musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Bamboo Delight Cooking Class’

Death of a Burmese Monk

Late last month I was saddened to hear about the death of U Kuthala Nanda, a monk at the Tat Ein monastery in Myanmar’s Shan State, on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe. He was only 40 years old. I have visited the monastery dozens of times in the past decade and I considered U Kuthala Nanda a good friend.

I first met U Kuthala Nanda when he was an adult novice monk, having only recently entered the monkhood in his thirties after living his entire life in Nyaung Shwe. He was also the brother of my longtime friend Ma Pu Su, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe.

U Kuthala Nanda, or Aung Nanda as he was known before becoming a monk, had his share of difficult times, particularly in his late teens and twenties, when he was more inclined to live a wild life and seek solace from alcohol. But he eventually turned his life around and became a well-respected monk, what they call an U-Zin, at the monastery. I know that he devoted himself to teaching and taking care of the dozens of young notice monks who stay at the monastery, and I’m sure they are devasted by his passing.

Aung Thaung, one of the novice monks who spent the past several years with U Kuthala Nanda at the monastery, called me about two months ago to tell me that U Kuthala Nanda needed more money for his cancer treatment. From talking with Ma Pu Sue, I had known that U Kuthala Nanda was ill, but didn’t realize that the situation had become so dire. “I like to help people” young Aung Thaung told me after I had thanked him for letting me know the status of U Kuthala Nanda’s treatment. But despite the efforts of all of us, nothing could stop the ravage of the disease. I want to repeat the old refrain  that life is unfair, but the Buddhists also tell us the “life is suffering” so I’m confident that U Kuthala Nanda passed away knowing he did what he could during his brief time on this planet, and he left behind many, many young men who have benefited from his experiences and counsel. He will be missed.


Monhinga Meal for the Monks

Yeah, it’s been a while. A long, long lonely time, as the song says. What can I tell you? Too much work, a bit of travel, yet more work, a couple of health issues, and a continuing spiral of work. I’m damn exhausted. The last time I posted anything on this blog was back in January and since that time it seems as if I have had no time to do all the things that I want to do, or at least the things that I used to do, which includes this blog.

At this point I’m not sure how much effort I’m going to put back into this thing, but I hate the thought of just letting it wither and die, so I’ll try and post a few things in the near future in the attempt to sustain it. Today’s post harkens back to November of last year when I was in Nyaung Shwe, the picturesque town in Myanmar’s Shan State. My friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class with her husband Lesly in Nyaung Shwe, and I join forces each year in late November (our birthdays are a day apart) and offer a donation to monks from the nearby monastery at Tat Ein village.

Instead of making tracks to the monastery itself and offering physical donations such as school supplies or shoes (which we’ve done in the past), we invite the monks to Sue and Lesly’s home for a hearty breakfast of monhinga, the savory noodle dish that could be dubbed Myanmar’s most iconic culinary treat. You can find variations of monhinga all over the country, but Lesly’s special recipe is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. And I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend of mine; the guy can cook up some mighty fine food!

Actually, the novice monks from the monastery usually walk by Sue’s home each morning during their regular alms rounds. But getting the chance to sit down and rest, enjoy a bowl — or three — of this delicious monhinga, is undoubtedly a treat for the youngsters. Ye Man Oo, my friend from Mandalay, was also on hand to help serve the food to the monks. I just tried to stay out of the way while everyone else cooked and served — and ate — and simply enjoy the event, only actively participating at the very end when it came time to offer each monk a small cash donation.

Organizing this little donation breakfast every year is very gratifying, something I look forward to doing, but if you travel around Myanmar you will see similar donation meals and ceremonies nearly every day of the year. I’ve never met more generous people. I read an article recently that said that a higher percentage of people in Myanmar make donations to monasteries than in any country in Asia. I believe it.

Monks Keeping Warm in Chilly Shan State


Back in the hills of Shan State, in the village of Tat Ein near Nyaung Shwe, it’s a bit chilly this month. It was also chilly last month, and the month before. Sure, it’s “that time of year”, but this area is also at a much higher elevation than other parts of Myanmar, helping to ensure that the cold lingers longer.




On the suggestion of my friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe, I bought several dozen pairs of socks for the novice monks — and the senior monks — at Tat Ein’s monastery. We figured the socks would help keep their feet warm during those cold winter nights.




Ye Man Oo, a friend from Mandalay who is helping me organize the books at Chinlone Books in Nyaung Shwe, and I carried the load of socks to the monastery, along with a football, a volleyball, cane balls used for playing chinlone, and some kites for the monks. Our bags were full during the bike ride to the village, but upon arrival, we were able to quickly distribute the bounty to the eager novices.




Warm feet and happy hearts; the perfect combination!












Morning Monhinga for the Monks!


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.





Dancing in the Shan State Moonlight


It was the full moon night in late November, a period known as Tazaungdaing in Myanmar, and also the time of a very popular annual festival. My friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe with her husband Lesly, decided to throw a very memorable party that night at her home.





Not only did Sue and Lesly prepare a very tasty spread of food — grilled fish, seasonal salads, and two varieties of sticky rice — but the invited guests were treated to a live traditional Shan band, complete with a knife dancer. The locals mixed with the foreigners — guests from France, the Netherlands, Kenya, and the USA — and everyone pretty much danced all night.





The wine and whiskey were flowing — or in some cases with Lesly pouring the contents of a bottle down the throats of a few eager local fellows — as the guests were smiling and dancing the night away. Isabelle from France had a flock of young neighborhood girls mimicking her every choreographed dance move and when she finally sat down to take a break, a couple of the girls started copying my more rather freestyle moves! Better that, I guess, than trying to copy the moves of the boy who had been dancing with the two long knives!






A few hours later, the band had stopped playing, the knife boy was dancing with the rest of us (thankfully, without those knives!), and a few of the more inebriated men had to be propped up against the wall of Sue’s new guest room so that nobody would trip over them. All things considered, it was another fabulous night under the moonlight in Nyaungshwe’s lovely Shan State.









Giving Back to the Village


Whenever I visit Myanmar, I spend a lot of my time in Shan State, specifically the little village of Tat Ein, just down the dusty (and at this time of year definitely muddy) road from Nyaungshwe, famous as being the “gateway” to scenic Inle Lake, one of the country’s most visited tourist spots.


Over the past six years I’ve taught English classes at the village’s primary school, donated shoes and first-aid boxes and medicine, and taken the village kids and monks on field trips to places in the area such as the Pindaya caves, the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi, the Pa-O ruins at Kakku, and other places of interest. I also spend a lot of time at the village’s monastery, taking photos of the novice monks or handing over my camera and letting them take the shots. Good silly fun. Monks and students, parents and teachers; they are all a sincerely kind and friendly group of people, and I feel privileged to know them.


My friend Ma Pu Sue lives in Nyaungshwe, where she works as a tour guide and runs the Bamboo Delight cooking class with her husband Lesly. She also makes frequent trips to the village, visiting her brother (who is a senior monk at the monastery) or making donations to the school and monastery. I value her opinion and listen to her suggestions. After getting to know some of the novice monks and students in the village, I wanted to do more for them, so I asked her what I could do to help some of them continue their education. Too often, many of these kids are forced to drop out of school at an early age — sometimes as soon as they have finished the fourth grade — because either the parents can’t afford to keep the child in school or they are needed to work and help earn money for the family.


Sue talks with many of these students and novice monks (some days they walk by her house during their morning alms rounds). After I made by request to help, she asked some of the older students what they needed for school and came up with a list of items and how much it would cost. When I was in Nyaungshwe back in June I gave here some money for this “program” and last month I wired her another chunk of money to help top-off the fund. Diligent as always, Sue made the donation, bought the items needed, and presented them to U Sandimarr (the saya daw, or head monk, at the monastery) and the students themselves. She also sent me these photos of the recipients. Hopefully, this will be the start of a continuing program to help these kids stay in school.


Monks for the Road


My bags are packed and I’ll be hitting the road soon, off to Mandalay and Shan State for about 12 days. As usual, one of the highlights will be visiting the novice monks at the monastery in Tat Ein village, not far from the town of Nyaunghswe, which in turn is just down the canal from the famous Inle Lake.



These little monks are great kids, and most come from other villages in the region. Staying at the monastery gives them a chance to get an education at the local primary school, as well as learning more about Buddhism. But what happens when they leave? I’ve been discussing a plan with Ma Pu Sue (the owner of the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class) about how I can help sponsor some of these young monks, keeping them in school after they leave the monastery. All too often in Myanmar, especially in this part of Shan State, the kids study until the fourth grade, maybe the sixth grade, and then they stop. By that point, many of the children are seen as income earners by their families, who don’t see any benefits to keeping the kids in school.





Both Sue and Kazuko, a friend from Japan who also is a big donor to the village, have helped sponsor children from this village or the Nyaungshwe area, so I’ll be relying on their advice and suggestions to make this idea a reality. And hopefully I’ll also be teaching some English classes at the school (which just started their new term last week). Looking forward to the adventure!










Nyaungshwe’s Market Morning


One of my favorite things to do when I’m in the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe is visiting the morning market. Actually, it’s open in the afternoon too, but mornings are when the market is truly alive and bustling. I love the sights and sounds and smells of the market, not to mention the vibrant colors, contrasts, and textures of the vegetables and spices. And of course none of it would be as interesting without the variety of local people — many of them from neighboring villages and hill tribes — who come to shop or sell items here.




Due to the fact that the market is a popular shopping destination — particularly on the weekly “market day” when the market volume surges with the presence of additional vendors — and is now a lure for camera-toting tourists too, it can get rather cramped and crowded in the narrow aisles most days. But hey, the tight squeeze is all part of the unique charm and atmosphere, right? If some of the food looks tasty, don’t be shy; many of the vendors will let you sample their wares!




Going to the market in the morning is also part of Ma Pu Sue’s schedule when she holds sessions at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class. Sue will bring her clients to the market and explain how various fruits, vegetables, and spices are used in preparing local dishes. After the shopping is complete, Sue brings the crew back to her home where they cook up a full meal, and last but not least, enjoy eating the fruits of their labor by consuming the cooked dishes. And it all starts here, at Nyaungshwe’s colorful market. If you’re in town, don’t miss it!












Shan Dinner at Sue’s House


While I was in Nyaungshwe recently I was invited by my friend Ma Pa Sue for dinner at her house one night. She’d also invited the group I brought from Mandalay, but seeing as how that crew numbered close to twenty people, I thought it would be better to wait until they returned to Mandalay before I barged into Sue’s home. It’s always a treat to see Sue again, but doubly so when I get the opportunity to eat one of her special meals.



In the past year she’s transformed the place, turning her house and the grounds around it into the location of the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class. Not only is she teaching classes on how to cook Burmese food, including local Shan and Intha specialties, she is offering snacks and drinks (coffee, tea, juices) to passing tourists. I’m really impressed with how she has decorated the area in and around her home, located on a quiet street only a couple of blocks from Yon Gyi Road (where you will find the main market and Golden Bowl Bookshop).



Anyway, back to that meal at Sue’s house; it was delicious beyond words once again. Sue has a flair for cooking and presentation, so the meal was a feast for both the eyes and the stomach. Bernard, a mutual friend from Switzerland, was also in town and he joined us for the meal. It was nice to see him again and catch up on the many charitable activities that he’s been doing, most of them in conjunction with Win Thuya of Myanmar Mosaic Travel, a new agency based on Yangon. I’ll try and write more about their projects in the near future. They’re good people and doing good things for underprivileged villages and schools around Myanmar.


Meanwhile, if you get the itch to try a bit of cooking — and eating — the local cuisine while in the Inle Lake area of Shan State, drop Sue a line and visit her. It will be one of the highlights of your trip!


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