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Black-Eyed in Burma: A Turkey Tale

November 19, 1995|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ah, what a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner--Butterball turkey, bread stuffing, gravy, green beans, corn pudding and pecan pie.

Nothing unusual here, right? Well, just one thing. This thoroughly American dinner took place where you would never expect to get such food--in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Burma). Little influenced by the West, Yangon (Rangoon) is a beautiful, quiet town, still unpolluted and refreshingly green. Its inhabitants wear sarongs, the cloth wraps that extend from the waist down, and they carry woven shoulder bags, which are often ornately fringed and brightly colored.

It wasn't actually Thanksgiving when the dinner took place, but August, which is the rainy season. The meal was a tribute to that night's special guest, an American writer from Georgia, William Warren, who has lived in Bangkok for many years but still prefers American food. And what could be more American than a turkey dinner with all the fixings?

So as a monsoon drizzle trickled outside and ceiling fans whirred inside, the guests, half of whom were Burmese, assembled for the summer turkey.

The airy colonial mansion where we ate was built in the early 1920s and is owned by the East Asiatic Co. Our hosts, the current residents, were Barry Broman, who is attached to the American Embassy in Yangon, and his wife, B.J.

The Bromans are, in the lingo of the East, old Asia hands. Veterans of such posts as Jakarta and Bangkok, they have collected Asian art that suits the house well.

The tablecloth was blue and white batik, made to order in Jakarta. Across from me hung a stunning painting inspired by some pagoda. The painting came from the big Bogyoke Aung San market in Yangon, but most of the food did not. Yangon is light years behind Asian capitals like Bangkok, which has markets and bakeries that cater to Western expatriates.

Preparing this dinner, B.J. Broman said, "meant hand-carrying some of the items from Bangkok and the United States and tracking down some of the other ingredients in the local markets."

The turkey came from the U.S. commissary in Bangkok--"nothing exotic about that," she said with a laugh. But the stuffing was another matter. Since it was impossible to run to the supermarket for stuffing mix, the bread had to be baked at home. Mushrooms and apples for the stuffing were locally grown, but the raisins came from China. They hobnobbed with what, for the Burmese, must have been an exotic addition--Sun-Maid dried fruit bits from Pleasanton, California.

The pudding was based on that old American staple, canned cream-style corn, combined with local fresh corn. And the pecan pie recipe came, Broman said, "from the back of the Karo syrup bottle." It was a special treat for the writer from Georgia.

In honor of the Burmese guests, there was one small deviation--a Burmese lentil soup subtly flavored with Indian spices. Most Burmese food is strongly seasoned, but this dish was mild enough to rival squash soup as a Thanksgiving first course.

We drank white wine with the dinner and Cognac after. The only flaw that evening was a personal one. Rain had knocked the power out at my hotel, and I had dressed clumsily in the dark. Not until I returned did I discover the mascara smudges that had turned me into a dinner guest with one black eye.

BURMESE LENTIL SOUP

6 cups water

1 cup red or yellow lentils

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 chicken bouillon cube

1/2 cup finely chopped green onions

Bring water to boil in 3-quart saucepan. Stir in lentils and cook over moderate heat 20 minutes, or until lentils are very soft.

Melt butter in skillet, add onion and garlic and saute until onion is tender. Add to lentils. Stir in garam masala, salt and bouillon cube. Cook 10 minutes longer, or until soup is moderately thick. Sprinkle with green onions before serving.

Makes 3 1/2 cups, or 4 to 6 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

141 calories; 620 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 3 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 1.84 grams fiber.

CORN PUDDING

3 ears corn

3 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups cubed bread

2 (17-ounce) cans cream-style corn

1/4 pound Jack cheese, grated (about 1 cup)

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cook corn in pot of boiling water 5 minutes. Drain. Cut kernels from cobs and set aside.

Heat butter in medium skillet. Add onion and cook until tender. Add bread cubes and stir until well mixed.

Combine cream-style corn, fresh corn, cheese, eggs and salt in bowl. Mix well. Pour mixture into 2-quart baking dish. Top with bread mixture. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

257 calories; 672 mg sodium; 104 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams protein; 0.93 gram fiber.

YANGON TURKEY STUFFING

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups chopped celery

2 cups chopped onions

1 cup mushrooms, chopped

6 cups day-old bread cubes (2 cups each whole-wheat, baguette and country-style bread)

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