Travels with Sai
Sai is a tall, good-looking man with a wide face and a full white beard. He and his wife own a little tea shop in Hsipaw, near the edge of town. I stopped by there one day for tea and we fell into conversation. Sai told me about his father, who had died the previous year at the age of ninety-four. He’d come to Burma from India with the British during World War II, then stayed on. He started a yogurt business when Sai was a boy, using milk from local cows, but few people up here in Shan State, near the Chinese border, were prepared to eat yogurt. Sai ate a lot of it when he was growing up—he says he has his father to thank for his height and good health.
Sai offered to take me out of town on his motorcycle to see some food sights. Our first stop was at a peanut-oil press powered by a water mill. It was in a large, airy post-and-beam building that looked like a kind of cluttered wooden cathedral, built over a stream. The whole place smelled invitingly of peanuts. The mill was quiet that day; the owner was busy replacing one of the huge wooden paddles, so the press wasn’t operating. The only action was the frolicking of some fine-boned cats on the wood floors.
Then we rode out to a hamlet where the main business is salt. The villagers pump saltwater from wells in the ground, boil it, and pour it into shallow pans to evaporate, leaving behind the salt. In this region, people have always relied on salt wells. Once, in places like this, the people who controlled the salt grew rich on the trade, but with modern transportation local sources of salt are not so important anymore and salt sells for very little.
Finally, we bumped up a small dirt road to a small village that produces another staple: sugar. On the sloping hillside above the settlement grew tall stands of sugarcane. Stacks of cut cane lay all around. In an open-sided shed, men were feeding teak logs into a large fire pit. At one end of it, a chimney billowed pale smoke. In a long metal pan that lay over the fire, liquid sugar gave off thick steam as it boiled down. Once it becomes solid, the sugar is cut into large blocks and sold in the Hsipaw market.
Next morning at the market before dawn (see “
Market by Candlelight”), the taste of sticky rice sweetened with smoky local sugar transported me right back to the sugar village.
Tastes of Hsipaw. Salt from a village salt well.
Blocks of cane sugar.
Thick cane sugar syrup, with a smoky taste and aroma from the fire it’s been cooked over, gets poured into molds; once it has set, it’s cut into blocks and taken to the market for sale..
A woman fries doughnuts in a wok.