Today is March 17, 2017, my 205th day in Myanmar.
The overlooked holes-in-the-wall of Rangoon | I
One bowl of braised pork rib soup noodle conquers the world.
Walking down the China town sector of Maha Bandula Street, I dodged pedestrians and weaved through the crowd like a pro, until I strode by a signage, paused for a second and immediately turned around.
I was coming back to the city from down South, got dropped off nearby and was on my way rushing to this popular Indian place just a few blocks away. During the entire bus ride back, I had been drooling while picturing that plate of roasted mutton and warm naan.
The wooden menu plank I walked pass dragged me out of my imagination. With a paint brush and some red ink, in both Chinese and Burmese, someone had neatly handwritten the names of the selected dishes this small shop has to offer: chicken noodle, dry/soup; beef noodle, dry/soup; pork ribs noodle, dry/soup; sticky rice pocket with meat; soda.
The image of roasted mutton vaporized as I read along.
Here’s my theory of Chinese food––any sub-cuisine of any region–– that one may find outside of China.
Chinese food in vast majority of the United States is not Chinese food (we are obviously counting out Flushing, NY or just about anywhere in California). Similar to Tex-Mex, which is a food group almost independent from Mexico, orange chicken, sweet and sour chicken, sesame chicken and alike should be coined Am-Chi. These “signature dishes” (quotation marks because in no way they deserve such a title) are inventions of minds that were lack of imaginations and blinded by functionality. (“I wonder if I could sell three seemingly different dishes by cooking only one?”)
Then you have Chinese food in the U.K., which is a minute step up from Am-Chi. Their signature dishes include pancake wrapped duck slices (a traditional crowd-pleaser) and egg drop soup that is less sweet, more savory and sour (the flavor combination for far more superior palettes). The Brits focus on a few important ones, and they make them good.
Chinese food merely exists in continental Europe. Chinese food definitely does not exist in South America.
But it’s a whole other story when you complete the loop and return to Southeast Asia, especially to those countries that either boarder China or are a strait/a patch of ocean away from it. It’s in these countries where you will find Chinese food, any sub-cuisine of any region, in its most basic, uncontaminated form. They are the raw deals (but cooked, of course), making it possible to relive a truly pleasure-filled Chinese foodgasm, costing only a fraction of the price.
Chinese food in China have been trying to reinvent itself, because “authenticity” hardly sells in a new global market, “fusion” does. Restaurants in China can no longer survive on making one dish and one dish well, as how it was not so long ago and how it still is in most parts of Spain. Urban centers attract more customers. More customers demand more options. Urban centers require higher rent. Paying higher rent requires selling highly profitable food. Unfortunately, a small bowl of soup noodle is just not that.
Southern styles, including Hokkien, Guangdong and Shanghai, or worldly-known cuisines like Szechuan, or Northern food: Peking duck, pork dumplings, barbecue skewers, it does not matter which sub-cuisine of which region, you can find them all in Southeast Asia. But locating them requires a little effort, not because they are not popular (the reality is often the opposite –– I hardly ever see a Chinese restaurant in Southeast Asia that worries about business), but because their immense popularity has made them cocky –– entrepreneurship is engraved into a Chinese soul, marketing, on the other hand, is not. Owners of these restaurants don’t think they need advertising, They are probably not wrong.
Instead, they focus on downsizing their menu to save operational cost and perfecting the taste to attract a (growing) niche crowd. I admire this level of concentration that only belongs, not businessmen or vendors, but to real food craftsmen: the depth and delicacy of what you serve trump the variety.
This noodle place I stumbled by in Yangon China Town on a Wednesday afternoon is a staple of its type: no more than 500 square feet, the restaurant is compact and functional. Once the metal folding door is rolled up, the dining area is left completely exposed to the streets––there’s no door because there’s no need for one. Wooden tables, each could fit no more than three, are pushed against the walls, leaving a narrow pathway down the middle. The kitchen, essentially a collection of plates and bowls on a countertop, is arranged at the entrance of the restaurant. A boiling pot of soup stacked by the edge of the kitchen, which is also placed dangerously close to the sidewalk, is this restaurant’s soul and its free advertisement.
In Chinese, we call this pot of stock “高汤 gāo tāng,” quite literally “high/superior soup.” It is the baby of simmering at least two different animals (bones, no matter pork or beef, are essential to the making. Chicken is often used for flavoring) and many more spices and fresh vegetables together, sometimes for days. It is also what could make or break a bowl of soup noodle. I was lured back to the shop, partly thanks to the menu board outside, partly because of the rich smell the stock gives off.
There was one empty table when I came in at 1 p.m. on a weekday. I waved to the waiter, a young Burmese boy, and mumbled “menu bay pa (in Burmese, “give me the menu”).“ He impatiently pointed to the wall, where an identical menu board as the one I saw outside hung high.
As I was inspecting the short menu, a man in his fifties, sitting at the desk in front of mine, strolled up, hands on his waist and thumbs tucked into his longyi. For a second I thought he wanted to strike up a conversation with the backpack-wearing girl who seems foreign. But in almost a whisper, he asked me in very accented Mandarin: “你要点什么啊？What do you want a?” The “a” at the end makes this whole exchange so endearing and casual from the get go. I couldn’t help to love it already.
“Pork ribs noodle.”
“Ah, yes, ribs noodle.”
Nothing more needed to be said. He strolled back to his table and gave a single-word instruction to the lady in the kitchen. For a second I wondered if he was a regular customer helping out a new customer who seems lost, but quickly realized the middle-aged lady working in the kitchen seemed to be his wife.
Before I sat down my backpack, my food has arrived. The clear soup had oil bubbles floating on top and the thick wheat noodles, not a common find in a rice-eating country like Myanmar, were perfectly handmade, chewy and stretchy. The combination of the two ingredients, surprisingly non-greasy, holds this bowl down with weight. Without anything else, this is already a good bowl of noodles.
But then ribs swooped in, meat falling off the bones and bones braised to a crumble. I’ve learned to suck bone marrow since way back when I was sitting in a baby high chair (photos for proof). So the satisfaction of doing that here in Yangon is not just in my mouth but, as cheesy as it is, in my heart,
It is that simple to be content, requiring only four ingredients: soup, noodles, pork and green onions for garnish. Completed with a lychee soda, my lunch has made me appreciate Yangon at a whole new level.
I’ve been reading this book about Sino-Burmese in Rangoon, describing the ethnic group’s history in Myanmar as one that is long and incoherent. Chinese have immigrated to Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia during the past three centuries, if not longer. In many countries within the area, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, they might seem to have “made it” with the wealth they accumulated through business, but their stance in the society is often sidelined. I don’t believe Sino-Rangoonists’ preservation of an authentic taste is so much a conscious decision, but rather a simple preference and organic longing for a piece of what used to be home. With so little change having taken place in Yangon in the past decades, it might have been easier for the taste of food to stay unchanged one generation after another. And that was enough to fulfill the desire that I did not know I had.
Corner of Maha Bandula Street and Lamadaw Street. Google says it opens 24 hours but I wouldn’t trust that.
Or you can call them at 01 225 869 to find out the hours. But I wouldn’t trust the number too much either.