‘So that’s why Myanmar food is so oily’. We watch in barely-concealed horror as our chef for the day throws great lugs of golden oil into her pan, which protests creakingly as it slides askew with the weight of the fat. A half inch deep golden swimming pool fills the bottom, reflecting our diminutive chef’s sparkling eyes.
‘This much?’ my friend asks, as she puts a sizeable glug into her own pan.
‘Yes yes good good. More,’ nods our chef excitably.
I empty a small reservoir into my pan and give a questioning look.
‘Yes many oil. More. Good.’
Many oil is right, I think to myself, as I add in my diligently sliced and ground seasonings, blinking through onion-induced tears. A satisfying sizzle starts up and I stir the onions and garlic round, coating them in their luxurious golden veneer and embracing the aroma as they dance around in the oil together, hissing and spitting and skimming across their oily lake.
We are at a small rural cookery school on the edge of Mandalay, having enjoyed a bouncy journey here festooned with traditional bamboo farmers’ hats and giggles. It’s our friend’s 60th birthday and the hangovers of the morning became a distant memory as our truck hummed past banana trees and palms, picture-postcard perfect against a backdrop of purple-green hills and rice paddies before turning left along a small sluice crammed with mischievous boys and shy girls swimming, and finally crunching along a gravel road and arriving at the cookery school.
We were greeted by a chuckling plump Myanmar Ma, and her bright eyed son, whose brainchild this set up is. ‘Welcome to our cookery class!’, she cries and ‘Happy birthday!’ to our birthday girl, in whose honour we are now bedecked in Little Miss Muffitt blue and pink checked aprons with white bakers’ hats perched jauntily on our heads.
An hour later of chopping, mixing, ‘testing’ and oil soaking, and a veritable cornucopia of Myanmar’s finest cuisine awaits us on the sturdy wooden table, our lovingly hand-crafted selection of egg curry, crunchy green bean salad, homely vegetable curries, and the obligatory lahpet’oke, the feisty green tea leaf salad often found in pagodas. Our grinning host brings over a large vat of fluffy potatoes in a glowing red sweet and sour juice and lays it down next to a tray of soft traditional banana pudding.
‘Oh! And we buy birthday cake!’ her face lit up with delight, our host triumphantly unveils a hot pink birthday cake topped with soft icing roses, glowing like pink radioactive clouds. She lights six sturdy candles, and we sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for the umpteenth time, voices discordant and happy, laughing as our friend looks suitably embarrassed.
The laughter dies down and silence fills the air as we munch contentedly on our feast, smiling to ourselves, proud of our collective culinary prowess. My friend next to me sighs happily as he savours a bite of his green bean salad, leaning back and looking beatific.
‘Well, wow. Compliments to the chef!’