There's a white cotton blessing string tied three times around my right wrist. As I sit here at my little white laptop (so pleasant to be back with familar tools!) it is in view, an ongoing reminder of Burma. I was given it at a monastery - "paya" is the Burmese term - called Ta-ma-nga that in Burmese style is built on a hilltop, with a steep long flight of stairs leading up the wooded hillside. It's about 40 miles southeast of Hpa'an, in Kayin (Karen) State. The monk who presided there until his death a few years ago was revered for his wisdom, and respected too for his firm support of Aung San Suu Kyi. His portrait is often pasted up in the front of busses, along with a buddha photo or two, and the monastery is a busy pilgrim place and also somehow remarkably peaceful.
Right now I'm still in "just landed" mode, with a jumble of impressions that will in time I hope get a little more sorted out. The photos will help, as I sort through them, and now that I have a few words of Burmese in my head (and more noted down phonetically in my notebook but not yet pounded into my brain!), I can somehow "replay" the texture of encounters and the feel of the street much better than after my last trip.
It's such a slow (and interesting) process, getting a little familiar with another food culture. And in Burma, with its diversity of peoples, from Rakhine and Karen to Bhama and Mon, to Kachin and Shan of many kinds, the picture is wonderfully complex. That's so even before you get to the foods that originate in the Indian subcontinent and are now staples in Burma, subtly transformed in many cases, from their original model. I'm talking about biryani and dosa and porota and paratha and more. Fun!
It was a treat this morning, a Friday, to be at the Haw market here in Chiang Mai, a place where Burmese refugees of various cultures, as well as hill people and Yunnanese, come to sell and buy food. So here, back in Thailand, I had a breakfast that was Burmese, a bowl of mohinga. It varies from place to place, but is most often fine rice noodles (that are known in Thailand as kanom Jiin) with a fish-based broth and then toppings sprinkled over it to add flavour and texture. Here the only choice was a crisp fried cracker as well as coriander leaves, but in Rangoon at the small street stalls there's a wide array of toppings and flavorings ro choose from, including a kind of fried shrimp cracker, and slices of banana flower heart, and, and... The other treat for breakfast at the Haw market is various kinds of khao foon, firm smooth tofu-like squares made of mung beans or chickpeas that have been cooked and pureed and jelled, that are sliced into noodles and then topped with flavourings (shallot oil, lime juice, soy or fish sauce, chile oil, etc). I had some khao foon strips on top of my mohinga today, just for the pleasure of their texture.
The Haw market made me feel welcomed back and also somehow reassured that the cultural and historical cross-connections here in the region are alive and real. And as I try to figure out some of the dishes and techniques I came across in Burma, there should be some help and insights to be found here in Chiang Mai... What a wonderfully lucky thing it is, to be able to be here and trying to learn.
POST SCRIPT ON IMMERSETHROUGH: We have a small group this year for the tour (January 24 to 30, 2010), so we can be portable and flexible. I'm really looking forward to it.