Wandering Study

L&TBurma

Politics & Produce in Burma

featured in Life & Thyme print issue #1.

The main food market in Bagan, Burma, is nestled among the thousands of temples and pagodas that puncture the horizon throughout the region. Women line either side of the street here, shaded under hanging bundles of bananas or perched next to their baskets of fresh greens. Farm to table eating isn’t a food trend in Burma but simply how everyone gains access to their ingredients. Families and restaurant owners alike wander these markets daily to stock their kitchens, tossing spinach and eggs grown on neighboring fields and islands onto the backs of their motorbikes.  

Passing through the market, you wouldn’t know the country’s history of political strife or it’s decades-long fight for basic rights and access to the outside world. You wouldn’t know that Burma currently stands within a whirlwind of great change, as automobiles replace ox carts and wifi becomes ubiquitous. You wouldn’t know that Burma’s culinary traditions, mirroring the country’s geographical position, nestled between Thailand and India, might soon earn an important influence on world food culture as foreign food practices, in turn, begin to impact how and what people eat in Burma.

Sellers at the market call out to me with outstretched arms as I walk between food stalls with my one year old son in tow. We implicitly agree on our exchange—I give them a baby to hold, and they graciously offer samples from their day’s produce offerings. One woman hands me a hard, grape-sized fruit sour enough to make my whole face pucker and the ladies laugh. We share hard-boiled speckled quail eggs so fresh that I can pop several in my mouth without needing to take a swig of water afterwards. Another woman gives me a taste of her palm sugar candies, and I purchase several bags to share once I’m home, if I can practice enough self restraint not to eat it all on the spot. Someone gives my son a bright tomato, undoubtedly the freshest produce he’s ever handled.

Around us, a dozen more gentle exchanges take place: one pile of parsnips for a couple thousand kyat as a woman weighs mounds of curry paste and hanging dried chilies sway with a breeze. Nowhere is the noisy, frenetic energy that sometimes characterizes markets in this region of the world.

Down the road lies an open-air office with a large red sign: National League for Democracy. Five years ago, even uttering the name of this political party’s leader in public was an offense punishable with jail time (or worse). Today the party’s offices crop up freely around the country, offering information and selling merchandise. If ever there were a clear indication of the changes currently transforming the country, this is it.

But here at the market, food sellers and buyers continue to gather as they’ve always done even in the face of such drastic change. By the time I reach the end of the line of vendors, my hands and my belly are full with market food. I’ll come back to this market one day, and I hope I’ll find the stacks of fruit, baskets of rice, and ladies with smiles once again.