The birthday of my friend Ma Pu Sue is on November 27, only one day before my own. That being the case, if I happen to be in Nyaungshwe during that time of the month, we will get together with her friends and family to celebrate. This past November, however, she had clients at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class every day while I was in town, including a group of over twenty one morning. The Tazaungdaing full moon period also fell during this time, which always coincides with the popular balloon festival in nearby Taunggyi, an event that I was planning to attend one day — along with 90 children, novice monks, and teachers from Tat Ein village.
Needless to say, we had a lot going on, plus I was scheduled to leave Nyaungshwe on the day of Sue’s birthday, so if we were going to do anything to celebrate, we needed to do it a day early. Sue suggested that instead of a birthday dinner we should make a donation to the monastery at Tat Ein. But not just a regular monetary donation; her idea was to offer the novice monks a feast of home-cooked monhinga for breakfast one morning.
So that’s exactly what we did. If you aren’t familiar with monhinga, it’s basically Myanmar’s national dish. It’s most commonly eaten in the morning, but can also be enjoyed anytime of the day or night. Rice or vermicelli noodles serve as the foundation for the monhinga soup, usually comprised of a fish broth with sliced banana stems, onions, lemongrass, garlic, and maybe a bit of pepper and some sliced egg. Variations of monhinga can be found around Myanmar, but crunchy gourd fritters and a sprinkling of coriander are also usually added, along with a squeeze or two of lime. Over the years, I’ve grown from moderately liking it to becoming a seriously big fan of this tasty dish. I honestly think that Sue’s version is the best that I’ve ever tasted. This is seriously addictive stuff!
Sue, her husband Lesly (who, it must be said, is the “genius” behind this monhinga recipe), and two assistants got up early to prepare the monhinga feast on the appointed day. All that I could do was stand around and try not to get in their way as we waited for the monks to arrive on their morning alms rounds. Sue and Lesly had tables set up around their yard, enough to accommodate the 40 monks who were expected. Sue also brought out a white board with greetings written in Burmese, explaining our “donation event.”
At about 7:30 that morning the line of red robes finally appeared, walking slowly down the dusty road. The whole crew was in attendance; Soe Nyaunt, Aung Thaung, Htun Phyu, Saing Aung, and rest of the novice monks I know from the Tat Ein monastery. The all sat down, hands politely on laps, and patiently waited for the food to be served. I think my assessment that this version monhinga is extremely tasty was supported by the monk’s reaction: most of them had second and even third helpings!
When the meal was over, I stationed myself by the gate and following Sue’s advice, as the monks walked past me I handed each one an extra “gift” of 1000 kyat, money which they were to spend later that day at the balloon festival (more on that trip in a later post). Not a traditional way to celebrate a birthday, but definitely a memorable and gratifying one.