I've made many trips to Burma recently to research my book Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Artisan, 2012), but food in this country is so subtle and varied, I never tire of eating it. Burmese food is distinctive, but there are reminders, too, that the nation borders India—the use of shallots as a flavor base, for instance—and the rest of Southeast Asia, with its balance of hot, sour, salty, and sweet tastes, and generous use of fresh vegetables and herbs. The main meal of the day, called nei lei saa thamin (meaning "midday food"), eaten at noon, is the one I relish most. In Old Bagan—a village set amid centuries-old Pagan ruins—a wonderful restaurant serves a memorable version. An amazing range of curries, salads, and condiments comes to the table all at once, to be eaten in any order. On a recent trip, I chose beef currry, sweet with shallots and touched with chile heat (pictured in the top photo, at bottom left); and eggplant, crunchy with peanuts (upper right); chile-fried okra (top, center); pickled greens (right); and simmered beans (at center). As always, the meal came with the essentials: a vegetable soup tart with lime (lower right), a plate of raw and steamed vegetables (at top left), and dried-chile sauce and other condiments. And there was rice, the fragrant staple that connected them all. I took a spoonful of rice with a little curry, then a bite of salad for crunchy contrast, then a refreshing sip of soup. The mouthful-by-mouthful decisions are what make the meal so special.
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