Most travellers remember the Bagan region in Myanmar for its 12th century temples and they are remarkable and beautiful and jam-packed with history. But in the small town of Nyaung U, off the main road, down a dark alley there’s a hidden delight; one I hope more tourists have discovered in the five months since I was there.
We followed the sign and walked into the ally, sidling past sleeping dogs and skirting a few large puddles. A torch would have been handy although it wasn’t essential.
The first time I walked down this track with John I did think we were taking the “off the beaten track” notion a little too far, that perhaps it was wiser to join everyone else in the pizza joints, that this time our hankering to get away from the usual tourist traps might lead us in to real danger.
It didn’t. Not at all, and our reward was three unforgettable, delicious meals. Three? Yes three. Once we discovered Mingalar Garden Restaurant we went back there the next night and the night after that. They cooked the sort of meals that your Mum might prepare (if she is Burmese) using fresh ingredients and tried and true recipes.
It was at the Mingalar Garden Restaurant that at last I came to understand and appreciate the layers upon layers of flavours and textures in traditional Burmese cooking.
From the simple light soup to the rich curries and refreshing salads each dish complements the other. It’s eaters’ heaven!
My favourite of all is the tamarind salad, a tangy peanutty deliciousness unlike any other.
I could eat it on its own, but it is best as one of the multiple small dishes that make up a traditional Burmese meal. In addition to the tamarind salad, this meal consisted of a clear soup, fried morning-glory, stewed egg-plant, fried bitter gourd, and others I didn’t manage to identify. All delicious.
After the main part of the meal we were served a combination of fried nuts, tea leaves, and sweet ginger on a traditional lacquerware dish.
I’d seen this dish in Taungyyi but didn’t have a clue how to approach it. The owner of Mingalar Garden Restaurant took the time to show us.
Clean hands are essential. You take a small portion of each with your fingers and pop it in to your mouth all at once. The soft, crunchy and tangy taste and texture explosion had me going back for more long past what was strictly necessary. Sometimes the dish is served with jaggery but, as you can see from the photo, here it was served with chunks of apple. Both work perfectly.
It’s a meal meant to linger over, and linger we did. The owner and his friend enjoyed practising their English with us and we learned a lot from them.
Oh, writing this post is agony! How my mouth is watering at the remembered complexity of the flavours.
Mingalar Garden Restaurant had only been open eight months when we visited last November. And they’d had a rough start, there was a lot of flooding during the rainy season but they held on until the tourist season and I’m glad they did.
If you’re in Bagan and looking for a meal a little less touristy and a little more local, take the plunge and walk through the alley until you come to the road. You’ll see Mingalar Garden Restaurant immediately across the road. Be sure to say hello from Jill and John in New Zealand.