The Diary of a Vegan in Yangon
A trip to Myanmar is exciting for all the magical, mystical experiences that await us, the untouched natural beauty, serene environs, beautiful pagodas and the innocent beauty of the local Myanmar folk. The only shadow is cast by the prospect of my being a vegan! Will I be able to find pure vegetarian, dairy free food to survive?
My research revealed that there wasn’t much to worry about even though local fare revealed extensive use of eggs, meats, shrimp pastes and fish sauce, but “tat-tat-lo”(the Burmese word for vegetarian) was to be my saviour, followed by pictures of milk, yoghurt, cream etc., since I couldn’t find a Burmese equivalent for vegan.
As I stepped of a modern, plush international airport at Yangon, I was sceptical and was contemplating a minimal, survival diet, when the taxi ride to the hotel revealed umpteen tea shops and shanties selling seemingly vegetable savouries. As I set out on my sight-seeing tour, I was pleasantly surprised to see the road side vegan options, and knew that restaurants and food courts would have much more. I was relieved that I would not have to stick to upscale star-rated hotels for food and request for special meals through the length of my stay here.
I wanted to try my first Burmese meal, and which better place than the famed Rangoon Tea House. A relatively new eatery, it has worked its way into the “top ten things to do in Yangon” list, in a very short span of time. Just expressing my vegan preference sufficed to get me their signature Tofu salad, Peas Paratha and Aubergine bao. Numerous other options were present in the menu, and I was told that eliminating fish sauce and shrimp paste, commonly used in Burmese cooking, would transform the dish into completely vegan fare.
A visit to the supermarket helped me see that the locals do not seem to have a milk drinking habit, though yoghurt is consumed, and tofu is far more preferable to cheese. The yellow Shan tofu had an instant appeal and its taste unparalleled. I learnt about Shan food and the numerous vegetarian and vegan options it offered, and decided to try the 999 Shan Noodle place for my next meal. By the end of the first day I knew, that I could survive on the exotic Myanmar salads and asking for “tat-tat-lo” would get me my vegan preference since I learnt that none of these had any dairy infusions.
Myanmar cuisine options stretched into a long list for me, Monsoon Restaurant visited by Bill Clinton, House of Memories owned and run by a family closely associated with Gen Aung San, Padonmar Restaurant known for its celebrity clientele, and scores more. Tea shops and tea salons are as popular as cafes, and each offers vegetarian snacks, some of which are vegan too.
As a walked in the downtown area, I came across the Nepali Indian Food place on Merchant street, which serves pure vegetarian fare. My knowledge of Indian cuisine told me that vegetarian can easily be transformed into vegan if I request them to eliminate milk and cream for their recipe and not opt for any ‘paneer’ dish. Paneer is the Indian cottage cheese and a favourite of all vegetarians. Yangon now boasts of 33 Indian restaurants including 3 fine dining ones.
My exploration of Yangon showed the amazing variety of cuisines available, like any other cosmopolitan city, with Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Italian and other restaurants, both big and small. Asian cuisines are more vegan friendly, but Italian food without cheese and their tomato based sauces are equally palatable. Set menus of course, were a no-no, since there was always a course or two, with dairy based dishes.
I found that bread was an avoidable option since most breads contain egg here, so breakfast was also distinctly local, with tat-tat-lo mohinga and khow suey,both of which savoured each morning. Desserts were mainly fruits , an amazing variety of them, each of them sweet and juicy. My biggest discovery was Nourish Café in Yangon Yoga House, that advertises for serving plant based food to nourish body and soul. It is only as I walked in, that I realized that it is Vegan Café with a full vegan menu!
For long, I had felt my switching to veganism would be limiting for my love for travel, to new destinations, but my few days in Yangon have proved me wrong. For me, being a vegan is a lifelong choice, and I will never be able to take in a morsel of meat or dairy products again.
Veganism is a subset of vegetarianism and refers to plant based diets and an animal product free way of life. It has caught on in the Western nations much more than it has in Asia.
Veganism – the Next Diet Mantra
Veganism is the latest, glamorous fad, and has become a part of one’s identity. Every celebrity who is vegan, is introduced so, almost adding to his/her credentials. It may be in vogue to protect animals, talk about cruelty to them, and be ‘the voice of the voiceless’, and hence give up on animal foods. But it is not easy to give up on dairy, seasoned as we are, to consume milk and milk products from the time we are born-the single diet component that spurs growth for the first two years of a child’s life. Vegans have done this and switched to plant-based milks like soy and almond milk, among others.
Veganism is an off-shoot of vegetarianism, a subset of people who eat plant-based foods only, and do not consume any dairy products either. A vegan is a person who does not use or consume any animal product – food, clothing or accessories, anything that involves cruelty to animals. Thus, they do not have fish eggs, meat, poultry, milk, dairy products, even honey. Vegans also do not buy or use leather bags and handbags, wallets and belts, leather jackets or fur coats.
The Vegan Diet
Being a vegan is a choice for health, environment or ethical reasons, and in today’s world, there is no dearth of non-meat, non-dairy options. The repertoire of vegan foods and preparations is multiplying, with vegan substitutes making up for all that one may have missed, in the form of exotic cakes and pies, puddings and cheesecakes. In countries like the UK and USA, where a higher number of vegans are found, vegan curries, vegan pizzas and cakes are commonplace, as much as a wide variety of meal options.
The vegan food list includes fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, and beans. Soya products become an important source of protein, tofu substitutes cottage cheese, and soya also forms the base for mock meats, mock cheese, and soya milk is used as the perfect milk replacement for drinking and for yoghurts. Peanut and other nut butters replace the dairy butter and are richer in nutrients.
Globally, plant-based diets are gaining ground, and even the biggest meat eaters are beginning to notice the benefits of incorporating fruits and vegetables into diets. Surveys indicate a rising vegetarian trend, though countries like India which have over 30% of its population as vegetarian, attribute it to religion. The number of vegans is on the rise, and the flip side of consuming milk and dairy products is gaining ground. A section of scientists and doctors are propagating a dairy free diet for all the ill-effects of milk produced by cows that have been pumped with antibiotics, growth hormones and a diet that only makes them give more milk. Milk produced by cows that graze freely and lead normal lives, without human intervention or prodding, is the only safe nutritional source, not what we buy from supermarkets etc. This is also one of the many reasons behind the wave of veganism that has caught us all.