By: Calvin Kaung Kyaw San, SFU student
Burma is home to an impressive collection of mouth-watering (and often lip-burning) salads called athoke in Burmese, which translates to “mixed.” Athokes can be paired with rice, consumed as standalone dishes, or even as dessert. Athoke was almost always present in my daily meals growing up, with ingredients ranging from pickled tea leaves and mangos to seafood and samosas.
Among this vast catalogue of athokes is Nan Gyi Thoke, which I’ll never get tired of eating. The filling, thick-noodle salad draws a rich, nutty flavour from chickpea powder, a hearty aroma and golden appearance from chicken curry oil, and tenderness from the round rice noodles. With the additions of onions, fishcake, sliced boiled eggs, chilli oil, and garnishes of-choice, getting one’s hands on a delicious plate of Nan Gyi Thoke always requires patience.
Hailing from the historically significant city of Mandalay, Nan Gyi Thoke is a staple breakfast on the streets of Burma. The tastiest and most authentic Nan Gyi Thoke sellers are known to reside in Mandalay; something its inhabitants are rightfully proud of. In Yangon, Burma’s biggest city and the place I grew up in, bustling cafés and long queues in front of street vendors during early morning hours reflect the dish’s popularity. After all, it’s a perfect solution to empty stomachs in the morning before rushing to work or school.
The roots of the word Nan Gyi Thoke remain somewhat disputed. In her cookbook, Mandalay: Recipes & Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, Mimi Aye claims Nan Gyi simply refers to the thick, round rice noodles used in the salad. However, to some, the term Nan Gyi has its roots in the Burmese word for royalty, a fitting testimonial to the city of Mandalay, which is known for its royal palace.
Preparing dozens of these salads in the early rush hours is no easy task, but routine nonetheless, for Nan Gyi Thoke sellers who have mastered the art of balancing the different layers of flavours in this dish. Especially during weekends, people flock to the best Nan Gyi Thoke street vendors and cafés with several group orders. Those who would rather not battle for café stools take away multiple separate bags of packed ingredients to mix them themselves at home.
Nan Gyi Thoke holds a special place in my heart. It reminds me of Yangon’s lively cafés visited by all walks of life and the humble yet diligent atmosphere of marketplaces and streets in the city. But most importantly, it transports me back to the morning hours I spent with my late grandma who frequently took a young me to my favourite Nan Gyi Thoke cafés, no matter how far they were or how busy the streets were. To me, this dish stands as a pinnacle of cherished family time during breakfast and vibrant Burmese street life. Nan Gyi Thoke, for all its simplicity, is a uniquely addictive dish packed with flavour and culture.
Try this delicious flavour bomb at Laksa King, a Southeast Asian casual diner on Hastings Street. Owned and operated by a Burmese-Canadian family, the salads at Laksa King, including Nan Gyi Thoke, are as Burmese as they come.