On the morning of the final full day of the tour, myself and two other members of the group met Lesly, our host for the day who would be teaching us how to cook a selection of Shan and Burmese dishes along with his wife Sue, the Bamboo Princess. The first task of the day was to buy our ingredients at the local market, so Lesly showed us around the different stalls, explaining things and asking us and the other seven students what we wanted to make. He explained that Burmese tofu is usually made from chickpeas rather than soya beans, and he pointed our the skinned and boned rats at the meat stall. Thankfully our class didn’t involve those.
Once we all had our hands full of ingredients we got a tuk-tuk back to the Bamboo Delight cooking classroom, an open sided room built in the front garden of Lesly and Sue’s home. We had walked there two days earlier to meet them and to book our place, and I had been struck then how quickly all the tourist trappings disappeared completely as you entered the residential area. The roads here were dusty and most of the houses were plain and ramshackle, apart from Sue’s house and classroom which was brightly painted and very clean. She had given us some green tea and explained about her cooking classes and charity project, and she and Lesly had been so incredibly warm and welcoming, all three of us had signed up on the spot.
On our second visit she and her assistants took all of our purchases and started preparing them, as we sat at the dining table drinking green tea and were asked which two our of nine possible dishes we each wanted to make. All of the options were tempting, like tea leaf salad, butter fish curry and chicken in lemongrass, but I went for banana flower parcels and steamed tilapia, and when we’d all chosen we got to work. Banana flower is literally that, the flower of the banana plant, picked as a bud about half the size of a rugby ball. To make the parcels I sliced up a flower, then squeezed out all the sticky moisture and mixed in oil and spices. I then wrapped up spoonfuls in banana leaves, secured them with a toothpick and left them to steam for half an hour.
The fish was pretty straightforward as well; I stuffed its mouth, gills and sides with lemongrass, ginger and other herbs and spices, added some liquid and left it to steam, and made a hot tamarind dipping sauce for it. Everyone was making different things, so there was always lots to watch and learn, and when everything was ready we shared it all for lunch. As well as our two dishes each, we also got two Shan specialities; deep-fried yellow (chickpea) tofu and Shan noodle soup. The deep-fried tofu was delicious and so simple; as it’s made of chickpea, the inside goes gooey and the outside crisps up so you don’t need any batter. Shan noodle soup is a light broth served with rice noodles and a concoction of additions including groundnuts, herbs, chilli flakes, and lots of other bits and pieces.
The whole meal was completely delicious and after we’d eaten as much of it as we could, Sue came and gave us each a little goody bag and talked to us for a while about the place of food in Burmese culture. She said that in Burmese, the word for ‘medicine’ and ‘food’ are the same, and there is a lot of importance placed on the natural healing properties of different foods and food combinations. Foods are often used as medicine, for instance turmeric is a natural antiseptic and for that reason, after giving birth women are covered in a turmeric ointment and drink a turmeric solution.
She also told us about her charity project and gave us a little booklet explaining how she came to own and run the business. She devotes 15% of the revenue of her cooking classes to sponsor eleven local orphaned and destitute children to go to school, and to buy uniforms and school supplies for a further thirty children. She calls it the Helping Hands Foundation and has pictures of all the children on display in the classroom. The next part of Sue’s plan is to set up a summer school for local children in the three month school holiday between March and May, focussing particularly on teaching English. There is no free secondary-level education in Myanmar and the majority of local children will have no career options at all besides fishing, farming and labouring jobs, all of which are very low-paid. With good English skills, they could be employed in the growing tourism sector, or even perhaps go to University. She has built a guest suite on her land, where she already has a small library, and hopes to attract native English speaking volunteers to help out, and in the future to run a year-round homestay for visitors.
As she spoke she stressed her personal priority of sharing the success that she has built, both with the local community and with any visitors she meets. She invited us all to stay in her home if we are ever in the area, and the walls were covered in photos of Western people who had returned again and again, not as paying punters but as guests. Her generosity is quite staggering considering her own story; after struggling for years to educate herself and find work in the tourism industry, she was sacked from her job, abandoned by her husband with two very young children, and left destitute and without family and almost homeless. From that situation about twelve years ago, she has managed to build a beautiful and welcoming home, a thriving business, and now provides not just for her own family but for many other people in her community as well. I honestly found it completely inspiring and I strongly recommend anyone to visit her if you’re heading that way or have a look at her blog site here