The Localist

The food of Thingyan

thelocalist.com_Mont-lone-yay-paw

Mont-lone-yay-paw (sticky rice balls with jaggery filled centres topped with freshly grated coconut)

Last month, I introduced you to Thingyan festival. This month I’ll tell you a little more about Thingyan festival, but from a different perspective, food, and for a couple of good reasons: 1) It’s April so that means it’s Thingyan season, and; 2) Everyone likes food and it’s a must to try the local food when you travel somewhere, right?

Like many other festivals around the world, Thingyan has its own unique festival food. As a Myanmar (or Burmese) myself, I feel like something is missing if I haven’t eaten Thingyan food during the season. It’s definitely a must for me. So, let me introduce you to the different iconic festival food I encountered as I grew up.

Before I start, I need to explain the word jaggery, because I will use it a lot. Jaggery, as I was taught to call it in English, is a sweet rock-sugar like solid extracted from a sugar palm tree that is used in many different desserts in Myanmar. It is the essential sweetener for most traditional Myanmar snacks. The liquid from the juice of the sugar palm tree is extracted and boiled down to a caramel-like consistency, and then cooled down to achieve the desired texture.

Shwe-yin-aye & Mont-lat-saung (assorted jelly, bread and sticky rice in coconut milk or watered down jaggery caramel sauce)

Shwe-yin-aye and Mont-lat-saung are favourite Thingyan desserts/sweet snacks, and although they are sometimes grouped together, they are not the same. Here is a handy guide on how to distinguish them. Mont-lat-saung only has one type of jelly, and no bread or sticky rice. Depending on the area, you might get different colours of jelly – either green or white  – and the sauces will be different too. From what my mother has told me, the people from Southern Myanmar usually eat the dish with white jelly and jaggery caramel sauce, while the people from the area around Yangon and Mandalay enjoy eating green jelly with icy coconut milk. Even though I’m calling it jelly, it’s not actually made from agar like regular jelly. It’s actually just little bits of sticky rice, pounded and squeezed to get the particular shape we’re after. Technically, it is called mont-phat (literally meaning dough pieces) but we’ll call it jelly here to avoid confusion.

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Mont-lat-saung – ice-cold coconut milk poured over white bread, sticky rice and different colours of assorted jellies

Mont-lat-saung is the crème de la crème for me during the festival season because it is very cooling and sweet – perfect for the weather. It is always served with ice-cold coconut milk over white bread, sticky rice and different colours of assorted jellies. The jellies are all different shapes – strings, neatly cut squares, little spheres, anything you like. Unlike Shwe-yin-aye, there are no variations to Mont-lat-saung.

Mont-lone-yay-paw (sticky rice balls with jaggery filled centres topped with freshly grated coconut)

Mont-lone-yay-paw (pictured at the top) is one of, if not the, most popular and iconic foods that represent the festival. Almost everyone makes and eats this during the festival. From what I have learned throughout the years, it is considered Thingyan food because of the way it’s made. First of all, you have to mix rice flour and sticky rice flour into a dough with a particular texture. Then you break off little pieces of the dough, add jaggery to the centre and then roll the pieces into little balls, making sure that the sweet centre is sealed. The dough balls are boiled for about 3-4 minute in a pot of water. When the dough balls are thoroughly cooked, they float to the surface. The cooked pieces are then washed in cold water before being served.

Due to the tedious nature of the cooking process, a lot of people come together to prepare mont-lone-yay-paw. And since the festival revolves around family and friends being together, it is a perfect family food, as everyone can bond while making these treats and eating them.

Of course, Thingyan is also the time when cheeky pranks are played, and this dish doesn’t get the exemption stamp. Instead of adding jaggery, mischievous souls like to put hot fresh chillies inside to play a prank on others. And you just cannot get mad at anyone who plays a prank as it is a Thingyan tradition that has been practised for many, many years. So, if you are going to a friend’s house, make sure your senses are on red alert if you are served mont-lone-yay-paw, just in case you’re the one who gets attacked by this chilli bomb.

Thingyan hta-minn (literal translation – Thingyan rice)

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Thingyan hta-minn (literal translation – Thingyan rice)

To those who think porridges are disgusting and should be abandoned from planet earth, you are advised to stop reading because this as it is going to sound extremely bizarre. This dish is essentially cooked rice in scented water.

What?!

Yes, it is cooked rice in scented water. It is a legitimate food in the Mon state where my mom grew up. Rice is cooked and then washed to get a fluffy and light texture. Sandalwood is burnt with a wax candle, and is then infused with ice-cold water, to give it a fragrant smell. This sandalwood water is then poured on top of the rice, and this rice with scented water is eaten with various side dishes, such as dried fish, fried chillies, assorted pickled salads and other savoury dishes. My favourite side dish is the pickled mango salad, which has the perfect balance of saltiness, spiciness and tanginess.

I still remember visiting my late grandmother’s house during the festival and eating Thingyan hta-minn. You eat the plain rice, which is cold but pleasingly fragrant, and you follow it up with the side dishes, which are usually slightly spicy and salty. It is definitely a dish that you should try if you are ever around Mon state during the festival. It might sound strange, but I highly recommend that you bite the bullet and try it. It’ll either be a hit or a miss, like marmite!

I really enjoy eating these three dishes when I’m home around April, Thingyan festival season, in Myanmar. It is going to be water festival soon and my blood is tingling with the longing to participate in the festival, but I have a pile of assignments to plow through…

If there are any other kinds of Myanmar food that you’ve enjoyed, please do let me know. I’d love to know what foods/dishes in Myanmar are appealing to an international audience.

MYANMAR_PhooPwintKyaw_M

 

MEET THE LOCAL: PHOO PWINT KYAW

 

Images. Photo 1 by myanmarbackpacker.com. Photos 2 and 3 by Wutyee Food House.

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