Borderlands: A Burmese Breakfast in Yunnan
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2016-10-07 05:12:14

This is the third commentary in a three-part series on China’s borders and the people who inhabit them. Read the first and second here. 

During the last few years of the 19th century, H.R. Davies — a major-general in the British armed forces — was sent on a reconnaissance mission to scout out a possible railway line due to run from Burma into Tibet. He set out on his solo expedition from Bhamo, in northern Burma, and before long passed into Longchuan County, in Yunnan province. Today, Longchuan is part of the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture.

His travel journal, “Yun-nan: The Link Between India and the Yangtze,” noted his observations along the way. Of his travels through Longchuan, Davies wrote: “On the 11th, we left [Mengmao] and set off for Mengwan, a Dai city located in the north. We followed a small road through the mountains that split the Ruili River and its tributary. After walking about 2,000 feet up the mountain, we descended 2,000 feet to reach Shanwang, or Zhangfeng, Street.”

The author went on to describe his experience in Longchuan: “The Nanwan River cuts across the Mengwan plains, which are about 20 miles long and 5-6 miles wide. Called Longchuan by the Chinese and Burmese, the area is home to wild duck, wild geese, and sandpipers.” 

The Dai people have historically settled in Longchuan, and the name of the county government seat, Zhangfeng Township, means “the place where the elephants cry” in the Dai language. However, Davies was quick to mention the ethnic diversity of the area, noting that Zhangfeng was “the only place in the Mengwan plains inhabited by many Han Chinese.” 

Located 8 kilometers away from Zhangfeng Township, Laying is a Class B national inland port that lies on the border between Longchuan and present-day Myanmar. The port is adjacent to the city of Lweje, a Burmese border town about 80 kilometers from Bhamo. Today, business done across this border forms a crucial part of the southern Silk Road trade route running from Zhangfeng all the way to Mandalay in Myanmar.

As soon as the border gates open in the morning, Laying comes alive with activity. On this particular morning, the first group to go through customs into China is a gaggle of international students with ID cards dangling around their necks. Their parents are primarily overseas Chinese living on “Foreigner Street,” a road in Lweje named for the British colonialists who resided there during its time as an imperial outpost. In recent years, the Chinese government has opened elementary schools in the border area, to which overseas Chinese parents in Myanmar send their children to learn Chinese.

One sip [of Burmese milk tea] is enough to transcend time, harkening back to memories of tea cultivation and trade along the route to Mandalay.

Up next is a party of Burmese coming to Laying for business, as well as border residents from near and far hefting fruit, vegetables, and farm products to market. Despite the early hour, the breakfast stall owners are out in full force, hawking bowls of local ersi rice-flour noodles from behind pots of piping-hot water.

Vendors line both sides of the muddy road at Laying’s little market, offering everything from bamboo shoots and wild fruit to wildflowers and Burmese medicine. The hastily thrown-up shops sell slippers, cosmetics, toothpaste, and other everyday products made in Myanmar, along with sweet treats such as Burmese sachima and biscuits, which are beloved by the Chinese.

On the slightly more spacious main streets, the sweet scent of mangoes, bananas, and pineapples draws plenty of shoppers in the summertime. The diversity of Laying’s breakfast offerings attracts workers based in Zhangfeng for weekend visits.

One such occasion was a Saturday morning at the end of July, when a group of friends brought me along for breakfast in Laying. I was on the lookout for niupahu, a local delicacy of stewed beef soup with rice noodles. Complemented by soy sauce, cardamom oil, pickled cabbage, and spices, the flavors are rich and full-bodied.

Those who find the dish too heavy can swap it for the simpler oil noodles. Made with eggs and fresh dough, the cooked noodles are mixed in a bowl with lard, soy sauce, chopped spring onions, and sesame, before being washed down with a bowl of scallion broth. The noodles are coated in a light layer of grease, lending it a certain smoothness to go with its chewy texture.

No breakfast in Laying would be complete with a cup of homemade Burmese milk tea, a culinary legacy of British colonialism in Myanmar. Strong, black tea is steeped together with sweet condensed milk, sugar, and spices. One sip is enough to transcend time, harkening back to memories of tea cultivation and trade along the route to Mandalay. For Laying, it is a potent symbol of how its commercial past continues to infuse its culture today.

As a final treat, my companion asked the restaurant owner to make some baba — round, flat pancakes — for us to try. The Burmese owner used to sell baba across the border in Myanmar, and was insistent that the Burmese still make them best. In the old days, whenever a customer in Laying ordered baba, the restaurant owner would place an order with someone over the border. In only a few minutes, the steaming fried pancakes would be placed into a container, and lowered over the bamboo fence border into the waiting hands of the Chinese restaurateur before being delivered to the table. Now, fried baba glazed with condensed milk are known as “cross-border baba” by the locals.

The morning market in Laying is itself a window, with its rich array of delicacies and flavors reflecting the encounters between indigenous peoples in the upland and lowland regions along the China-Myanmar border, be they Chinese, Burmese, Han, or Dai. The trade carried out here gives us a penetrating insight into the shared, intertwined history of the varied people and lands that define this borderland territory.

(Header image: A woman behind a fruit stand at a morning market in Laying, Yunnan province, July 30, 2016. Shen Haimei/Sixth Tone)