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What Powers a Walk Across the World? A Bowl of Mont Di, To Start

What Powers a Walk Across the World? A Bowl of Mont Di, To Start

As COVID-19 shuts down the world, Paul Salopek recalls a recent trip to Myanmar where he enjoyed eating their national noodle dish, mont di. He visits a cook who shares the time consuming and painstaking process of preparing the rice noodles.

Grades

5 - 12

Subjects

Social Studies, English Language Arts, Storytelling, Anthropology, Geography

















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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek

SAGAING, MYANMAR (12/21/2020)

Making traditional rice noodles, and human connections, in Myanmar

It is painful to measure our losses when we look back on the year 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 76 million people globally and taken 1.7 million lives. Economies have been shaken. In places, the virus has revealed some of society’s weaknesses. It has led to selfishness, chaos, and the denial of science. But it is often the less noticeable human costs that affect us the most. The disappointment of conversations only happening through a computer screen. The loneliness of going a long period of time without the ability to touch one another. And, perhaps especially, the silence of the dinner table. Not being able to eat together, especially during the holiday season, has a cruel effect on humans.

I have been walking across the globe for more than seven years, rediscovering our planet. It is no exaggeration to say that food has been a way to connect with others on my 24,000-mile journey from Africa to South America. I would not have survived this long without the thousands of shared meals in every setting, from migrant camps in Turkey to princes’ tents in Saudi Arabia.

So it is no surprise that I long for those last bowls of mont di, rice noodles, that I ate along the trail in northern Myanmar. The country is now locked down, and COVID forced me to pause my walk here in March.

Mont di is more than a noodle.

Like daal is in India, kebabs in Turkey and BBQ in America, mont di is a popular dish in Myanmar. It is considered a national treasure, yet it varies from region to region. Mont di reflects the ingredients of Myanmar’s local landscapes. In the country’s coastal south, cooks use fish or eels as the noodles’ base. In Yangon, the people cover their mont di with oil. The popular version in landlocked Mandalay often has chicken and a spicy sauce with garlic, onion, chilies, and turmeric. This version was the one I wanted most.

“It’s healthy and gives your energy,” said Cho Cho Myint, who is 52 years old and a mont di seller. Myint’s roadside eatery in the town of Sagaing was shaded by an ancient teak tree. “I have been serving mine to the same customers for 15 years.”

Myint said the secret to the best mont di is freshness.

The rice vermicelli, the noodle used in the dish, goes bad quickly in Myanmar’s heat. You must buy the noodles daily. The best places to get the noodles are in villages, where the boiled rice is ground by hand. Noodles made by machines are soft and gloopy. Rice paste made carefully by hand makes noodles that stay together.

At a small village nine miles from Myint’s small business, fresh, handmade noodles can be found.

Ma Yin, who is 53 years old, has been hand-making mont di all her life. Her mother made it. So did her grandma.

“All my neighbors have given up the mont di business,” Yin admitted. “It’s a tiring job with little income.”

Indeed, the process of turning raw rice into glistening noodles requires 18 separate steps. The process takes almost a week and involves days of rice soaking, cooking, pounding, and kneading. At one stage, the raw rice is smoothed by hand into very large balls that look like dinosaur eggs. The key to success, Yin said, was the boiling time. The boiling time can’t be too long or too short. She lost me there. It was complicated.

“Most people have no idea how much work goes into making mont di,” Yin said, without complaint. She was a serious woman with a lot of energy. “They just eat it.”

This was before the Myanmar government shut down roadside restaurants to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Yin had worried about the future back then. Five other family members depended on her backyard noodle workshop. Now, she doesn’t answer her phone when I call.

I plan to visit Yin’s village again before my trek restarts. It seems important, when the virus dies down, to rebuild this human bond through food. I’ll know Yin is alright by the thump of her foot-powered rice mill. It sounds like a big wooden heart and can be heard from very far away.

View the original dispatch to see a video of the cooks at Ya Min’s making fresh noodles.

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Editor
Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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