or, Hnyin htoe)
A hearty favorite in the Burmese countryside. One night in the Burmese hills of Shan State, just after we brushed our teeth (a non-trivial production) and settled into bed, our host family delivered late night parcels of onion, leek, rice, and cabbage steamed in a banana leaf. Hnyin htoe tastes even better after the flavors have settled overnight and are fried up in the morning with turmeric and chili.
15. Gyin thouk
Grated ginger salad with sesame seeds. Our best experience came at the hands of the wife of a Burmese man who invited us to his house in New Bagan.
Final Burmese Food Recommendations
It’s almost worth getting off the bus in Toungoo and staying overnight at Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse just to experience the world’s most abundant breakfast. Vast, varied, and delicious, it may include fresh fruit from the garden, fried chapati (crispy, blistered, and topped with boiled lentils/peas), eggs, samosas, fresh locally-grown coffee…and just about anything else you might desire.
Most Interesting Street Snack
Bat Skewers – roasted, toasted, crispy, crunchy, meat on the bone. Full disclosure: we never tried them. The woman selling them claimed they were very tasty, but they didn’t look particularly meaty or enticing.
Stick with Mandalay Red (choose it over Mandalay Blue). You’ll learn early that not all beers are created equal. Myanmar Beer is OK too, particularly on draft.
Best Western Meal
Pizza and Tagliatelle Bolognese at Star Flower Restaurant in Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake). An Italian tourist from Bologna supposedly taught a couple of Burmese brothers how to cook Italian food. The results are impressive and remarkably authentic, especially considering you’re in Burma and some of the ingredients can be difficult to come by.