What’s In Your Soup?

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Where we are:

Reykjavik, hanging out with youngest child, getting our second dose of Covid vaccine, and trying to remember what darkness looks like—we haven’t seen it since late April. This is truly the land of the midnight sun.

What’s in Your Soup?

Anthony Bourdain died three years ago, this week. I’ve been missing him lately, and thinking about how talented he was. Food was his world, but at the same time it was a window into the rest of the world. His stories were everything I wish my writing was—respectful, thought-provoking, vulnerable, observant, and kind. Always kind.

I have always thought of myself as a foodie, even before the word was trendy. I read cookbooks like novels, front to back, no peeking ahead at the ending. For years when I was home with small children, I read about the foodways of far-off places. It was the best kind of armchair travel, because I could read for escapism, then turn my reading into something delicious for dinner.

But reading a cookbook about a place is not the same as visiting the place. Not by a long shot. You can read and read about Myanmar and Burmese food, but showing up in Yangon, the capital, changes all your perspectives, in the first moment. Food has always been my way in, my attempt to understand, to get a peek into somewhere different, but actually showing up? Whole new ballgame.

The food in Myanmar is both complicated and unique, which is totally unsurprising, if you glance at a map. Myanmar stretches way down the eastern curve of the Bay of Bengal; it has borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Bangladesh. Its food sits squarely in the intersection of all those culinary traditions, but in Myanmar, they’re all mixed together to make something completely different.

We arrived in the country (this was several years ago now) with only the vaguest sense that there would be delicious things we’d never encountered before. Whenever we’re unsure of what the food is going to be—if it seems like the language or the dining culture might be impenetrable—we try to book a food tour as soon as possible—if nothing else, it’s a good way to learn how to say vegetarian in the local language. In Yangon, we spent several hours with a very conscientious young man, a student at the university, who seemed very proud of his country’s food. Finally, toward the end of our time together, he admitted that we were his last tour for a while; there was ‘conflict’ in the north, and he was going home the next day to help his father ‘defend’ the family’s trucking business. I’ve often wondered whatever happened to him.

But armed with what he had taught us, we sallied forth into the food of Myanmar. For what it’s worth: the Burmese salad game is strong. I mean, they make a salad out of tea leaves. It’s the most savory of savory things, plus caffeine! They also make a salad out of samosas. Think about that: a salad made out of deep-fried turnovers, stuffed full of lentils. No wilted lettuce in sight.

Being the tea junkie that I am, and having read that tea houses were historically the center of public life in in Myanmar, I was determined to understand the tea culture. We went first to the modern, tourist-friendly version: a hipster-ish tea house in downtown Yangon. It was clean. It was air-conditioned. The menu had this handy-dandy illustrated guide to all the variations on tea/milk/condensed milk, with the names written in both Burmese and phoneticized English. We had truly wonderful tea, but something about the experience felt a little … sanitized. (Perhaps that was because it was the only place we’d been in that hadn’t had at least one rat wandering around? The one balancing over our heads on a television cord was particularly impressive.)

By the time we got to Mandalay, I was ready to tackle the real deal—an ordinary tea house, frequented by locals. It was packed. We were the only white people. I was the only woman. There were no walls, no menu, just hundreds of men drinking tea, and a handful of servers who looked slightly panicked when Lee and I sat down.

We managed to communicate that we wanted some food, as well as tea, and I emphasized vegetarian, something like thet-thet-loo in Burmese.

One server brought us tea, another brought us a huge bowl of soup, and the rest stood in a little clump and watched us.

The soup was a thick, muddy broth with noodles, samosas, and … a huge pile of chicken feet. Lee bit back laughter as I took a deep breath, shoved the feet to one side, and spooned up some broth. It was one of the bravest moments of my life.

Y’all, I am no Anthony Bourdain. He would’ve fished a gnarled chicken foot out of that soup and chewed it right to the bone. He would’ve sat himself down at a table full of Burmese men yammering away about politics and philosophy and the meaning of life, and been invited home for dinner. And then he would’ve written about people living on a knife’s edge between hope and oppression, about the perils of progress and the dangers of regression, about fear and corruption and the heady power of a people’s first taste of freedom.

I did none of those things. The server watched me gingerly avoiding the splayed talons in my soup, and he realized what I had tried—and failed—to say when I mangled his language. Ohhh—thuq-thuq-luh! Or something like that. He whisked away the chicken-footed bowl, and I nearly wept with relief.

He brought us some kind of custardy sweet buns, which we ate, then we paid and left. We hadn’t cracked the code, but we had tried. I still think it was one of the bravest moments of my life.

Note: it is only my tone-deaf privilege as an affluent American traveler that enables me to use the word ‘brave’ in reference to a bowl of chicken feet in Myanmar. Most of you probably know that the country is currently in violent turmoil; a military coup in February was met with protests, which were in turn met with crackdowns that have killed hundreds of citizens. The chaos and violence are ongoing. The people of Myanmar are the brave ones. I’m just a tourist.

Take care,

Lisa

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