Myanmar Cuisine at The Retreat, Mashobra

Up in the mountains, surrounded by a dense deodar forest, serenely sits a colonial mansion, having housed many a British dignitary in the past. Today, used solely as a summer retreat for one individual and some of her staff, a visit to this property is a treat few can envisage. And, even though it was pure happenstance that found me dining there not too long ago, this gloating-in-print is no accident… Considering the office of the individual concerned and the size of her regular residence, this double-storey wooden structure, with manicured lawns and a tennis court is really just a cosy cottage in the woods. Brightly lit, most of the rooms emanated the musty smells reminiscent of holiday homes aired only during short summer visits.

Except, of course, the dining room. From here wafted the aromas of a mix of tea leaves, oriental herbs, garlic and coconut. I allowed my nose to lead me to the pantry to find out what was cooking. I was delighted at the discovery as it was going to be my very first time with food from Myanmar. The recipes, I was informed, had been shared by the wife of a former occupant of this lovely home. Our meal began by munching on some tea. And before you start, that is not a typo, as the people of Myanmar actually do eat pickled tea leaves. Known as laphet, it is Burma’s most common snack. It’s eaten both at informal get-togethers and formal events such as weddings and funerals. Laphet is essentially a green tea; young leaves plucked and fired before being buried underground anywhere from four to seven months. The fermented tea leaves are mixed with ginger, garlic, chillies, peanuts, toasted sesame seeds and salt, and all eaten together as a salad called laphet thoke. The after-taste is a wonderful mix of textures and smells: nutty, spicy, garlicky, yet with a lingering trace of tea.

This was followed by a well-brewed broth made of coconut and chicken stock, Khwuak Swe. There was another, more concentrated and spicier curry, apparently prepared from the rest of the chicken, which was boneless. These two curries were served separately with boiled noodles and topped with a multitude of ingredients that had been chopped and kept in little bowls. It seems these additional ingredients play an integral part in the taste as well as the presentation of the dish, and are a must. Green chillies, crushed red pepper, coriander, mint, spring onions, fried noodles, lemon juice and boiled eggs are some of these essential ingredients. The Burmese usually serve their khauk-swe with Ngapi which is made from putrefied fish and shrimps but it did not, for obvious reasons, find favour with any of us…

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