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Making mohinga, the dish of Myanmar

Mohinga makes me think of plastic stools on a busy street, bathed in the sounds of a city awakening: cawing crows, clinking dishes, honking horns and raucous engines, giggly kids in flip-flops shuffling down dusty sidewalks. The air is thick and soupy. Sunlight streams through a cauldron’s steam. All around, eaters fix their eyes on papers and phones while their fingers clasp tiny cups of sweet, milky tea as they await their bowls of lemony-gingery-fishy noodles.

Mohinga is a Myanmar breakfast soup. But really, it’s an any-hour-of-the-day-or-night snack or meal. It’s a national dish, an iconic bowl, which signals a beginning: fuel for the day, or the night, or whatever comes next in life. It is the thing that people eat before they do the things they need to do. And this week, this month, the things to do are tasks of historic proportions: a nationwide wrestle for freedom.

I am 8,500 miles from Yangon, near the Rio Grande in high desert New Mexico, about as far away from Myanmar cuisine as one could be. But the other night, I felt compelled to make mohinga. So I dug through fridge and freezer, pulled spices from my drawers, and assembled some basics: frozen cod, fresh lemongrass, ginger, chile, shallot, onion, garlic, shrimp paste, turmeric, pepper, lime, and rice noodles. It wouldn’t be authentic—and I never, ever want to get lost in those culture/food wars. This wasn’t about authenticity. It was about improvising to create something akin to my memories of a soup that roots me in a swirl of Yangon air and thoughts of Burmese friends right now who are fighting for their future.

I grabbed a couple of guides from my cookbook shelves—Burma Superstar by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy (this book includes a recipe from one of our treks across Shan State!), and hsa*ba by Tin Cho Chaw. I cobbled together ingredients and methods, using shortcuts to accommodate a serious lack of time. I’d spent hours working in the garden and doing laundry that day, it was already 7 pm, we had a family Zoom at 8, but mohinga had to be done.

All weekend, my phone pinged with messages from around the world about efforts to help the people of Myanmar—and the local journalists covering them. The needs are great: helmets, jackets, SIM cards, VPNs. Money for transportation and food. Many have abandoned offices and homes. They’re working, living, under cover and on the run. They need access to the internet and technologies that skirt surveillance and blackouts. All of that takes money—and difficult logistics.

Imagine: every few days, it costs $10 to top up your phone. Then maybe that phone gets compromised, so you find another SIM. Then maybe you learn it’s not safe to go home that night, so you find alternative shelter. But you need to get there. You need to eat. You need to communicate. Just like that, your phone is dead. You need more money, but you haven’t been paid. Many of your co-workers haven’t been paid regular wages since COVID gutted an economy that was already in dire straits. But your country’s on fire, the future up for grabs. You’re a journalist, and this is the story you were born to cover. You’re a citizen, too, and this is the moment that will shape the rest of your life. So you keep working, without money, without pay, without any semblance of security except the knowledge that tomorrow is another day.

(If you want to help the efforts to keep the people of Myanmar connected and communicating, this is an excellent place to start.)

This week, I came across a journal from a 2014 trip to Myanmar that I’d never transcribed. (I try to type all my notes; I get really, really behind.) That particular trip was early in Myanmar’s democratic evolution. Jerry and I met with friends we’d known since military junta times. But in 2014, there was a palpable air of relief. “We don’t have to do anything in secret anymore,” a journalist friend told me. My journal describes a society with its cage door open:

There is new verve, new life. People have taken quickly to the lack of fear. Jerry walks the streets, happily shooting, people happy to be shot. They ask to see the image, they point “thumbs up.” I take notes. We talk, people talk, without hesitation. The sneaky looks and hushed tones of teashops…gone.

But my pages contain prescient warnings, too, with another friend’s descriptions of two classes that continued to divide society: the military, and everyone else. The military ranks above, he told us, “and we are under the table.”

It’s the same military that is shooting protesters in the streets today. It’s the same military that is guaranteed 25 percent of all parliamentary seats, which means they can halt all changes to the constitution. And that’s exactly what the military has done with proposed amendments that would reduce their hold on power.

A friend recently asked why news reports refer to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as an “opposition leader” when her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in November’s election. It’s an astute question, with both simple and complicated answers. The military never gave up the reins. Nor did it lay down its sword. When General Min Aung Hlaing seized control and reimposed military rule on Feb. 1, he returned the country to a history it had already lived—and renounced. He put Aung San Suu Kyi back in the place she’d never really left.

But… many things are different now. There is Internet and Facebook and Twitter and Signal, and an entire generation of youths who have no intention of relinquishing freedom for a return to the generals’ geriatric dramas. And so they take to the streets, bringing doctors and shopkeepers and grandparents with them. United, for the world to see, in ways that were impossible during the junta’s previous regime.

That isn’t to say everything is perfect behind the scenes. There are differences and disagreements. It’s a country of 54 million people with independent views and ideals. And there is also this gigantic, important blemish on the face of Myanmar’s democratic movement: ethnic division.

This is a country of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups—to the exclusion of Rohingya, Chinese, Indian, and other life-long residents who consider this country home. We’ve all heard horror stories of the Rohingya crisis, and of Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to call it genocide. Not as many have heard of the other conflicts that have continued, on and off, in the world’s longest-running civil war. Mon, Chin, Shan, Kachin, Kayah, Karenni, Karen—just a few of the states, groups (and even the names) embroiled in conflicts dating back to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, the independence hero who fought against British colonial rule. In 1947, he signed an agreement that promised a political structure favorable to ethnic groups. But then he was assassinated—and although the country gained independence from Britain, which meant peace for the majority Bamar population, many ethnic groups never gained the autonomy and borders they wanted. These problems persist.

And so today, there’s a wildly mixed bag of feelings among all the different factions fighting for justice and peace. But one truth prevails: no one wants to live beneath the heel of an army boot. And no one should ever have to.

For more than 70 years, the people of this land have struggled—separately, and together. Given the severity of all this conflict, it sounds trite to say there is a way that people often unite, through food and drink. But it happens. The corner shops and dinner tables are places where customs converge. Everywhere, there is tea. Everywhere, there is fermented shrimp or fish. There are noodles and salads and soups that incorporate different flavors from state to state—different, but all distinctly part of the broad swath of Myanmar cuisine.

And there is mohinga.

Most every mother, every cook, in every district and township and state, has a recipe for mohinga. A little bit different—yet still the same. Shared, autonomously.

There are plenty of places to find recipes online. My mohinga the other night took some unusual steps. But I did what I could. I boiled a couple pieces of frozen cod in about 5 cups of water with a plump, fresh stalk of smashed lemongrass (cut into 3-inch pieces), a handful of ginger slices, a spoonful of turmeric, pepper, salt, and a few big Indian bay leaves. In a blender (yes, a blender—it saved a lot of time), I puréed 5 or 6 garlic cloves, a whole yellow onion, a large shallot, a teaspoon of shrimp paste, a glug of fish sauce, another large stalk of lemongrass (sliced thinly), five dried red Thai chiles, another 1-inch hunk of ginger, and a spoonful of coconut oil. After the fish was fully cooked, I added the puréed ingredients to the pot, along with a spoonful of toasted rice, and simmered several minutes. Then I turned off the heat, removed the bay leaves, and pureed the whole mix with an immersion blender, leaving it a little bit lumpy. Mohinga often has banana stem, which I didn’t, so I added a small mound of thinly sliced cabbage and cooked until tender. (Mohinga is also often served with hardboiled eggs.)

We ate the soup over rice noodles, topped with cilantro and lime. In Myanmar, you’ll get your mohinga with super crispy fried yellow pea fritters, which simply wasn’t going to happen in our house that night. So instead—don’t laugh—I crumbled a few potato chips over the top of the dish. And you know what? That crispy, oily addition mixed perfectly with the lemony-gingery-fishy goodness that took me straight back to a street corner in Yangon, where the crows cackled their morning mantras and the world awakened around them, fueling up for another day—whatever it might bring.

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