Two Decembers ago, I returned to Burma for the third time, en route from neighboring Thailand, where my family had spent the bulk of our Christmas holiday.
To be honest, I struggle with writing about Burma. In some ways, I’ve been both blessed and burdened by my upbringing as an American of mixed Burmese and Chinese heritage. (My family is part of the overseas Chinese diaspora, with deep roots in Burma.)
Min Lan (မင်းလမ်း), perhaps Yangon’s best known seafood restaurant chain, serves amazing and delicious Rakhine-style fare. We paid tribute to this local favorite, dining at the chain’s Sanchaung Township location within hours after landing in Rangoon.
My family’s trip to Burma this past January coincided with my aunt’s and uncle’s. In honor of my grandmother, who passed away 17 years ago, they arranged an almsgiving ceremony at the Tipitaka Monastery in the centre of Yangon. As I’ve said before, the community is interwoven into the fabric of Burmese life. Almsgiving ceremonies, which are really communal feasts, including a donation of alms to the monastery, are just another manifestation of the this generous spirit. And the lunch served was absolutely delicious.
Mohinga is to the Burmese what menudo may be to the Mexicans. It’s the stuff of life, found all across Burma, in homes, street stalls and in restaurants. As a kid, I regularly ate it for breakfast on weekends (there was no way I was going to school with a potent fishy breath). Over the years, I’ve had countless iterations of mohinga. I’ll tell you this: once you’ve eaten enough bowls of mohinga, you realize that no two persons cook the same recipe–every chef makes the dish their own.
I’m not about to start a feud between Thai and Burmese cuisines. But having been fueled by endless bowls of khao soi* while I was in northern Thailand, I beyond excited to grab a bowl of the ‘original’ Burmese coconut chicken noodle soup, aka on no khauk swe (အုန်းနို့ခေါက်ဆွဲ) when I flew into Burma.
*Khao soi just means ‘noodles’ in Burmese. Khao soi is Thailand’s take on the Burmese coconut chicken noodle soup, and has an intense coconut milk broth, on wheat noodles and a curried protein (chicken or beef).
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.
Americanized Burmese food is one of those things that instantly repulses yet fascinates me. At the one hand, I’m surprised there’s a market for Burmese cuisine outside the country. On the other hand, I’m left at the end of the meal feeling unfulfilled.
An incomplete Burmese meal imparts a feeling called “ah yi” (အအီ), with no true English equivalent, describing how one feels after wolfing down a hearty and oil-laden meal. I won’t dissect the anatomy of the requisites in a Burmese meal, but dishes are paired according to their qualities. For example, oil-based curries are paired with a sour-tasting soup to offset the oiliness, and by extension, that feeling.
This past May, I had the privilege of photographing a once in a lifetime event, the sacred umbrella hoisting ceremony at the Progressive Buddhist Association (Thondrarama Brahma Vihara Monastery) in Azusa, a hillside community in Southern California. The monastery is perched on the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and was once a ranch, teeming with horses.