Sweet Rice, Rituals, & Water Guns

By James Oseland

Published on April 17, 2007

It is not yet seven a.m. on this first day of Myanmar's New Year, but the streets of Yangon, the capital, are already bustling with activity. Buddhist monks in maroon robes offer blessings outside a monastery. A vendor sets out lei-like chains of dewy jasmine. A rosy-cheeked aunty at a bus stop clutches a big enamel bowl of fragrant curry.

I'm in a fast-moving taxi with my friend Irene Khin Wong, a 40-year plus native of Myanmar, whose family left for Manhattan when she was ten. (Myanmar was called Burma until 1989; the change was made to conform to Burmese usage.) We whiz past Shwedagon Paya, the immense golden pagoda that towers over Yangon (formerly Rangoon) like a skyscraper from Mars, and head toward Hledan market to buy flowers and mangoes for a soon-kyway (prayer ritual) that Irene will undertake later this morning at a nearby monastery. Myanmar's New Year, Thingyan (pronounced THIN-jan)—known in English as the water festival—is an auspicious time for such observances. The mid-April celebration, which lasts for several days, marks the celestial passage of Pisces into Aries, when Thagyamin, king of the celestials, visits the human world to judge each person's actions during the past year. It is also a time when families and friends come together to spread good cheer and eat festive banquets.

Soon, we're walking in a maze of stands covered with tropical gourds, lettuces, and curry leaves so luminously green they look as if they were picked moments ago. We stop for a quick bowl of Yangon's requisite on-the-go morning meal, mohinga—rice noodles in a peppery fish-based broth. Irene has hers topped with hard-boiled eggs and shrimp fritters, but I opt for just some chopped cilantro. Sated, we press on. As Irene bargains for a bunch of pink roses, I spy a few kids who I think—no, I swear—have been following us. "We've got company," I whisper to Irene. Before she can respond, we're surrounded. A tense moment passes. Then, as if taking a cue from a higher power, the kids simultaneously reach behind their backs and hurl buckets of icy water at us, laughing hysterically.

I'd been warned about the more literal aspect of the water festival: dousing people in an attempt to purify them for the year ahead. One guidebook I read even recommended wearing denim clothes during Thingyan "to take the sting away from the splashes". This mass soaking, which is also part of Thailand's New Year, Songkran, is engaged in by everyone in Myanmar, except for the very old, the very young, Buddhist monks and nuns, postmen (who are exempt by government decree), and, I had hoped, those wearing Kenneth Cole sandals. "Didn't your book tell you?" asks Irene, as she wrings out her blouse. "You're supposed to leave your designer footwear at home."

My knowledge of Myanmar was fairly impersonal. I knew, for instance, that the country was flanked by China, India, and Thailand. I knew that it boasted a complex cultural heritage (more than 100 ethnic groups, including the Bamar, the Shan, and people of Indian and Chinese origin, figure among the approximately 50 million residents) and had a history of self-rule before it was colonized by Britain starting in 1826, a reign that ended in 1947. I also knew that its post-British years were marked by dictatorial governments, international embargoes, and the long imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning pro-democracy activist who was recently released from house arrest in Yangon.

But Myanmar began to take on a more accessible face one chilly fall afternoon in Manhattan. Irene, whom I had met through a mutual friend in 2000, and I had just finished eating lunch when she started to reminisce about her childhood. "When I was a girl back in Burma," she said, "the water festival was my favorite holiday. My family would eat pork and fish curries and sweet, sticky rice balls mixed with fresh coconut, a traditional New Year food, and we'd get so, so wet." She paused; then her voice dropped a notch. "In Myanmar my life was about celebrations. Here my life is about work."

I had previously known only the cell phone-wielding, city girl side of Irene. That day she revealed a lot more. Irene's father, Ping Kwee Wong, who is of Chinese descent, was the owner of a logging company. In 1972, frustrated with the policies of General Ne Win—who all but closed the country off from the rest of the world when he came to power in 1962—and seeking better educational opportunities for his children, Wong moved his family to America. After a rocky start—the only job Wong could find was that of a dishwasher, and their apartment was a two-room, six-floor walk-up—things improved. Following college and a stint on Wall Street, Irene combined her interests in business and food, opening Road to Mandalay, a restaurant specializing in Burmese cuisine. It was a critical and financial success, and, perhaps more important, it provided her with a connection to her heritage. In 1994 she sold the eatery and two years later founded Saffron 59, a catering company offering pan-Asian food, including many Burmese dishes.

At her apartment after lunch that October afternoon, Irene took out a stack of snapshots of trips she had made to Myanmar over the past decade. Flipping through them, she said, "In Yangon, despite all its problems, I feel home." As a heavy rain started to fall outside, we made plans to go there together for the next Thingyan.

Leaving Hledan market, we take another taxi toward the monastery—and promptly get caught in a traffic jam. "Only a New Yorker would be late for a soul-cleansing ceremony," says Irene. The traffic clears, though, and we arrive still wet but on time. Irene places the mangoes and flowers on the altar, then kneels before the abbot, a smiling fellow in wire-rim glasses, and softly repeats a series of ritual stanzas. "I didn't recognize many of the words," she tells me when it's over. "It felt like a test—one I wasn't going to pass." After the ceremony, the 60 or so monks who live at the monastery silently fill the temple hall for a meal that Irene is sponsoring—an attempt to gain merit for the year ahead.

The bill of fare, chosen by Irene and the monks, was prepared by a staff of women who shop and cook for the men. It is classic Bamar (the Bamar being the primary ethnic group of Yangon and central Myanmar), consisting of a balanced combination of light and rich dishes, with steamed rice as the main component: wet thar thayet thee, a pork curry spiked with green mango; ywet son kyaw, a vegetable stir-fry with garlic; myin khwa ywet thoke, a salad of peppery pennywort leaves and shallots; balachaung, a pungent condiment made of dried shrimp, fried garlic, and toasted chiles; and a side dish of raw vegetables and herbs. After the monks eat, it's our turn, and Irene, her friend Ma Thanegi, a columnist for the Myanmar Times, and I devour the meal Burmese style—voraciously, and with the fingers of our right hands.

Along with that of China, the cuisines of India and Thailand, which are popular throughout the country, are generally considered to have had significant influence on Myanmar's food. But for me, the main characteristics, especially of Bamar and Shan cooking, are freshness and simplicity, not spice. Chiles are used sparingly, usually in the form of nga yoke thee hmont, a mild chile powder that tastes like sweet paprika. Other staples are lemongrass, onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and fish sauce. Shan cooking borrows several ingredients and cooking techniques, such as sesame oil and superquick stir-frying, from Yunnan, the Chinese province with which the Shan people share a border. But none of the food I've tasted in Myanmar bears more than a passing resemblance to other Asian fare. "It's the food that a Jewish grandmother might cook if someone had taught her about lemongrass and cilantro," notes Irene.

The next day, Irene and I visit the area where she grew up, in Yangon's colonial core, most of whose buildings are stately structures dating back at least 150 years. We have come to visit the Lwin Oo family, the Wongs' former next-door neighbors. Everything here is attached to a memory: the shop around the corner where Irene's mom used to buy Indian nan bread; the street where Irene played soccer with her brothers. The Lwin Oos now run a television repair business out of their modest apartment. While we drink iced Chinese tea, Irene asks to see a Wong family heirloom the Lwin Oos were entrusted with—a large, lacquered antique offering box that she would like to ship back to New York. "It would be a miracle if it made it," Mr. Lwin says. (It is illegal to take many items, including antiques, out of Myanmar.) Irene nods, trying to conceal her disappointment. She's clearly grown tired of leaving things behind. Later Irene takes me to Shwe Pezun Ice Cream Parlour, a crowded Yangon temple to all that is sweet. Drinking a faluda, an Indian-inspired shake with chewy sago pearls, she stares off into space. "Maybe I'll move back in a few years," she says. "I think I might be ready."

Irene and I take refuge from the splashing in the streets the following morning in the immaculate kitchen of Daw Lay Lay, an aunt of Irene's by marriage. Daw Lay Lay, an easygoing woman who smokes stubby, hand-rolled cigars while she cooks, comes from Mogok, a city in Myanmar's north where the Bamar and Shan cooking styles converge. She is a talented cook, and Irene studiously watches her prepare our lunch: a simple fish and tomato curry; tofu thoke (thoke means salad), slices of Shan tofu, made of mashed yellow lentils, in a sesame-oil dressing; jin thoke, a pickled ginger salad with fried garlic; and hmo-kazun ywet kyaw, stir-fried water spinach with straw mushrooms. Each dish is a testament to the Burmese obsession with freshness. As we serve ourselves yet another helping of everything, Daw Lay Lay lets out a hearty laugh. But we can't linger. Irene and I are expected at a New Year's party hosted by Ma Ohmar and her husband, U Moe Myint, the owner of Myanmar Petroleum Resources.

Ma Thanegi promised us the event would be a grand affair, with bands and tents and as many as a thousand guests, and it's all true. But even though we've just eaten, it is the buffet that most captivates us. The extensive spread includes boo thee kyaw, strips of fried calabash gourd, and Thingyan htamin, a strange but delicious New Year's specialty from the southern city of Moulmein, Ma Ohmar's birthplace, consisting of steamed rice served with salted fish, pickled mango, and sandalwood-and-wax-scented water. We fill our plates and sit at a table with Ma Thanegi and Ma Ohmar, the latter an aristocratic-looking woman in a sky blue silk dress, her hair in a bun. "She's the Burmese Jackie O," I whisper to Irene.

While we eat, I learn that Ma Thanegi was once Aung San Suu Kyi's assistant. But after serving a three-year prison sentence for her involvement with Suu Kyi, she changed her views about how best to achieve democracy. Sensing that I am about to start asking some unfestive questions, Ma Ohmar gently interrupts. "Oh, let's not talk about politics," she says. "Let's get wet." With that, the four of us make our way to the edge of Ma Ohmar's property. I toss my sandals aside and jump down into the action on the street below. Within seconds, I am soaked to the core, laughing as I've never laughed before. I try to find Irene and finally locate her in the distance, being swept away by a bunch of rowdy girls with bazooka-size water guns. Right now there are no military governments or house arrests, no Yangon or New York; only all this water and the ecstasy of letting go while we can.

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