Have you ever cooked Pennywort, Roselle, or Myu leaves? Do you know what a Chinese Potato tastes like, or know what to do with a swastika printed tofu block? Have you been instructed how to properly dissect a squid, or been surprised by a catfish leaping at your ankles from a tin bowl on the floor? Have you ever sat down with a butcher, armed only with Google images on an iPhone and a lot of gruesome hand gestures to get into the nitty gritty of what bits of beef come from which bits of the cow?
Welcome to market shopping in Yangon!
Admittedly to the uninitiated the market can seem to be an intimidating place to visit. Busy, bustling, noisy, confusing, where do you begin? With stall after stall of unpronounceable green leafy vegetables stretching as far as the eye can see, unknown pungent smells flooding your nostrils, blood and guts dripping off tables, flies being wafted, crabs fighting to get out of their buckets, dogs rummaging through piles of rubbish, and more often than not a fair amount of mud.
Pushing a trolley around an air-conditioned supermarket and picking up Australian avocadoes and Californian potatoes may seem like a much easier, less stressful (if slightly more expensive) process. If you compare that to the alternative of trudging through the market, struggling to tick the items off your sweaty shopping list, whilst juggling paper-thin plastic bags, kicking mud up the backs of your legs and fumbling around for small change. Before bumping out through the crowds taking small children out with your long stems of flowers, and collapsing into the back of a taxi sweaty and grimy, realising you’d forgotten half the things you went in for, and have no idea what to do with half the things you have bought.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this is some form of hell! But it need not be, and with a bit of effort and a good sense of humour the market shopping experience can be an absolute delight.
Yangon is blessed with an abundance of open air and indoor fresh food markets, all selling an array of weird and wonderful fruit, vegetables fish and meats. And they are cheap as well, I mean really cheap, for as much as a bag of imported grapes and tub of foreign mushrooms from a supermarket you can pick up more fresh produce than you can carry, a stack of flowers, a chunk of meat, and still have change for a coffee and a pancake.
First thing in the morning is the best time to go, before it gets too hot, and the fish are still squirming about. There is something satisfying about buying giant prawns for next to nothing, and knowing they were in the sea few hours earlier, or picking your vegetables knowing that they were dug up from the fields of Shan earlier in the week.
If you’ve never been to a market before and are feeling a little apprehensive about the visit then there are numerous cooking classes available in Yangon at the moment and they all include a market tour as part of the experience, if you really are interested in changing your shopping habits, they could be a great way of taking the first step. Failing that just ask a Myanmar friend to go along with you for the first visit, they can help you with the translations, help discover what some of items on display are used for (quite often soup) and to generally work out the lie of the land, and find out where to buy what. A little Myanmar language goes a long way, and if you can build up a relationship with a few traders over time, and they understand that you aren’t just a tourist coming to have a gawp and take some photos without buying anything, then subsequent visits will become much easier and more pleasant.
You don’t need to haggle, (see haggling article in this edition for more details) and you can pick and choose your selection to make sure you are happy with the quality of the products; you’ll be presented with a small plastic bowl to put your chosen vegetables before they are weighed. Or you could just ask for an amount relative to the amount of money you want to spend and the stallholder will help you out. The market isn’t the place to buy pre-packaged foods, don’t be fooled by the easy option of film wrapped strawberries, you might be disappointed by the ones you can’t see, best to pick them yourself. And on the whole the market traders are all fairly patient and happy to help you to buy their wares.
If you take your time, and shop about you will be able to find all manner of produce that you recognise and if it all gets too much, take five with a cold drink, or a freshly squeezed cane juice to recharge the batteries. Juicy fresh Rambutans and Mangosteens can be eaten straight from the stall, their skins keeping the moist flesh clean, whilst other purchases are better washed before consumption. A cap full of vinegar in a bowl of water is sufficient to get rid of any nasties.
A great starting point for the first time market goer is 26th street, where traders are tightly packed in displaying their wares on sacks and in baskets on the floor. Theingyi Zay (Zay or Zei is the Myanmar word for Market), is a sprawling market in Latha township, you’ll probably get lost in here, but you’ll also probably find everything you need whilst trying to work out how to get out.
Hleden market just off Pyay Road at Hledan Junction is another large and open area to check out, and there are plenty of places to escape for a cup of tea and sit down nearby. Thiri Mingala Market goes on around the clock and is located on Bayint Naung Road in Hlaing Township. And if you are feeling really adventurous then head to San Pya Zei, the fish market located on the river, though you’ll have to be there very early to see the fish before they are picked up and carted to markets around the city.
If you’ve got the time, and are prepared to make some mistakes, have a laugh at your own expense with the stallholders and get some mud in your flip-flops then there really is nothing better than getting stuck into a good local market. Try some unusual foods, escape your comfort zone, practice your language skills, learn more about the community and country you live in and bring some delightful fresh and healthy foods to your table.
A version of this article was published in MY Yangon Magazine – June 2015