Burma 2015: Cooking is spicy – or spicier, Day 12

Travelers experience the art of Burmese cooking — and marketing!

By Nicki Maxwell
Eugene, OR

We are scheduled to take a cooking class at Bamboo Delight this morning. Class begins with shopping at the market where we meet Lesly, the chef and our host. Lesly selects meat, fish and veggies for the menu. While he is purchasing, we note some interesting items like preserved duck eggs and fermented ants. With baskets of food, we are transported by tuk tuk to Bamboo Delight.

From the moment we enter we are made to feel like guests of honor.  Sue, Lesly’s wife and business partner, greets us with rice cakes, peanut/sesame dip and a beverage. Classes are held in what was Sue’s family home where she grew up. She recalls the hospitality that her father always extended to travelers and her commitment to continue that tradition.

She and Lesly (both Burmese with Anglicized names) met in 2000 when Lesly moved to Nyaung Shwe from Yangon. It was in Yangon that he acquired his culinary training and experience. He also learned to speak English through classes at a monastery.

Each of us signed up to take part in the preparation of no fewer than seven dishes. Most of the dishes were prepared in two ways, e.g. with or without meat, spicy and more spicy.  The outdoor kitchen is made up of two cooking areas and two preparation (slicing, dicing and assembly) areas.  We easily move from one area to another under Sue’s watchful eye and cook with confidence under Lesly’s direction.

The dishes are placed on the table and we sit down to enjoy the products of our labor. Lesly offers rice liquor as an aperitif to assure good digestion.  Conversation ceases for several minutes as we savor each bite.

For dessert, Lesly surprises us with some sweets he picked up at the market — semolina cake, glutinous rice bites and strawberries. It must be strawberry season as they are fresh, sweet and juicy. They grow in the mountains and we have been assured they are organic and washed twice with filtered water.

The goodbyes are extended as we collect the recipes from Lesly and exchange contact information with every intent of staying in touch.

Back on the bus, we reflect on meeting Sue and Lesly. In addition to their two lovely daughters, they have four other children they care for. These are the children of Sue’s brother who, she tells us, passed away. No details are provided and her vague reference to him lead me to speculate. Photos of Aung San Suu Kyi adorn the walls of the area where we cooked and ate. Reading prior to travel has informed me that everyone in Burma (Myanmar) has a relative or knows someone who has served time in prison. And life after release is difficult.  In a country where information is not shared openly, I wonder if the brother’s death may have been the related to serving time as a political prisoner. There is no mention of the children’s mother and we do not pry to get more details.

We are on our way to Taunggyi, an hour’s drive north, where we will meet with the Women’s Rights Union of the Pa-O, the largest ethnic group in Shan State.  The Union was founded in Thailand by a Burmese woman in 1999 and spread to Myanmar in early 2000s.

Since 1962, there has been a migration of Burmese women across the Thai border where they become migrant workers. Since 2010, the Union has offered a 10-month educational course that to keep them in Shan State and make them productive contributors to the community.  Women must apply to enroll; one requirement is to be unmarried.  Currently, there are 57 graduates of this program. The Union also offers workshops, from 1-day to 1-month tailored to participation in community development projects.

Photos by Nicki Maxwell