Culinary Cab Confessions: where to talk politics (and eat well) in Yangon

He said to call him Ricky. As our taxi jerked its way through the center of Yangon, the southeast Asian metropolis formerly known as Rangoon and the recently dethroned capital of Myanmar (the erstwhile Burma), Ricky explained to me how he acquired such an unlikely name. “My Sunday school teacher gave it to me. You don’t even want to know what my Burmese name is,” he said, taking a sharp right turn. “Too hard to pronounce.” Ricky said that despite his Sunday school attendance, he’s a lifelong Buddhist and that he just attended the school to learn English. Which he seemed to pick up quite well at the expense of Jesus and Co.

A few minutes earlier, I had walked out of my hotel and there he was. “Taxi?” Maybe, I replied. But I had a special request. I was in Yangon for a few days and wanted to do another installment of Culinary Cab Confessions, a series for Gadling in which I put to test the notion that cab drivers are the best guide to a city’s undiscovered and affordable restaurant gems. I presented the idea to him. “Get in,” he said.

And within seconds we were swerving through traffic. We passed the railway station and the football stadium. Ricky, 32, has been driving a cab for a few years. He said he does it every day from 5:30am to midnight. And then he goes home to the outskirts of the city and spends the only few waking moments with his wife before passing out from exhaustion.

It was just my second day in Burma and I was eager to talk to locals about the current political situation. Changes, it seemed, were happening quickly. Political prisoners were being released. Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime voice of the opposition, years under house arrest, had also been set free. Elections for April 2012 had been called. The Burmese populace suddenly had something to be hopeful about: that the decades-long military dictatorship in Burma would finally end. But, as I was informed, one doesn’t just bring that stuff up here. The secret police, I’d been told, are everywhere. And if someone gets caught saying anything bad about the ruling government, it’s curtains. Instead, as a visitor, you have to wait for them to talk about it.

Want to know a secret?” he asked. That didn’t take very long, I thought and then waited for him to begin. “The place I’m taking you is a very local place. There are no tourists there,” he said. And within a minute, we were pulling up to the Morning Star Café, a partially open-air eatery that appeared to have more staff than customers. Then again, we were about an hour ahead of the lunch rush. As is my custom in such situations, I prefer the local to do the ordering, telling him only to ask for what he usually eats. I realize the risk involved in this. What if he had an eating proclivity for the bizarre? Or worse, what if he was a vegan?

Tea arrived first. Then something called mohn hihn khar, a fish soup in a semi-translucent broth bobbing with garlic, onions, and ginger. Burmese cuisine doesn’t really dazzle the food-loving world in the way that its neighbor, Thailand, does when it comes to food; or its southeast Asian brethren, Vietnam. But this was good. Packed with flavors that conspired to create something bold, the soup was gone in minutes. “You want something else?” Ricky asked. I nodded. And then he pointed his face toward a gaggle of lingering waiters in the distance, pursed his lips together, and made loud kissing noises at them.

A few minutes later, a plate of coconut rice topped with a stewy bone-in chicken pieces was deposited in front of me. Chicken and starchy coconut had never tasted so delicious together. This was a dish that only the love of air kisses could create. While I was devouring my lunch, Ricky and I talked about family, Buddhist philosophy, and football. Ah, I thought, who needs to talk about politics. Besides, we’re in a public place. Ricky could get in big trouble.

And just then he leaned in. Ricky took a few quick glances around and said: “Do you know about the changes that are going on here….?”