Yangon’s ‘Pork on Stick’

First published on Vice Munchies 27th April 2015

For Aye Min Win, the day starts early—very early. A good 45 minutes before the sun even threatens to break the horizon, Aye Min Win is already up, dressed, and out of the door.

In the pre-dawn dark, he rides his pushbike towards the local market, an easy journey before Yangon’s rush hour traffic and almost enjoyable when the oppressive heat has yet to surface.

Yangon-market-Wet-Thar-Dote-Htoe

A Yangon street market.

For the past 16 years, Aye Min Win has worked with his father and brothers to provide the people of Yangon with one simple street dish: Wet Thar Dote Htoe or, literally, “pork on stick.”

And that’s exactly what it is: pork offal (that includes anything from pig lungs and intestine to tongue), cooked with soy sauce, and skewered onto a bamboo stick. But Wet Thar Dote Htoe’s appeal isn’t in the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin simplicity of its recipe, it’s how you eat it.

Yangon-pork-on-stick

Offal used to make Wet Thar Dote Htoe.

Gaining popularity from near-obscurity 20 years ago, the food can be found almost everywhere in Yangon, vying with mohinga (a kind of fish noodle soup and easy contender for national dish of Burma) for popularity in the former capital. Almost always on the streets, it’s hard to not notice the vendors’ huddle of mini-stools, skewered meat, and bubbling black sauce.

It was Aye Min Win’s father who picked up on the Wet Thar Dote Htoe’s  potential some 16 years earlier. At the time, the family lived near Yangon’s Chinatown, where the “pork on stick” concept is rumoured to have been conceived. In a single downtown street in Yangon, the extended family now runs 12 different Wet Thar Dote Htoe stalls.

Yangon-Wet-Thar-Dote-Htoe-stall

One of Aye Min Win’s family Wet Thar Dote Htoe stalls.

Around 3 PM is when Aye Min Win begins selling at his street corner. Under the shade of a large umbrella, he chews blood red betel while gently shepherding his infant daughter away from the busy road and tending to the food.

Acting as nucleus of his stall, a deep cauldron filled with a black, treacly liquid slowly bubbles away. Underneath, a gas stove or white-hot coals maintain heat while air pockets break the thin layer of oil above, disseminating the almost sickly sweet soy smell with every mellifluous “pop.”

Yangon-Pork-on-Stick-stove

Around the cauldron, small bowls of fresh garlic and chillies are provided as condiments, and a halo of skewered pig parts circles the bubbling vat. This is where Aye Min Win distinguishes himself from the other vendors.

“I only buy the best pork,” he explains before pausing to baste the meats sitting above the pot. “That’s why people come to me. They see I charge more [than the others] but that’s because I use better ingredients.”

From most vendors, a single skewer can cost as little as 50 kyats (around $0.05) making them a prime snack affordable to one and all. At Aye Min Win’s street stall however, he charges four times the amount for a similar piece of pig.

Yangon-Myanmar-Pork-on-Stick

Pork offal used in Wet Thar Dote Htoe recipes.

“They still come. Some days, people will eat around 50 skewers and spend as much as 10,000 kyats ($10) in one sitting.”

You won’t find bits of pork loin, ham, or jowl on Aye Min Win’s skewers.  Instead, the prized parts come in the shape of intestines, cartilage, tongue, eye, heart, liver, kidney, appendix, and oesophagus. This is the point where most Westerners turn away and I struggle to think of friends who would be open to eating such a dish without fetishising it as “an experience.”

“It’s all pork!” says Aye Min Win, who knows all too well the Western bias against recognising what you eat. “These are basically all internal organs because the people are used to eating it, they love it. It’s easier to prepare too.”

Pork-on-Stick-Myanmar-Yangon

Small bowls of fresh chilli and garlic are provided as condiments to the “Pork on Stick.”

Aye Min Win’s concept of easy preparation is questionable. From visiting butchers at daybreak to setting up stall in the afternoon, most of his waking hours are spent diligently preparing and cooking the day’s dishes.

“It’s pretty simple,” he says of the seemingly time-consuming preparatory work. “The first thing you do is you must clean it all very thoroughly.”

Aye Min Win’s hands begin mimicking his morning cleaning sessions and he suddenly skewers a bit of lower intestine. Holding it up to the light he adds, “Sometimes these will still have poo in them so we are very careful.”

Once all the parts of the meat are cleaned, the next step is boiling. Aye Min Win boils the pieces for a specific time to ensure they are completely clean. He then adds a touch of sugar, seasoning, and soy sauce to the boiled water before steaming the offal until it is cooked to tender perfection.

Pork-on-stick-wet-thar-dote-htoe

A customer enjoying Wet Thar Dote Htoe at a Yangon street stall.

“I keep the steam liquid too,” Aye Min Win explains. “That’s what makes up the sauce. You add a bit more sugar and soy and let it reduce.”

A friend of mine from Kachin State in north Burma happily digs into Aye Min Win’s fare.

“Oh yeah,” he says with a slight nod of the head. “This is a good one.”

Thanks in part to Aye Min Win’s family street vending empire, Wet Thar Dote Htoe has popped up in cities outside of Yangon. However the dish remains a relatively new phenomenon in the country as a whole.

Pork-on-stick-nighttime-stall

Aye Min Win’s stall stays open well into the night.

“We don’t have this in Kachin,” my friend tells me. “I actually didn’t know you guys [Westerners] didn’t like the internal stuff. It seems like a waste. What do you do with your internal organs?”

I pause for a moment, before meekly responding: “Uh… sausages?”

Aye Min Win continues to baste his pork skewers as we talk. From 3 PM until well after midnight, he will keep his stall open to anyone who feels a need for skewered pig parts. As we prepare to leave, Aye Min Win stands and wrestles in his pocket for a green business card. His stall’s name is printed in bold at the top: A Tall Guy.

I look back quizzically at the 5-foot-8-inch vendor and he sheepishly responds, “Yeah, that’s actually my brother’s nickname. He’s taller, I guess.”

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