Burmese Home Cooking – in a Queens Kitchen

Htay Myint Aye (left) and Janet Khaing, with an array of Burmese dishes and condiments. (Photo by Kiune Imai Weinstein for Voices of NY)

Htay Myint Aye (left) and Janet Khaing, with an array of Burmese dishes and condiments. (Photo by Kinue Imai Weinstein for Voices of NY)

When Htay Myint Aye, a native of Myanmar (formerly Burma), arrived in New York in 1978 at age 24, there was no Burmese community, temple, or food market. So, when she wanted to prepare Burmese food, she had to improvise with locally available ingredients. “I grew up in Myanmar so I know how the foods should taste,” she says. Burmese food combines the cuisines of India, Thailand, and China, reflecting its geographical proximity to those nations, whose dishes are better known to Americans. The cuisine includes a number of curry dishes, but they are not hot (spicy) like Indian or Thai foods.

Ethnic Eats-04Today, after 36 years, Htay Myint Aye still substitutes some of the ingredients. For example, she makes her own Lahpet (pickled tea leaves served with assorted nuts as dessert), from dried tea leaves sold at ordinary supermarkets, and substitutes Japanese Somen noodles – readily available in Asian food markets in New York – to make a popular Burmese breakfast noodle dish called Mohinga.

Even after the recent easing of import sanctions by the U.S. government following the Burmese government’s return to civilian rule in 2011, Burmese living in the U.S. still depend on their friends and relatives coming from Burma to bring them traditional ingredients such as pickled tea leaves, noodles, deep-fried garlic and roasted sesame seeds.

In New York there is only one Burmese restaurant, Café Mingala on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. For most Burmese immigrants in the New York area, home-cooked meals offer the best way to savor the familiar and comforting dishes of home. And food has a special role in the Buddhist Burmese tradition, offering sustenance and providing a means by which to support and help others – with food donations often being made, for instance, to needy Buddhist monks and nuns.

Htay Myint Aye and her friend Janet Khaing were recommended to this writer, who spent many years studying Burmese culture, as excellent home cooks. The two immigrants, longtime U.S. residents, recently demonstrated how to prepare two popular Myanmar noodle dishes in the kitchen of Htay Myint Aye in Douglaston, New York.

Mohinga is virtually the national breakfast dish of Burma, consisting of noodles in rich catfish soup, served with dried toppings such as sliced hard-boiled eggs, coriander leaves, and chickpea fritters.

Mohinga, virtually the national dish of Burma, usually eaten for breakfast. (Photo by Kinue Imai Weinstein for Voices of NY)

Mohinga, virtually the national dish of Burma, is usually eaten for breakfast. (Photo by Kinue Imai Weinstein for Voices of NY)

The two women also demonstrated how to prepare Shan Kauk Swe (Shan-style noodles) with pork soup, which is served for lunch or dinner.

Htay Myint Aye, 61, typically chooses to cook Burmese food for her Burmese-born husband, an anesthesiologist. (Her grown children prefer American food.) She tries, she says, to save money by not eating out.

She is saving for a special reason: in order to finance her birthday celebration in Myanmar.

Htay Myint Aye typically invites more than 1,000 people for a meal on a street in South Okkalapa, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), quickly serving about 50 people at a time in several seatings over several hours.

She started her birthday “food offering” in 2004 and has continued every year since then. Her sister-in-law, who lives in the area, and her friends help her with cooking and serving. “We started at 4:30 pm but by 6:30 pm we ran out of food last time. So, in order to continue, we had to send a car to pick up more food because the line was still long,” says Htay Myint Aye.

In addition, she bought 50 bags of rice and salt and 50 bottles (1 gallon) of cooking oil and donated them to 50 Buddhist temples.

The first time she made those offerings, she was so happy that she decided to repeat the offerings every year. She feels that she is lucky because she was able to establish a good life in New York and she realizes that not everyone in Myanmar is so fortunate, she says.

Htay Myint Aye left Myanmar a few years after she participated in protests as a Yangon University student in December 1974. The protests followed the refusal of the military government to permit a state funeral for U Thant, who had been secretary general of the U.N. “Every time students protested, the military just closed the university. We were able to attend the school only six months out of three years,” she recalls.  She and her husband left the country, deciding that there was no future under the military regime.

After settling down in New York, she tried to visit her mother in Myanmar but she was not allowed to return until 1989, when she was permitted only to visit a temple and offer food for monks.

In Myanmar, where approximately 90 percent of the population practice Buddhism (as does Htay Myint Aye), it is common for people to commemorate their birthdays by making donations to pagodas, temples, nursing homes, or orphanages, where the offerings are appreciated.

In addition to making food offerings, Htay Myint Aye also supports teachers by giving words of appreciation and encouragement – and manages to link this to a meal. “When I visited my mother every year or two, I found some of my old school teachers were not well taken care of after their retirement,” she explains. She initiated giving moral support to the retired teachers, by organizing a lunch with speeches of appreciation by former students.

“Burmese are very generous people,” continues Htay Mying Aye, “they are also very tolerant and believe in karma (the sum of a person’s action in this and previous existences).” At the same time, however, it’s that very tolerance, she believes, that allowed the military to maintain power in Burma and a handful of political elites to oppress and abuse people for half a century.

Despite the return to civilian rule, she is pessimistic about the future, believing that the government is not really willing to give up the power or the wealth seized over decades from the Burmese people. “It is so sad that I won’t see big changes in our country before I die,” she says.

Janet Khaing, who lives near Htay Myint Aye and often cooks together with her, left Myanmar in 1989, the year when the military government oppressed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy movement. She has lived in New York since 1993 with her family.

Like her friend, she often offers Burmese home cooking to her family. In the U.S., she worked as a secretary at the United National Development Program, and since her retirement has kept tabs on members of the Burmese community in New York.

Fast friends, Htay Myint Aye and Janet can spend hours cooking authentic Burmese food in the Douglaston kitchen.

Here’s how Htay Myint Aye and Janet made the Mohinga:

First, they poached 3/4 pound catfish fillet in 2 cups water, with a couple of stalks of chopped lemon grass cut, some salt and turmeric.  Then they made an onion paste from 2 large onions, 3 cloves of garlic, and a 2-inch ginger root. They sautéed this mixture in oil for 20 minutes until the paste was soft, caramelized, and fragrant.

Next they made a soup combining the paste, fish stock, roasted ground rice powder, fish sauce, and water, to which they added somen noodles.

Two hours later, a feast of authentic Mohinga and noodles was arrayed on the dining table, with several garnishes set out for the Mohinga, including hard-boiled eggs, coriander leaves, lime wedges, deep-fried garlic cloves, and chickpea fritters. As they ladled the fragrant soups into bowls, the two women, with many stories to tell, continued to share both the cuisine and the culture of their nation.

One Comment

  1. Jeanne Chang says:

    Is there a way to contact Htay Myint Aye? I was wondering if she has a shop?

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