Food for Thought: How a flowery pancake reminds me of Myanmar

Almost exactly one year ago, I returned to the United States after over two years living abroad. Serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Myanmar, my time living in Paung, a village on the edge of miles of rice fields, was life changing and perspective shifting. I didn’t know I hadn’t fully lived until I stood in my kitchen one morning with raining pouring down on the tin roof above, mist coming through the exposed windows, and getting electrocuted while attempting to cook a simple egg in my wok full of oil. Nothing like raw egg all over myself and zilch to eat to remind me the joys of grand adventures!

I don’t have to write it here to know food is universal, a language of its own. And in Myanmar, on top of learning two languages, I was predominately a student of food culture; the rules on who eats first, how to sit on the floor, and properly eat with my hand. I observed how drinking water is served with one cup on a table for all to share and how they made an exception for the severely sweaty American who needed her own liter of water. The meals were always family style with bowls of oily curry, mixed vegetables, trays of cut fruit, saucers of fish paste and chili flakes at the center of the table and a bowl of white rice in front of me. A plethora of options on making white rice come alive.

Beyond what was on the table to be served, the preparation of food was profound. The labor that went into making a meal for the family, let alone a ceremonial meal cooked by the whole village was intense. Hot fires, big pots, gallons of oil, thick kitchen knives made by the blacksmith down the road. The women bustling at the morning market, cooking curries and rice before the men had even awoken. Manageably, with modern day technologies and somewhat reliable electricity, electric woks and rice cookers lessened the daily demands of food preparation. For reference, in Myanmar it rains for upwards of four months of the year causing routine power outages. Then, another four months of the year it is so crushingly hot, once again, causing routine power outages. There was something hard core about watching my Auntie cook chicken curry over an open fire while it was 105 degrees and humid as hell.

In my two years, I admit I barely cooked for myself. We can talk about why that is in another post but for now, know I never had a fully functioning kitchen operation. That is, when the power went out, I was screwed because I did not have a place to build a fire or even a propane tank cook top. However, I did get crafty in the kitchen when I could. About a year into my service, I caved and bought the 68,000 kyat toaster oven from the supermarket in the state capital city, Mawlamyine, an hour down the road. Mind you, my monthly stipend was 200,000 kyat so that was quite the purchase. It made all the difference though because I was able to express myself in one of my favorites ways once again, with baked goods to share with others.

Similar to my American kitchen and grocery buying habits, I would get ambitious about my banana eating needs and buy a bunch. On top of my market runs, regularly I was gifted bananas from students and teachers whose backyard trees carried the sweet fruit. Unable to eat them all before they started to brown, I gathered the ingredients for toaster oven banana muffins.

Because a banana was a familiar fruit, when I shared the snack with my neighbors, they thoroughly enjoyed it. One time, hand feeding my neighbor Grandma while she napped with a loose titty casually hanging out. Previously, I introduced my much loved snack of guacamole to them and they were less than enthused to consume such a smushy thing. In Myanmar, avocados are mostly used for avocado smoothies, blended avocado with sweet condensed milk, ice, and green dye to make it pop. The idea of salt and spice scooped up with the closest thing to a tortilla chip I could find which was a type of flatbread similar to naan, was not something they ever needed to try again. And who was I to judge their pallet? Their national condiment is a spicy, fermented, fragrant as hell, fish paste that they added into their rice. After one single kernel of rice dipped into that, I knew that was a big no-no for me. As they say, to each their own.

I give this fractured framing of my two years away from an American kitchen as a reflection point for the gratitude of what’s possible nowadays with kitchen gadgets and 24/7 access to every ingredient I could think up. The scaled down, functionality and practicality of a Myanmar kitchen was humbling. Witnessing the age old saying of “you can do a lot with a little,” is a lesson I will carry through the rest of my days. Because mindfully, the determination of ‘a lot’ or ‘a little’ is a relative concept. Compared to my upbringing full of kitchen gadgets and three grocery stores within a mile, the reality of Myanmar cooking and food options felt limiting at times. However, to the locals of Paung, a vibrant market full of freshly grown produce and local meat and fish was very much doing a lot, with a lot.

And that brings me to the recipe I posted below. When I first made these pancakes, I wasn’t thinking of Myanmar or kitchen conveniences. The pancakes were a moment of pause for me, to make something simple from scratch, expanding my taste buds with new flavors added in, and then wonderfully shared with my roommate and friend, Tess. It was when I sat down to write what made such a pancake possible that I connected the pieces of perspective.

My time spent in Myanmar is starting to feel distant and yet, the country, people, and memory of those two years continues to be this incredible reflection point of my current moment. I often catch myself noticing the details I would otherwise take for granted had I not bore witness to circumstances so different than the ones I grew up and the one I live in now. And today that detail is the way in which I move through the kitchen. The ease in which ingredients are available, the stove gets hot, the lights turn on, and my creativity ensues.

So with that, take stock of the details, find gratitude for hot meals, and tantalize your taste buds with new flavors. Think outside the box and find the calm moment in a hectic life to appreciate how flavors come together and create bonds across kitchen tables.

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