Pasteis de Belem. So well-loved all over Southeast Asia as the Portuguese egg tarts. When in Portugal, I have to have ’em every day!
The original pasteis tastes incredible! I have a bit of a history with these egg tarts. One of my assignments during the KFC launch in Myanmar was to sample all egg tarts across town (about five bakeries in total in Yangon) and study their price points and diameters. You see, in some parts of Asia Pacific, egg tart sales make up about 22% of the chicken shoppe’s top line during festive times. I find the butterfly effect simply fascinating: monks used egg whites to starch clothes and make pastries with leftover yolk; then separation of the state and the church forced the “conventional” pastries to the open market; centuries later, there I was, accidentally ended up with the duty to sell them to unsuspecting Myanmar consumers under a U.S. name. I find all of it wacky and fascinating at the same time.
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.