In Rangoon, I looked up a lot. And I looked down a lot, too.
Up at buildings and down at food.
I don't profess to know much about buildings but I know what I like. I particularly like old. I also tend to like buildings that progress hates. Ones that are crumbling and faded. With timber window frames perishing and cracked. I like buildings where humans are visibly present; their linen drying, their mattress airing or indeed they themselves leaning over the balcony, smoking. I like buildings with rusted pipes, weeds growing out of the spouting, birds nesting in the eaves and on the ledges. Gargoyles and scalloping, dilapidation and lichen. All good.
Buildings like this - in such numbers - do not exist in Burma's neighbouring countries, where development is almost faster then the human eye can see it. In Hanoi and Saigon, it's a case of here one day, gone the next. While a process may be adhered to in the case of historic buildings, the preservation of other period structures that may simply have been private houses or government offices is not as assured. In Rangoon, at this time when political manoeuvres aimed at greater democratisation are afoot, the opening of economic doors to foreign investment may have marked a countdown to demolition for many of these majestic buildings. If it were not for an initiative under the Yangon Heritage Trust. Writer and historian Thant Myint-U has just last week spearheaded a deal with the government to temporarily halt the razing of any buildings over 50 years old.
But as I tripped along the broken pavements of the numbered streets between the Scott market and the river in November last year, I feared the worst. So I took a lot of photographs.
Of ordinary buildings with extraordinary aura.
However, this little project was never going to be to the detriment of my appetite. So with my cricked neck from looking up, blurry vision in one eye from looking through the view-finder and a slightly sprained ankle from not watching my footing, I started to tilt my head down. To street food level.
This is a food blog after all; not a bloody building blog. And along the narrower streets south of the market, markets themselves in actual fact, I found many culinary vignettes of interest.
A wok full of oil for one. In what seems to be Indian influence, deep fried snacks are sold at fairly regular intervals up and down these thoroughfares. Both chick pea and rice flour batters bind together vegetable and animal ingredients into fritters. Displayed stacked high on metal trays, I make a bee-line for them. There is something in the human genetic make-up (mine, anyway!) that has an intuitive appreciation for crispy golden brown food items.
There is also the little calorie-conscious voice in the brain that says "at least, choose the green one." And I had to admit, on this occasion it was this 'grass fritter' that caught my intrigue. I questioned the incongruity of deep frying herbs or leafy greens, the coating of oil on which must significantly reduce nutritional value and original flavour.This was confirmed when I put 'grass fritter' to mouth. It's all about the texture of crunch, essentially a non-food.
But my ignorance of Rangoon's street food scene corresponds to my ignorance of its architecture, reduced to simply knowing what I like and what I don't.