Big Fish

Over the long Thingyan holiday, I spent a week in Ngapali in a village about seven minutes’ walk from the beach.  We hung out mostly at a beachfront gallery along the stretch made up of temporary cafes, where the municipal government leases out space on a public beach on an annual basis for a small sum of money.

Despite its natural beauty, my Ngapali trip was a touch melancholic. There was a severe lack of public beach area for the locals to enjoy.  Most of the beautiful property, and even the surrounding hills are already in private hands, but without any investment put in place.

My host, a Kachin businesswoman based in Ngapali, showed me the immigration checkpoints from one township to another, even within a small territory of one state, Rakhine.  Our market visit in Thandwe began with two prominent signs at the entrance, marked with “969” symbols.

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Ngapi Lovers


Offspring of Ms. Fish and Mr. Salt. A staple of rural Myanmar. And an ultimate condiment of controversy from South East Asia. Perhaps only the infamous durian may beat ngapi when it comes to ‘acquired tastes’ in all things Asia. Certain Yangonites claim to shun ngapi, considered a lowly food that belongs to commoners. Young women watch their intake of it, because its saltiness is believed to compound skin problems and create acne. But we all know they secretly adore ngapi anyway.

That’s true. Ngapi – though putrid-smelling – is a great source of protein that sustains thousands and thousands of families with food insecurity in Myanmar, particularly in the Irrawaddy Delta. You pound the raw fish, salt it, dry it and store it. When preparing the sauce, you boil the fish paste ball in hot water, add spices and use as many garnishes as you can get creative, e.g. lemon leaves! Known internationally as the Vietnamese fish paste, ngapi also happens to be the #1 common denominator for the diverse cultures of South East Asia.

But South East Asians are not the only lovers of ngapi. Another civilization that adored fermented fish paste is none other than the Romans. Ancient Romans fondly used this fermented sauce made of fish scraps and parts in their cooking and in some of their fanciest and most extravagant recipes. They called the sauce garum. Someone wise told me that the popular Worcestershire sauce is derived from garum.

What is most striking about all of this, you ask? The two civilizations independently developed the same bizarre foodstuff, and that one of them has forgotten almost everything about it. Many foreign visitors that drop by Myanmar dare not try ngapi and French scorn it, as if they have forgotten their former love for fermented fish paste. It’s like garum never happened to them. Urgh, heartbreaking.

Ever wonder what people from Myanmar generally consider ‘gross’? Here is a list. This blog welcomes any suggestions to add to this list.

– Steak. Rare. Bloody meat. Arrrr.

– Marsh mellows.

– Mac n cheese.

– Any cheese really.

– Bland boiled veggies.

– Raw vegetable salads.

– Mayonnaise.

– Pop-tarts.


Ngapi makers of Ngwe Saung

Ngapi makers of Ngwe Saung

Sun-dried ngapi

Sun-dried ngapi