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The Kitchen Ambassador : Leilei Nwe Thein shares the culture and cooking of Southern California's tiny Burmese community.


For a dozen years, Leilei Nwe Thein has lived an ocean apart from the land of her birth, Myanmar.

In some ways, though, she has never left home. Friends acknowledge Thein as an unofficial ambassador of Burmese culture. Burmese artwork and hand-painted lacquer furnishings decorate her home in San Diego. Burmese music plays as she relaxes there. Burmese greens grow in her yard. And in her hands, Burmese food becomes wonderfully delicious.

Thein does such a fine job with ohn-no khaukswe--noodles with coconut sauce--that many of her friends have pestered her for a demonstration.

Well-known in southern Myanmar where coconuts are plentiful, ohn-no khaukswe--khaukswe is the Burmese word for noodles; ohn-no means coconut--has trickled over the border into northern Thailand. There are even some Thai restaurants in Los Angeles that serve the soupy noodle dish, but the flavor is substantially altered from the Burmese original.

As friends crowd around to watch, Thein composes a sauce of yellow split peas, chicken broth, coconut milk and onions. In another pot, she cooks chicken with enough paprika to color it deeply. In a third, she boils dried Chinese noodles.

Thein is relaxed and her movements are graceful as she makes this complicated dish look easy. But then she is an experienced teacher. Before coming here, she taught at the University of Rangoon--biology, not cooking.

Now Thein shows how to turn the ingredients for ohn-no khaukswe into a noodle salad, leh thoke, ladling a bit of the coconut sauce into a bowl of the noodles, adding pieces of chicken and a sprinkling of condiments--hard-boiled egg slices, onion, cilantro, crushed hot chiles, lemon, fish sauce and a mixture of fried chiles, garlic and ginger--tossing everything together with her hand, Burmese-style, rather than with a salad fork and spoon. In Upper Myanmar, where coconuts are expensive, the salad is an alternative to the soupy khaukswe, she explains.

Thein now gives her guests bowls of noodles topped with coconut sauce, leaving the choice and proportion of garnishes up to each individual.

Red wine is served, and it goes surprisingly well with this dish. For dessert, Thein offers a typical Myanmar sweet: lumps of toddy palm sugar. Like most expatriate Burmese, she gets certain ingredients directly from Myanmar, transported by relatives and friends. Burmese tea is one, fermented tea leaves another. Known as lapet, the fermented leaves are mixed with nuts, seeds, beans and spices for the nation's favorite snack.

Thein entertains constantly. On New Year's Eve, she put out a nonstop buffet. "Come for lunch. Stay for dinner," she invited. A ground turkey dish had Indian seasonings; vegetables with shrimp were cooked tender-crisp, Chinese-style. These dishes reflected the primary outside influences on Burmese cuisine.

Characteristically Burmese were eggplant stuffed with dried shrimp, chicken in coconut curry and dried fish, yellow beans and "drumstick" in a thick, spicy sauce. Drumstick is a long, tubular vegetable with a tough skin that conceals tender pulp. When cut in short lengths and cooked, it looks somewhat like okra. Thein gets fresh drumstick from relatives who grow the plant and stores it in her freezer.

At her New Year's Eve event, Thein worried that a thick black mixture in a small bowl might be too strong for some guests. "Burmese cheese," she called it. Based on seasoned black bean paste from Bagan in Upper Myanmar, it did indeed taste oddly, and not unpleasantly, like super-strong cheese.

After this feast, Thein brought out platters of Burmese sweets, bowls of lapet and pots of Burmese tea. She wore Burmese dress, a longyi (sarong) topped with a blouse and a lacy white vest handmade in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).

Burmese Buddhist monks frequently gather at Thein's house. Two monks conducted a service before the New Year's lunch. Eleven took part in a ceremony last July observing the anniversary of the death of Myanmar's national hero, General Aung San. Assassinated July 19, 1947 at age 32, Aung San led the Burmese in negotiating independence from England and founded a Burmese army.

In Myanmar, July 19 is a national holiday. In Thein's home, it is a day of great reverence because she is married to Aung San's son, Aung San U (the U, which is pronounced oo, indicates eldest son). Educated in England, Aung San U moved to the United States in 1973 and met Thein at a New Year's Eve party in Newport Beach. The portrait of his father that hangs in their living room shows a handsome man in military uniform. (Another of the general's children is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from six years of house arrest last summer.)

For the July ceremony, Thein prepared a 10-course lunch, including vegetarian dishes for those monks who do not eat meat.

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