To put it lightly, Myanmar's Muslim community is having a tough time right now. But little of the sectarian violence that has flared up elsewhere appears to have reached the country's largest cities. And on the surface at least, in Yangon and Mandalay, Indian Muslim culture and Burmese Buddhist culture appear to co-exist amicably: new mosques pop up next door to old Buddhist temples, Burmese diners eat biryani at Muslim-owned restaurants, call it a lungee or a longyi but men of every ethnicity are wearing basically the same skirt, and teashops continue to host a diverse clientele.
I was particularly struck by this in Mandalay. Walking along 27th street, past Burmese movie theatres, Hindu temples, mosques, Indian-run spice shops and Chinese-owned hotels, I felt like I could have been in India, or perhaps even in Singapore or Malaysia. Indeed, this cultural mix was one of the few positive impressions I had of Mandalay; I hadn't been there in almost 10 years, yet it still seemed very much the unpleasant, sprawling, featureless city I'd recalled from previous visits.
My only other positive impression -- a direct manifestation of Mandalay's multicultural vibe -- was of the food.
Indian-influenced halal food seems to dominate the restaurant scenes of the 'downtown' areas of Myanmar's largest cities, and Mandalay is no exception. And one of the most memorable examples of this I encountered is the open-air stall that sets up every evening in front of Nay Cafe, opposite the Unity Hotel:
The stall is known for its chapattis, and in the back, a boy works an astonishing amount of dough in huge plastic rubbish bins. The dough is portioned into smaller blobs, which are then brought outside and divided up into small balls, which are patted and rolled out by a few women. The soft square sheets are then passed forward to a station with wood-fuelled griddles, where finally, a couple men made them into chapattis:
The chapattis were great -- huge, tender and warm -- perfect for dipping in the rich and oily, but not particularly spicy, mutton curry. The breads were served, straight off the griddle, as a set, and addition to the curry, there was a deliciously tart, watery tamarind-based dip and a hearty dal (lentil soup) that, unusually, seemed to have been made from beef stock.
It was essentially South Asian food, but with, perhaps, a couple Burmese twists. And eating this meal at the side of the street, watching passing Indian sweets vendors and trying to hear my thoughts over the sound of car horns and muezzin, for a moment at least, I almost kinda liked Mandalay.
If you're thinking about hitting Nay Cafe, be sure to get there early; dishes, in particular the chapatti, sell out as early as 8pm.
Chapatti vendor at Nay Cafe Cnr 27th St & 82nd St, Mandalay 6-8pm
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