Food memories: a taste of home in Myanmar

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It was my husband’s first trip to Myanmar, and I was eager to show Chris my country of birth and the much-loved food of my childhood. One dish I particularly wanted to share was let thoke, which can be translated as ‘hand-mixed’. It can roughly be described as a salad because all the ingredients are tossed in a dressing, but unlike salads in the West, it is hearty and substantial.

So when my cousin asked what we wanted to eat, naturally, I suggested let thoke. I have made let thoke for my husband many times at home, but this was the first time he had the chance to taste let thoke sone. Sone means an assortment or variety, and is a dish you assemble yourself, with all the ingredients laid out on the table. As the name suggests, it is mixed and eaten with your hands.

Hot & SourHot and sour, by Koshy Koshy. Creative Commons BY license.

We arrived at my cousin’s house early to help with the preparations, but all the ingredients were already sliced, chopped and cooked. Concerned that my husband would be uncomfortable sitting on the floor, my cousin started to move a large table toward the kitchen, but we assured her we were used to sitting on the floor. We washed our hands and sat down on a bamboo mat. Chris gave me a look that asked, 'Are we eating on our own again?' I reminded him that as guests, we ate first and my cousin’s family would eat afterwards, so we must leave enough. Eating while our hosts watched was an unnerving experience for Chris. He felt he was being rude eating first, but I explained that, as good hosts, this was their way.

My cousins kept saying 'Please eat, don’t be polite,' so I started and took a small amount of each ingredient: rice mixed with chilli oil, flat rice noodles, vermicelli, egg noodles, mung-bean noodles mixed with turmeric oil, boiled sliced potatoes, Shan tofu, deep-fried tofu, fried garlic and fried onions. These I mixed with a small handful of thinly sliced white cabbage and chopped coriander. The cabbage gave the dish a crunchy texture while the coriander added freshness to an otherwise carbohydrate-heavy meal.

Next came the seasonings: a teaspoon of pounded dried shrimp and a spoonful of roasted chickpea powder. The powder helps emulsify the dressing, which is comprised of oil infused with fried onion, tamarind liquid, a squeeze of lemon juice and a generous dash of fish sauce. Finally I cautiously added some crushed roasted chillies and to the amusement of my cousin, Chris heaped a generous amount on his plate.

Once all the ingredients were assembled, I used the fingertips of my right hand to mix and toss, mashing the potatoes, making sure all the ingredients were combined. A quick taste and I added a little more lemon before being satisfied. Chris spent the next five minutes adding small amounts of fish sauce, lemon and tamarind. He felt it did not taste the same as mine and I told him that’s the fun of making let thoke: each person adjusts the flavours according to his or her own personal taste.

Of all our food experiences in Myanmar, let thoke was the most memorable. For Chris, let thoke summed up the flavours of Burmese food: a balance of salty, sour and spicy. For me, the taste evoked memories of the food I ate while growing up in Yangon. It also reminded me that food always tastes better when mixed with your hands.

Tin Cho Chaw is the author of hsa*ba, a Burmese cookbook and website www.hsaba.com

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