Mandalay is a historic city, on its dry plain ringed by blue hills. In the heart of the city is the remnant of the moated square citadel where the last royal dynasty of Burma came to an ignominious end thanks to the empire-building British.
But what about present-day Mandalay? Around the old citadel a grid of numbered streets spreads out, where a rich and bustling life goes on; and at the heart of that life is the humble tea shop.
The tea shop is where people catch up on gossip before work; watch a football match on TV with their mates; have a drink on the way home; set the world to rights; and stay connected with the social fabric.
The best way to discover that tea shop culture is on a Mandalay Tea Shop Foodies Tour with Grasshopper Adventures. Because I found this so much more than a culinary adventure but a unique experience that enriched my travel in Myanmar.
Each tea shop is generally known for a particular snack food and waiting staff will often know the tea preferences of their customers. Burmese tea is served rich with masala and sweet with condensed milk. Each table also has a flask of green oolong tea that is sipped from tiny cups.
Later in the morning we stopped at a more modern ‘posh’ tea shop. The tea here was twice the price of the local tea shops but it was packed with people in smart work clothes. There were even cars parked outside! They served a delicious spread of sweet and savoury snacks. All washed down with another cup of green Oolong tea of course.
Something you must try when travelling in Myanmar is mohinga – the national dish. This is a fresh, noodly, soupy breakfast packed with condiments such as coriander and chilli. You will see mohinga being appreciatively consumed at street stalls everywhere in Myanmar. I had already tried mohinga in a lovely restaurant in Yangon but here we tasted a different, local style.
We explored a number of other typical breakfast foods of Myanmar, usually made fresh on a brick stove outside someone’s house. From sticky rice to tempura snacks dipped in tamarind sauce.
Being pedalled through the streets of Mandalay on a vintage trishaw was relaxing and at times magical. It is such a gentle way to travel, easily passed by all the other vehicles on the road but perfect for Mandalay’s quieter streets.
I would turn my head to see the elegant figure of a woman carrying a basket of green pigeons on her head. Another woman carried a hand of bananas on her head like a crown. Then the radiant faces of female monks in their pink and saffron robes passed one after another, in an orderly line.
We explored a covered local market and stopped to watch a woman grinding sandalwood bark on a flat, flower-shaped stone. Thanaka is both the name of the tree (Limonia acidissima) and the paste created from the ground bark used by most Burmese women and children for beautification and sun protection.
Smiling, she applied it to our faces. Wandering Kiwi Jr looked lovely with her thanaka adornment. I looked like I had fallen face first into the mud.
December is winter in Myanmar so the motherly market ladies were concerned that Wandering Kiwi Jr might be cold in her short-sleeves (it was in the high 20s Celsius).
The thing that really hit me wandering through the busy market was how limited we have become in our consumption of (particularly) vegetables in the west. There were all sorts of fresh greenstuffs laid out for sale, as well as five different types of egg (including the duck eggs covered with a lime mixture).
There were piles of golden ground turmeric and barrels of fish sauce. Our guide explained the uses of many ingredients. At the entrance there were stacked bundles of slender white cigars and buckets of flowers brought down from the hills for temple offerings.
We decided to be brave and walk through the meat hall but there was no need to be worried, fresh food doesn’t smell bad and I loved watching the women swing their cleavers and making fish cakes.
One of our last stops was to try another quintessential Myanmar dish. It’s called laphet and it is a pickled tea leaf salad. That may not sound super appealing but it is delicious and eaten almost every day in Myanmar. The café we visited specialises in laphet and I was surprised to find out that Myanmar is the only country in south-east Asia where they grow tea for eating.
I think perhaps my most abiding memory of our Mandalay Tea Shop Foodies Tour was sitting under an Indian Almond Tree at a roadside juice stall.
Over freshly-prepared strawberry and avocado smoothies our guide shared his life and dreams with us, and it was clear that his job with Grasshopper Adventures is nurturing his potential and giving him opportunities that would not otherwise be possible.
Just as our appreciation of the culture and social fabric of both Mandalay and Myanmar would be so much more superficial if we had not taken this excellent tour.
By Natasha von Geldern
The Mandalay Tea Shop Foodies Tour is a half day tour and a unique experience that will enrich your time in Myanmar. The cost is $35 and this tour is suitable for everyone. Book online or drop in to the Grasshopper Adventures shop in Mandalay.