A Burmese death anniversary

The weekend after Chinese New Year, my family made preparations to honor my grandmother, who passed away 14 years ago.

In a Burmese tradition called yet le hsun (ရက်လည်ဆွမ်း), the family of the deceased offers monks a meal, on the 7th day after a person’s death. Inviting monks over for a meal or holding an ah-hlu (alms-giving ceremony) at the monastery is a major way to commemorate major life events (birthdays, wedding anniversaries, etc.), for Burmese Buddhist families like mine. My family has been doing this annually for the last 14 years, since my grandma’s death. In my family, weddings are Chinese but funerals are thoroughly Burmese.

From Wikipedia. By Wagaung.
Novices getting their morning meal, called 
a-yon-zun (အာရုံဆွမ်း) from a restaurant in Mandalay.

Theravada monks are ascetics by tradition (they are allowed to possess only 8 items), meaning that they depend on the community for food and other necessities, unlike Mahayana monks (ones in East Asia), who are generally self-sufficient. So Buddhist families commonly donate meals to the monastery to support the monks. Some devoted families go as far as delivering meals every day. When I was temporarily ordained as a monk, I remember different families came to the monastery every morning to deliver home-cooked meals for us. Although Theravada monks don’t have any dietary restrictions (vegetarianism is a choice), they’re not allowed to eat after noon time (a practice also followed by some Buddhists during the weekly Sabbath). They break fast at dawn and have their second and final meal before noon. For this reason, my grandma’s death anniversary is always held in the morning.

Food is not offered to the monks by simply telling them that lunch is ready. It’s given through an ritual offering called hsun kat (ဆွမ်းကပ်). We, as the donors, must clearly delineate what is being offered, since monks can only consume what is given to them. This involves first laying out the dishes on the dining table. In the presence of the monks, the donors all touch the table while the monks “receive” the meal, by chanting a blessing in Burmese and Pali (an incomprehensible Indian language, analogous to Latin in Catholicism). During the chanting, the donors physically lift the table (as if it’s one huge plate being offered) and set it back down, before they loudly repeat “Sadhu!” (well done!) three times.

After the monks have finished eating, my family started gathering in the living room to get ready for the chanting and sermon. After a lengthy discussion on the importance of honoring one’s parents and a prayer of loving-kindness, we to concluded with a Burmese-style water libation ceremony called yay zet cha. The elder male members of my family (all my uncles and grandfather) and my eldest aunt were given an empty bowl and a vessel of water (improvised with glass cups). While the monks chant, they slowly pour water into the bowl. At the end, everyone, in unison, declares “All those who can hear this can claim this merit as well” in Burmese. It’s a symbolic way of transferring merit. Then, the poured water is “returned” to the soil, as an offering to Wathondara, the earth goddess, marking the ceremony’s conclusion.

One of my aunts single-handedly made heaps and heaps of desserts and snacks. On the far left are kaw-pyan (Burmese-style popiah). The golden rice on the top corner is si htamin (literally “oil rice”), which is sticky rice dyed with turmeric and garnished with caramelized onions and dried shrimps. There’s also sago and cassava cakes, bite-sized desserts.

I’ve never found a Burmese restaurant that serves excellent food. Even in Burma’s big cities, it’s pretty difficult to find a restaurant serving Burmese food (by Burmese, I’m talking about the majority ethnic group), since most restaurants are either Indian or Chinese. That’s because home cooking is usually where the magic happens. In the US, the best Burmese food can be found at monasteries or homes.

Pots filled with curries glistening with oil are pretty typical Burmese dishes. They’re not photogenic, but they make hearty meals. These curries, called si-byan (literally “glistening with oil”), are eaten with heapfuls of long-grained rice. They’re mildly spicy and they’ve been simmered and immersed in oil for a long time. My aunts made 3 kinds of si-byan: catfish (ငါးခူဆီပြန်), chicken (ကြက်သာဆီပြန်) and pork (ဝက်သားဆီပြန်).

On the far left is my mom’s version of “sour duck eggs” or be-u a-chin-hin (ဘဲဥအချဉ်ဟင်း). The night before, my sister had peeled over 40 hardboiled eggs to prep the dish. In the morning, my mom cooked these eggs in a masala gravy with caramelized onions and garnished the dish with coriander and sliced chilis. My aunt from San Jose, who couldn’t make the anniversary, sent over boiled pea salad (ပဲပြုတ်အသုတ်).

This hearty feast was topped off with guava puff pastries at Porto’s. Yum.

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