One of my many favorite places to eat in Rangoon, Burma is at an excellent Burmese fresh salad bar on the street right next to Sule Pagoda. It opens in the evenings as the parking spaces empty, spilling off the sidewalk and across the street.
This place is famous in Burma for the best hand-tossed rice salad in Rangoon and probably the world. It is the Golden Hand Tossed Salad Bar.
Low plastic tables and stools filled with contented customers are out in the street. At the far edge of the sidewalk are lined up a couple tables. On these tables jars of different ingredients are placed on a shelf. Behind the table, laughing and chatting, lovely Burmese ladies with long delicate fingers are mixing your salad up to order.
I pull up a tiny stool, with my knees around my ears I have a look at the menu on the low table. Pickled Tea Salad, Pickled Rice Salad, Pickled Ginger Salad…I don’t even bother reading any more, I know what I want. A young lad with a longyi pulled up and tucked around in back comes bouncing up and I ask for rice salad.
Friendly Burmese faces are all around me smiling happily that a foreigner is enjoying their favorite food with them. I am trying to get a good look at what is going on behind the bottles of crispy-fried garlic, turmeric-garlic oil, sliced onions, chopped coriander, sliced tomatoes, MSG, salt, bean powder, sesame seeds, peanuts and a variety of sliced vegetables. Slender fingers are dipping quickly in and out of the jars, sometimes hovering for half a second before changing direction, reminding me of a hummingbird you only catch a glimpse of when least expected.
And when all the ingredients are all gathered into one place the light fingers start mixing and turning, tossing and sometimes squeezing very lightly until the flavors and textures mix, mingle and explode into an unsurpassed flavor combination.
Suddenly there is a small bowl on the table in front of me with a tiny spoon poked into one side. I am about to join the tea-party. My saliva enzymes are already well primed and I dig in.
Just as I remembered it and more.
Completely unforgettable. With the golden stupa of Sule Pagoda shining out in the background and my mouth full of personally-touched rice salad, I am content.
From the table next to me a middle aged, respectful-looking business man leans over to me to ask me where I am from. When I reply America, he is happy and welcomes me to Myanmar. I tell him that I have been dreaming about this salad since I was last in Myanmar. He tells me
“The secret lies in the fingers of the chef.”
When I first tried Burmese salads I was simply taken with the freshness and the flavor of them. As I learned more about how healthy traditional diets are I began to realize how sophisticated these salads are. Salads from all over Myanmar contain either sesame seeds or peanuts, both of which are a good protein complement for rice. They also contain high amounts of good quality fat and calcium. Infusing oil (usually peanut oil) with turmeric and garlic and having it on hand to use in the dressings, adds powerful anti-oxidants and anti-microbial powers to the salads. Some salads include tiny, pink, dried shrimp, which are very high in protein and nutrients needed for growth and reproduction.
The Burmese only use the freshest of ingredients and toss them lightly together at the last possible minute with the quick touch of the chef. The finale is the flourish of the hand as the salad is laid down before you.
And all you have to do is enjoy it.