Kalaw, a cool, former British hill-station in Shan State, Myanmar, rises 6,000 feet above sea level and is famous for its flowers and farmlands. It is now a gateway to a variety of interesting treks. A three day trek will take you through the mountains to mystical Inle Lake, through the villages of the Pa-O and Palaung hill-tribes, staying at monasteries along the way.
For me personally, I just like to hang around Kalaw. It has such a peaceful air about it. The air is thinner and less humid because of the high elevation. The people themselves calmly go about their business, stopping to chat as they meander down roads with cute pony carts tripping by.
The market is vibrant and filled with all kinds of interesting happenings. In one corner, ladies sort some of Myanmar’s famous pickled tea into piles of various qualities. Dried venison can be found at small stands. Further into the market is the food-stall area.
At the very top of the market is a very popular Shan noodle shop, called Kambawza. Slide your legs under the bench and prepare yourself for the best Shan noodle salad you have ever had. These lovely sisters have operated this noodle-shop for years and have an excellent reputation. They also offer fried yellow tofu chips and a variety of noodle dishes, my favorite being a special Shan noodle salad with creamy yellow tofu.
The owner of the shop has given us the recipe. It is called tofu nwe, warm tofu. My mother calls it melted tofu. It is a yellow tofu unique in this area, made with chickpea flour.
The ladies welcome new customers and familiar faces cheerfully, as one of them dips noodles into scalding water gently heating them through. She passes the noodles to her sister whose agile fingers quickly dives into various jars of chilies, peanuts, oils and chopped coriander, hesitating over the MSG container, I quickly say, “Ajinamoto ma tet bu!” she is unsurprised, as tourists often ask her not to put MSG into their food.
Most of the noodles can be had as a soup or a salad, all are delightful. The bowl is placed before you with chop-sticks along with a tiny plate of pickled mustard greens and radishes. Tiny tea-cups are available for the delectably flavored Shan tea.
My other favorite dish in this area of the market is a little down from the noodle stand. Here a beautiful lady sits peacefully behind her tables. She serves up nga tamin (mashed rice and fish salad).
I order a serving and she begins mixing and mingling things down below the table level. I try to peer over to see what is going on. Shortly, she produces a beautiful arrangement on a bright green banana leaf. A steeple of the rice and fish are surrounded with fried crispy vermicelli and drizzled with the yellow turmeric-garlic oil. Nearby is a plate of the roots of a type of onion plant which grows in the lake. It has a very delicate flavor, and is crispy and cool, similar to the texture of mung bean sprouts. She also sets out a tiny cup of Shan tea. As I eat a young lady next to me tells me she is a doctor in the nearby hospital and on her lunch break.
Every five days the cyclical market has its day in Kalaw. The street at the bottom of the market fills up with stalls of trinkets for tourists, second hand clothes, fruits, vegetables, meat, prepared snacks and spices. On the same street is a Nepali tea shop, called Mithasu which is an excellent price (there is also a Nepali tea shop attached to the main market, but the prices there are higher). The tea and chapatis are better here and the vegetable curry and tomato chutney served with them is very tasty. You can also get fresh local milk here. They pasteurize a large pot of it every day and will happily fill up a bottle for you if you ask them.
On market day this tea-shop is overwhelmed with customers and has a huge production making fried samosas and Burmese donuts. On the corner opposite the tea-shop is a street vendor serving up delicious rice pancakes topped with chickpeas and spring onions. These are so absolutely fantastic that I highly recommend you get some before you leave Kalaw.
At the five-day market a variety of fried snacks can be found. Most of them are excellent, my favorites include little balls of fried sticky rice with beans, and little sticky-rice donuts which are very sweet and dark brown, dripping black palm sugar syrup. Be careful not to get addicted.
For dinner there are two places in particular I can never forget about. One is the Nepali tea shop which is highly recommended in the Lonely Planet and other tour guides and is just down the road from the brightly sparkling mirror pagoda in the center of the town. The family that owns this shop believe in making food fresh to order, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait a while, but do wait, as it is worth it. Order a spiced Nepali tea first thing as it takes them a while to prepare it. The lassi’s are fabulous as is any dish you order there. I really like a dish that they say an Israeli tourist taught to them which is served with a chapati and a lovely freshly cooked tomato sauce. The food here is more expensive than that near at the market. This is because they are given an extra tax because of serving primarily tourists.
The other place I love to eat at is on the main highway that runs past Kalaw. Up on a hill there is a restaurant that serves Myanmar food called Thu Maung. The waitresses cannot speak much English and will give you a menu, but it is best to just order a curry of your choice (avoid the fried rice and other such nonsense on the menu). The mutton or chicken curry are excellent. I also recommend you order a green tomato salad (cayan chin thee thoke). You will be astonished to see them bringing out dish after dish, but these are just typical side-dishes in a traditional Myanmar meal. These dishes change daily but often include, fried tamarind leaves, spicy prawn balachaung, fried cabbage, pickled bamboo shoots, some kind of a large boiled bean seed and one of my other favorite Burmese dishes-white bean cooked with fried onions and turmeric and of course, a soup. When you have stuffed yourself to the brim-they will keep bringing more food to fill up your dishes as you empty them-they then bring a plate of fresh fruit, or pickled tea salad, and a pot of tea and lay out some chunks of palm sugar which you nibble on as desert after desert. At the end of all this they bring you a bill for about $2 depending on if you have been drinking beer with it or not.
The places I have mentioned here are the cheaper places to eat. Kalaw also has some very nice restaurants that are for people who are wanting more fancy dining, most of these can be found in any guide to Myanmar book.
All in all Kalaw has excellent food and marvelous hospitality, in an easy-going atmosphere and I highly recommend a visit.