Was I in Chicago or in the middle of Burma?

Painting of a Burmese maiden hanging at their home.
Painting of a Burmese maiden hanging at their home.

I won’t lie. There’s a very special place in my heart for Burmese food, because it brings me home. The sound of chilis and garlic ground with a stone mortar and pestle, the aroma of caramelized onions, and the pungency of fermented fish sauce. And I had a obscene amount of it while visiting the Midwest last month.

Young and free. My dad among his classmates in 1970s Burma.
A portrait of my dad and his friends as twenty-something year olds.

Over Labor Day weekend, my family flew out to Chicago to visit family friends, my dad’s college friends, to be precise. In true Burmese fashion, my “auntie” lavished us with breakfast, lunch, dinner and all the in-betweens without fail, every single day. Genuine Burmese hospitality at its finest.

It solidified my opinion that an authentic Burmese food experience cannot be easily replicated in consumer settings like restaurants, because it’s food without context. Burmese cooking is a labor of love, so interwoven and connected to the folks actually cooking the dishes and the ingredients being used. It also might explain why indigenous Burmese cuisine is relatively hard to find even in Burma (most restaurants are either Chinese or Indian).

Assorted noodle salad (လက်သုပ်စုံ)

There's a lot of prep work that goes into making Burmese style salads, everything from frying scallions to pulverising dried shrimp.
There’s a lot of prep work that goes into making Burmese style salads, everything from frying scallions to pulverising dried shrimp.
A batch of freshly julienned green papaya.
A batch of freshly julienned green papaya.

The night we landed at Midway, we were immediately greeted with ample servings of let thoke sone (လက်သုပ်စုံ). Translation: “hand mixed assortment.” This Burmese salad included boiled noodles (wheat and rice noodles), julienned green papaya, mixed with a bunch of garnishes like powdered dried shrimp, tamarind juice, fish sauce, chickpea flour, and sprinkled with chili powder, cilantro and fried onions to one’s like liking.

Mixing a Burmese salad is all about technique. And they're best mixed individually, by hand.
Mixing a Burmese salad is all about technique. And they’re best mixed individually, by hand.
Mixing by hand allows the flavors to be massaged into the noodles.
Mixing by hand allows the flavors to be massaged into the noodles.
A plate of let thoke sone and buthi hincho.

The dish was served with a simple variation of a Burmese soup called buthi hingyo (ဘူးသီးဟင်းချို), made with fish stock, glass noodles, and bottle gourd.

Herbal soup with chicken and burdock

Ample chunks of chicken and burdock slices in the broth.
Ample chunks of chicken and burdock slices in the broth.
A serving of the herbal soup.
A serving of the herbal soup.

For one of our meals, we had a Chinese herbal concoction made with chicken and simmered with thin slices of burdock (also called niubang (牛蒡) in Chinese), carrots and dried red dates. Burdock is a root vegetable used in traditional Chinese medicine, with a bittersweet taste when cooked. My mom enjoyed the dish so much that she took down the recipe to replicate it at home.

Chicago skyline from Navy Pier.
Chicago skyline from Navy Pier.
Each morning, our breakfast spread looked like this.
Each morning, our breakfast spread looked like this. Boiled eggs are Burma’s answers to American energy bars, as they’re protein-rich and packed with nutrients.

Yam rice (芋飯)

Packing the or png for a picnic.
Packing the or png for a picnic.
Closeup of the or png.
Closeup of the or png.

For one of the picnics, my auntie prepared a classic Hokkien dish called or png (芋飯), made with rice, pork belly, mushrooms and the most important ingredient, taro (yam), all cooked together. Once my dad dug in, he immediately exclaimed “This is truly Hokkien. It brings me back to my childhood, exactly what my grandma used to make.”

Fish chowder (မုန့်ဟင်းခါး)

Limes ready for squeezing.
Limes ready for squeezing.
Boiled eggs are used to top the mohinga.
Boiled eggs are used to top the mohinga.
The mohinga chowder comes to a boil.
The mohinga chowder comes to a boil.
A bowl of hearty mohinga.
A bowl of hearty mohinga.

For one of our breakfasts, my auntie whipped up mohinga, considered one of Burma’s national dishes. Commonly eaten for breakfast, it’s a chowder made with a freshwater fish, thickened with chickpea flour (also called besan) and other indigenous ingredients like lemongrass, tender banana stem, and boiled rice noodles. It’s optionally served with a boiled egg, lentil fritters, and cilantro.

Burmese style fried rice (ဗမာထမင်းကြော်)

Another morning, another hearty breakfast.
Another morning, another hearty breakfast.
A pot of fried rice.
A pot of fried rice.
Closeup of the fried rice.
Closeup of the fried rice.

My auntie’s take on Burmese fried rice really won me over. Burmese fried rice traditionally uses boiled chickpeas, fried shallots, and of course, leftover rice. My aunt really elevated the dish, by adding dried snakehead fish flakes and egg, to the fried rice.

Curry bun

The smiley face on the bun was a warning sign: contains chilis.
The smiley face on the bun was a warning sign: contains chilis.
Inside the curry bun
Inside the curry bun

For our last breakfast in Chicago, my auntie baked some curry buns. We Burmese like to eat chicken and potato curry with shredded palata (ပလာတာ), an Indian flatbread with many flaky layers. What my auntie did was bake them curried chicken and potatoes into a glazed bun. The ideal starch to filling ratio. Just perfect.

Burmese style glutinous rice (ကောက်ညှင်းပေါင်း)

A batch of glutinous rice, with the toppings in the background (sesame seeds and fresh coconut shavings).
A batch of glutinous rice, with the toppings in the background (sesame seeds and fresh coconut shavings).
My serving of Burmese style glutinous rice (ကောက်ညှင်းပေါင်း).
My serving of Burmese style glutinous rice.

For yet another breakfast, my auntie made some Burmese style glutinous rice, called kauk hnyin baung (ကောက်ညှင်းပေါင်း), which is steamed with red beans, and served with sesame seeds and freshly grated coconut.

Mee shay (မြီးရှည်)

Mandalay mee shay (မြီးရှည်) with some homemade roast pork.
Mee shay with some homemade roast pork.
Closeup of the mee shay.
Closeup of the mee shay.

Mee shay (မြီးရှည်) is a Burmese dish native to the Shan peoples of the Burmese highlands. Made with rice noodles, it’s served with a meaty sauce, dressed in peanut oil, fried shallots. My auntie served the dish with pickled vegetables called mont hnyin gyin (မုန်ညင်းချဉ်) and slices of roast pork.

Curries galore

Pork and pickled mango curry.
Pork and pickled mango curry.
The pork curry (ဝက်သားဆီပြန်) served with some ngapi gyet and sliced cucumbers.
The pork curry (ဝက်သားဆီပြန်) served with some ngapi gyet and sliced cucumbers.
Star of this meal: fried fish cake curry.

Our last dinner in Chicago, we had a medley of rich and earthy Burmese curries, from bitter melon to eggplant, from chicken to fried fish paste. The meal with served with a soup called penilay hingyo (ပဲနီလေးဟင်းချို), a thick soup made with red lentils and curry leaves.

The star of the meal was the fried fish cake curry, called ngape hin (ငါးဖယ်ဟင်း). My auntie let us know that the fish cakes were straight from Burma, pounded into thin flat pieces, unlike their Thai counterparts, and cooked with lemongrass stalks.

Fermented fish paste salad (ငပိသုပ်)

Closeup of fermented fish paste salad (ngapi thoke).
Closeup of fermented fish paste salad (ngapi thoke).

The fermented fish paste salad or ngapi thoke (ငပိသုပ်) was immaculately prepared. It’s actually quite simple to make. The fermented fish paste (ngapi) is diluted with lime juice, and mixed with chopped onions, and then sprinkled with chili and cilantro. The intensity of the spicy, sour and salty flavors immediately hit my taste buds and left me with a hankering for more rice.  I could eat this stuff every single meal, for the rest of my life.

Curry leaf

The curry leaf plant.
The curry leaf plant.

Before we left, my auntie gave us a curry leaf plant (called pyindawthein or ပျဉ်းတော်သိမ် in Burmese) that she had painstakingly cultivated. When it’s reached the size of a shrub, the fresh leaves can be used in Burmese dishes, imparting a fresh and delicately sweet and herby flavor. We managed to slide this tiny plant past TSA, no questions asked (the water bottles were another issue altogether) and now it’s growing 1,745 miles away in balmy LA, safe and sound.

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2 thoughts on “Was I in Chicago or in the middle of Burma?”

  1. What a wonderful piece. After living in Chiang Mai for a year and visiting Burma many times, this brought back many memories of wonderful meals. I live in Chicago now and sure hope I run into your Auntie at some point!

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