Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Bit of Sweet.

Ceramic pots hung up to collect the sweet sap from the palm tree.

This morning, I read the news that the Myanmar government has issued a ban, effective March 1, that will prohibit tourists from climbing the pagodas in Bagan.  This comes mainly as a result of what the government considers disrespectful behavior on the part of tourists including wearing inappropriate clothing, dancing and sleeping on the monuments.  Seriously, my fellow travelers.  It's not hard to do a bit of pre-trip research and educate yourself on cultural etiquette so you don't do anything that would be considered disrespectful.  As far as inappropriate clothing goes, I don't know how anyone could violate this rule as signs are posted everywhere! 

Update: February 24.  The government has reconsidered the ban and has eased up a bit on the restrictions allowing tourists to climb up the five most popular pagodas.  This is in response to concerns raised by people in the tourism industry who feel that an outright ban on all the pagodas will have a serious impact on tourism.

Okay, back to what we did today.  Our sightseeing day started out with a bit of something sweet. Who doesn't love sugar?

Ayşe relaxing on our front porch, taking in a bit of the cool of morning. 

Our day began with our usual buffet breakfast in the hotel.  I have to say, they do put out a good spread here and I have so far, not had to have any thing that remotely looked like a western dish.  I have been eaten an Asian style breakfast every morning and I could not be more happy about that.  Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like a continental European style breakfast but if given the choice, I will always go with the Asian foods first :-)

The tree limbs covering the dining room's large patio area.  It's winter now so the trees are bare.

It was nice to finally get out of town though the landscape here is very boring - flat, dusty and if there is anything growing, it's now dead thanks to the fact that it has not rained here for several months.


We passed by a few small villages, hamlets really.  The ramshackle bamboo huts covered with either thatch or corrugated tin roofs was a constant reminder of how poor the people of this region are.


The only trees that you commonly see are tall palms.  Not surprisingly, our first stop was at a place that I describe as a family owned and operated sweets workshop.


Minutes after we got out of the van, Miu began to show us the process of making palm sugar candy - it's the Myanmar version of maple sugar candy.

The candy shop.

Step one is to gather the sap.  We watched a man scale barefoot up the towering palm trees on a jerry-rigged ladder strapped tightly to the trunk of the tree.



Tied behind the man's waist was a machete, in a wooden sheath, that will used to cut a palm frond at the top of the tree.  He also had two black pots with him.  Underneath the severed frond, he hung a black pot that the sap will drip into overnight.

Bracing himself with his right leg, he cuts the stem of the palm frond.


We tasted a bit of the raw sap.  It was thin, a bit nutty tasting but already very sweet.

Pot and machetes ready for the tappers.

Before heading off to see what happens to the sap, we paused for a few minutes to watch a man and his zebu working a mortar and a pestle that was grinding up a batch of peanuts to make oil.  Labor is cheap here so they can afford to have very labor intensive production processes.

The cow knows where to go but he's there to make sure it goes!


We soon left the man and his cow behind to observe how the palm sap is boiled down to a thick syrup.   The end result is jaggery aka palm sugar.  Even under the protective shade of the thatch roof, this little section of the work area was hot and super humid.  Not exactly ideal work conditions for anyone!



The raw sap is scooped into large wok like cooking vessels.  The heat is charcoal fire.  The palm sap is constantly stirred until enough water has evaporated to form the lumps of palm sugar.




I suspect it would easily take more than an hour to produce one batch of jaggery in that wok like vessel.  The jaggery is then poured onto plastic lined bamboo tray and allowed to cool before being cut into squares. 

Our treat was to sample a little piece or two of the sweet treat....or how many we wanted though two small slivers was more than enough for me.  Not that I didn't want more but I would have needed a drink to temper the sweetness in my mouth.  The candy was super sweet, slightly nutty with a bit of a sour note.  That's jaggery and I love it!



Outside the main work area but still protected by shade were several large clay pots containing sap that is in various stages of fermentation on its way to becoming toddy wine.  To make the wine,  jaggery is put into ceramic pot - at the bottom there is already a bit of fermented sticky rice.  The pot is then filled with water.  The sugary jaggery activates the yeast in the sticky rice, which initiates the fermenting process.  If I remember correctly, the fermentation process only takes a few days.



Folks in Myanmar are very hospitable.  We were offered cups of tea (too hot to drink any) and snacks which I can never resist.  I am quickly getting addicted to the fried lentils, peanuts, and even garlic chips that they serve as munchies here.  I still can live without the fermented tea leaves though - an acquired taste that I have yet to acquire :-)

The snack tray also held some sesame seeds which the family also grows and processes for sale.


Before leaving, we had the chance to buy the sweet treats that the family produces with the palm sugar and the peanuts and sesame seeds that they grow. I was really tempted because I love the taste of jaggery - especially when it's mixed with sesame seeds and made into a sesame candy.  Oh, I love that stuff!  But in the end, I decided to not get anything mainly because I was afraid that whatever I would buy would melt into a goopy mess in the heat here.  What a shame that would be especially given how incredibly hard the family works at producing the sweets.

Next, we're on our way to the Nats and Mount Popa!