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Out of the Shadows : Burmese Food in the Southland


"You cannot go away without eating," protested Rosalind Sein as I rose to depart. "It's Burmese tradition to always feed friends who come to your home."

Although Sein was busy packing for a trip to Myanmar, she had nevertheless arranged lunch. Her daughter Evelyn had made a fish casserole. Sein herself had prepared a green bean salad with the toasty flavors of roasted peanut powder and sesame seeds. This she served with steamed rice and a soup that contained dried mushrooms brought from Myanmar.

Sein, of Cheviot Hills, is president of the executive committee of the Burma Buddhist Monastery in La Puente. This is the largest of the three Burmese monasteries in Southern California. The others are in Azusa and Pomona.

Unless you know people like Sein and Leilei Nwe Thein (see Great Home Cooks, below) or are connected with the monasteries, you will have few opportunities to taste genuine Burmese food in Southern California. Once admitted to the Burmese "loop," though, you will be introduced to wonderful noodle dishes, curries, soups and salads unlike those of other Asian countries. The food is not extremely spicy, and it is often quite healthful, incorporating dried beans and many vegetables.

Fish and shrimp, both fresh and dried, are more typical than chicken and meat, which are expensive in Myanmar. Onion and garlic, fried until crisp, show up in dish after dish. Shrimp paste and fish sauce are in every larder. Coconut milk is also a staple, at least for southern dishes. In Upper Myanmar, where coconuts are expensive, it is less often seen.

Salads are a Burmese specialty. Unlike American combinations of greens and dressings, a Burmese salad might combine vegetables with roasted yellow bean powder, dried shrimp, fried onion and garlic, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds and sesame oil.

Desserts are not necessarily sweet. Sein serves a cake of steamed rice flour and mashed black beans heated and topped with sesame oil and salt. A clump of yellow sticky rice garnished with dried shrimp and fresh coconut shreds looks just like a Thai sweet but contains no sugar. Even cakes of agar or of rice flour and coconut milk intended to be sweet are less sugary than comparable Thai or Malay desserts.

Los Angeles once had a couple of Burmese markets, but they have closed. Burmese cooks find what they need at Thai, Chinese, Indian and Korean markets; import certain products from Myanmar, and grow hard-to-get greens such as the sour-tasting leaf chin baung themselves.

The Burmese population of Southern California numbers about 5,000. Within this community are caterers who supply such dishes as mohinga, the fish and rice noodle soup that Burmese typically eat for breakfast but crave at any time. Most of these caterers speak limited English and don't seek a larger clientele.

At the Burma Buddhist Monastery, parishioners often arrange buffets of delicious home-cooked food. Such a meal might celebrate a birthday or follow ceremonies observing the anniversary of an ancestor's death. Several hundred people crowd the grounds for an annual food fair in late summer. In the fall, the Kathina ceremony gives devotees an opportunity to obtain merit by donating robes to the monks. This event is also followed by a meal.

At the monastery, one might taste mohinga, chicken curry, a noodle dish from Shan state in eastern Myanmar, fried squares of homemade garbanzo bean tofu, samosas (which show the Indian influence on Burmese food) and many other dishes. Desserts might include faluda, a popular sweet from India that combines gelatin bits, grass jelly, sago (a starch similar to tapioca pearls), milk, syrup, fruit, ice cream and custard. And sometimes there is lapet, a much loved snack of fermented tea leaves, nuts, sesame seeds and fried beans.

Lunch for the monks at last November's Kathina ceremony included deep-fried yellow bean curd; yellow bean fritters; sour leaf combined with bamboo shoots, beans and shrimp; chicken curry; beef with ground red beans; pork with green beans and a chop suey-like mixture of cabbage, carrots, corn, chicken and shrimp.

Burmese restaurants are rare. There are several in the San Francisco area, but Burmese in the Southland agree that the best food is served at the Golden Triangle in Whittier. This 5-year-old restaurant has a Thai and Burmese menu, reflecting the backgrounds of the partners, Lily Yu, Michael Yu and Raymond Win from Myanmar and Pauli Win from Thailand.

A picture menu explains most of the dishes, but there are others not on the menu, like shrimp ball curry, cauliflower salad, rice salad and deep-fried hard-boiled eggs coated with curry sauce.

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