A vignette of life from Myanmar By San Lin Tun
The whole house was active preparing for my sister’s birthday who turned twenty that year. The evening before, the family gathered to plan for the event, I heard she would invite her friends from school. They would come to our house around 9:30 am. Our house was located in downtown Yangon, a few minutes away from famous shopping center, Bogyoke Aung San Market (formerly known as Scott Market). Earlier, most of the streets’ names were buzzing with British nomenclature. But later, they reverted to Myanmar names because people did not fancy Anglicised names.
Mother called out, “Dear Thinza, have you finished making up yourself? Come out and help with these arrangements for your birthday.”
Thinza replied, “Yes, mom, just a minute. I will be ready. Please ask Tun to help you a bit now.”
I was in my room, reading a book but I heard their conversations. I emerged from my room and went to the living room where mom was laying down tables to serve guests. When Mom saw me, she told, “Tun, honey, get inside the kitchen where your granny is preparing Nyaung Hnin noodle.”
As soon as I heard the word “Nyaung Hnin”, my mouth became watery and my appetite quickened. I did not know that mom would prepare Nyaung Hnin Noodle for my sister’s birthday. I thought at first that they would order some chicken and parata (flat bread made of flour) for the guests. But, in the last minute, they changed the plan.
I replied, “Sure, mom. I will go and help granny.”
When I entered the kitchen, granny was still cooking the noodle. I asked her, “Granny, is it almost finished? I am a bit hungry now.”
She smiled at me and patted my head gently. Looking at me cheerfully, she said, “You naughty boy! You are not supposed to help me, right? You want to eat it now?”
She was stirring the pot gently with a wooden ladle. The gravy was yellowish and I saw bits of chicken and some onions in the gravy which was boiling with bubbles appearing on its surface. Its smell was so good that I tried to suppress my taste buds. But, I could not control it and asked, “Granny, can I try some?”
Glancing at me with fake scorn, she scooped a spoonful of gravy and gave it to me. I put the spoon into my mouth after blowing off the steam and heat from the gravy. So tasty. I exclaimed, “Yummy!” and nodded my head several times with satisfaction. It was really delicious. Seeing the expression on my face, my granny smiled and asked me how the gravy was. Savouring the flavour, I nodded my head with approval.
Granny beamed a broad smile and said, “It will be ready in a few minutes. Just wait here.” She put some more ingredients into the gravy and stirred it gently again. The kitchen was full of the savoury smell of the gravy for the noodle.
As I wiped plates and spoons with a napkin, a thought came into my head. Although we had this noodle quite often, I did not know the story behind the noodle. Suddenly, I wanted to know the story.
My sister Thinza came into the kitchen just then.
“Huh, Tun, what are you doing here? You are supposed to be with mom.”
I replied, “No, mom told me to help granny. So, I came here.” After listening to my explanation, Thinza left the kitchen for the living room.
Then, I asked my grandmother. “Granny, we have been having this noodle for a long time. Do you know who invented this recipe, when and why?”
Looking at me strangely, Granny stopped her stirring for a while. “Huh, Tun. That’s a good question. Why are you asking this question so suddenly? You see, I am busy with this. I will tell you later. Give me a big bowl. I will pour the gravy into that bowl.”
Granny poured the gravy into the bowl and soon the bowl was filled up with the gravy. Granny unwrapped the flat noodles and put them into the plate. She tried to lay out everything such as fritters, chili powder, shredded onions, tamarind liquid in different plates and saucers.
There was a custom we followed to eat the Nyaung Hnin noodle. We needed to use our fingers to take noodle from the plate. They said that it would feel more flavourful that way. Another feature was that the noodle had to be yellow, not white. Normally, noodle was white in colour. I asked my granny, what made the noodle yellow. She replied that it was smeared with yellow ginger powder.
When all set, granny asked me to go and tell my mom. When I reached the living room, mom was already laid out four circular low tables. As soon as she saw me, she asked me to bring the cutlery in. I laid five plates for each table. Beside the plates, I put spoon and forks.
It was only for guests. For us, we would have the noodle with fingers. We knew that some of them found it inconvenient using their fingers while having the noodle. Soon, Thinza’s friends came one after another. They exchanged greetings, giving her birthday presents. All of them were seated at their respective tables.
They conversed with each other and seemed very happy. Thiza was very pretty with her pink blouse and a nice trendy hairdo. Thinza was busy ladling the gravy into the plate in which noodle had been placed. She moved from one table to another. Everyone liked it and they asked for more gravy and noodle.
It seemed that they enjoyed eating it. I felt proud that it our special family recipe. I wanted to know the story even more.
Meanwhile, my father came with a birthday cake. Thinza blew candles and everyone sang the birthday song.
They had cake and left. The birthday party ended around 11 a.m. Thinza asked for permission from our parents to go out with her friends. They wanted to see a new movie at the local theatre. My parents agreed and Thinza went out together with her friends.
I cleared up. My granny sat on her easy chair in the verandah of our apartment. The verandah overlooked a school compound with tall trees. It was quiet because it was school holiday.
I sat beside her and massaged her limbs. She looked at me and smiled. She knew I wanted the story. Lifting a cup of green tea to her mouth, she sipped a bit and cleared her throat and started her narrative.
Nyaung Hnin lived in a small village in an island called Balukyun which means ogre island. Actually, the word “Nyaung” is a Mon word and means “Aunty” which is a literal translation for the word. Normally for a Myanmar woman takes “Daw” which is an honourable title for a lady or a woman in seniority. The village’s name was “Tawkanar” which was a Mon word. There were over sixty villages in the island and it was peopled by mainly the Mon.
They grew paddy and fish because their island was surrounded by the fast-flowing Thanlyin River which flows into Andaman Sea. Nyaung Hninn lived very close to my granny’s house and was related to her. Nyaung Hnin was five years older than my granny. Before she started selling noodle in the village, she was a rice broker.
She normally went up to Mawlamyine, a port city across the island to sell paddy. It was in socialist times and the business of the port was booming and thriving because of the goods smuggled from Thailand. Back in early 19th century, British settled in that port city and we knew that even George Orwell, a well-known British writer, then known as Eric Blair had his aunt in that port city.
Nyaung Hnnin’s business prospered till her husband died in a shipwreck. Out of sadness and despair, she stopped working. She was jobless until one day she found the recipe when she cooked this noodle. She had been interested in cooking from a young age. Mawlamyine women or Mon women had excellent cooking skills.
One day, Nyaung Hnnin prepared a noodle curry. While cooking, she put some ingredients which would go well with the curry. She stirred the curry a while. It became less watery and started to thicken. It seemed a kind of normal noodle curry.
But, she changed a little bit of ingredients creating a new dish of her own. She poured the gravy into the small bowl in which flat noodle was put. She put some pounded pea, a small spoon of tamarind, a pinch of chili powder. She stirred all well. She tasted it. It was so delicious.
Then, she thought of selling the noodle in the village as snacks. She could sell it in the morning, afternoon and early evening. They would love it. She was pleased with the thought.
Granny stopped for a while to sip her green tea again. She carried on, “Later, she taught me how to cook it after I asked her the way to prepare the noodle. People in the village simply called her noodle ‘Nyaung Hnin Noodle’. They liked her noodle very much. So, they gave it a name and so it went with her proper name. She started selling it in 1970s. So, it’s nearly fifty years now. But she passed away in 1980s.”
Nodding my heads to her recount, I visualized the image of Nyaung Hnin and her features. She might have been as thin as my granny who was active and mindful in everything. She loved cooking too. I thought that she might have had the same sentiments as my granny — to feed people with goodwill and they wanted people to have good food.
I realised that our family recipe came down from our cousin-grandmother and the recipe was not much known outside of our family and some village relatives. But we still enjoyed having the noodle. Time and her struggles only added to the flavour.
San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short story and novel in Myanmar and English. His publications have appeared in several magazines such as Asia Literary Review, Kitaab, NAW, PIX, Mad in Asia Pacific, Mekong Review, Ponder Savant and others. He is the author of a novel “An English Writer.”
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