Categories
Slices from Life

Nyaung Hnin Noodle

A vignette of life from Myanmar By San Lin Tun

Nyaung Hnin Noodle

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.

A view of Mawlamyine

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.

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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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Categories
Stories

Flash Fiction: A Curse

by San Lin Tun

It was shadowy in the forest. No sounds at all. Only some living creatures were crawling in the undergrowth, producing inaudible sounds. An inquisitive young man entered the forest with a smile on his face. He fancied that there might be some hidden treasures in the forest after browsing through a recent book on treasure hunting.

That evening he went to the edge of the forest out of curiosity. He did not know what dangers would confront him. He went in unprepared with bare-hands and curiosity. He also liked to gaze at trees, big and small. He wondered if the forest housed exotic and colourful birds as shown in the documentaries on television.

He was free of ancient fears and dogmas because he believed in science. He thought that a forest was only of trees and animals and there could not be any harmful or playful spirits lurking in the deepest, darkest corners.

He needed to tread carefully in the forest, he discovered, otherwise, he could stumble and fall on the protrusions made by the obtrusive roots of the big banyan trees. He suddenly started humming the lyrics of the Guns and Roses’ song called ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ in his mind.

After walking about thirty minutes in the forest, he thought that his throat was dry. He was thirsty. He looked for a stream to drink cold and clean water. He listened carefully to the gurgling sounds of a stream somewhere. Suddenly, he saw a butterfly flapping its wings gently in front of him. It aroused his sense of curiosity and wonder. The butterfly led him to the stream.

He was very happy when he found the stream. When he looked for the butterfly, it had disappeared. He thanked the butterfly in his mind from the bottom of his heart. He squatted at the edge of the stream and bent down to long mouthfuls of water. It completely quenched his thirst.

After drinking the water, he washed his sweaty face to refresh himself. Then, he felt a bit hungry and remembered he had not had enough lunch that afternoon. He thought that he would look for some fruits. Then, he found some wild, peachy fruits growing on a big tree near the stream.

He pondered whether to climb the tree to pluck them or hurl stones to bring them down? He found some pebbles in the stream and gathered them. He hurled those pebbles at the fruits. Some stones hit the fruits and they fell off the tree.

Happily, he picked up one big fruit and bit into it. It was tasty and so he bit it again and again. After having three or four fruits, he found his belly was full. He lay down on his back and instantly he fell asleep.

His sleep was punctuated by a strange dream. He found a gnarled and crooked-nosed, red, bulgy-eyed woman trying to talk to him. She had a long and curly nail which she tried to insert into him. It seemed that she was the guardian spirit of the tree.

Petrified, he yelled out aloud. But no one heard him. He was completely alone in the forest. He could not move his body a single inch. Gradually, the guardian spirit came nearer to him and tried to say something to him. He apologized to her for not asking for permission to eat fruits of the tree. But, she took another step towards him.

‘‘Arrrrrrr’’ – the sound was so loud, even the owls resting on the trees were startled and flew away. He knew that it was the end of his life. He tightly closed his eyes. He saw his feet start to turn into a flap of a bat. Soon, he was going to be a bat and sleep upside down. The guardian spirit would rear him as her pet.

He did not want that. But he did not have strength to fight back. Instead he had to yield to her because he felt that he was paralyzed. He noticed that his hands were changed into wings which had started to flap slowly. He could not resist the strength of the spell. Within a minute, he completely changed into a bat. It was a metamorphosis.

The forest seemed to have spelled its curse on him.

He tried to speak out. Comprehensible human language was replaced by the sounds of a bat. He understood that his life was gone, completely gone. He did not know how he would regain his human form. He blamed his own foolish fate because no one warned him against going into the cursed forest.

He knew that he should not have indulge his whim.

***

Daytime brought the young man back to his village in his own form as a human. He related the story to his fellow villagers who did not believe him and assumed that he was an exhibitionist buffoon trying to draw attention to himself. He insisted that he had really turned into a bat the night before because of the spell cast by the guardian of the tree. People laughed at his story and they thought that he had made it all up to gain importance and sympathy.

As darkness gathered the village into its folds, the villagers started to go back to their homes. Suddenly, someone noticed that the young man was missing, they could not see him. They called out to him. But there was no response.

 Only, a bat persisted in flying towards them, hovering up and down over their heads. It almost flapped on the scurrying villagers’ heads. There was chaos.

San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short stories and novels from Myanmar and English. Sometimes, he draws cartoons for fun. His writings has appeared in Asia Literary Review, Kitaab, Mad in Asia Pacific, Mekong Review, NAW, PIX, Ponder Savant, South East of Now, Strukturriss and several others. He has authored ten books including ‘‘An English Writer’’. He lives in Yangon, Myanmar.

Categories
Musings

Notes from Myanmar: Humans versus Viruses

A reflection on Covid-19 virus outbreak by San Lin Tun

Deserted roads in Yangon

Birds are at ease, showing no worries, looking down at the helter-skelter of humans, struggling and striving to survive under this ruthless virus’ attack. Before that, birds caused flu and migratory birds could not be seen easily. That time, people hated birds; they stopped bird watching for the fear posed by the threat of bird flu. Birds migrated from one end of the world to another, crossing boundaries, as was their natural tendency. Now, the Covid-19 virus is traveling almost throughout the world.

We normally tend to look for experts to resolve emergencies or crisis. Why are the experts silent while human’s freedom has been attacked by the pandemic outbreak? Have humans transgressed the territories of the virus or their liberty? Or is it retaliation for human follies? People think that their lives are cosy and fine within the contexts of capitalism and democracy. They have, however, in their complacent existence, forgotten to think of emergencies like pandemics, the outbreak of anti-heroes and antithesis to blissful living.

Governments only set regulations to restrict human traffic and impose lockdowns on cities, poured funds to regain faltering economies after earlier crises. Now, people are at a loss and they do not know to whom they should turn to. They are realising they have to rely on themselves. They might wonder where their heroes are. They feel repentant for having done nothing, only things to destroy or to jeopardize world harmony, pouring budgets to manufacture hazardous equipment.

The outbreak of virus has restricted all-inclusive human activities, moving freely within the compass of the world and even posing a threat to human rights. We have been attacked by unknown and unseen enemies which are too small to see but powerful enough to cause a havoc in the whole human population. Scientists are now racing to search for the vaccines to combat its outbreak. What about other professions and creative industry? They should also join in fighting against this virus outbreak. Food, clothes and shelter are the three necessary things for humans daily needs. Maybe they can think of ways to provide these.

Professionals worldwide should form a think tank to come up with good and genuine ideas to combat this existing threat. There might be some ways to curb or contain the spread.

People-to-people contact carries virus which transmit person to person. In sci-fi movies or novels, we will find these alternatives and the creative minds will think up the following:

  1. Why not design virus repellent/protective outfits to wear when you go out?
  2. Why not create self- air purifying masks?
  3. Why not invent virus scanning goggles?
  4. Why not produce virus detecting devices?
  5. Why not manufacturing super-booster pills?
  6. Why not . . .?
  7. Why not . . .?
  8. . . .?

All these gadgets are only available in Sci-fi movies or fiction.  If we have those in real world, our lives would not have been disrupted to this level. All solutions tend to prevent virus containment in food, clothes and shelter. The blue planet belongs to the human race. Viruses have only one purpose that is to destroy. They cannot travel, only humans carry them.

Humans do not know the number of them. But they know they are lethal. So, people fear. Fear deters human intelligence to think or create properly, causing panic in people’s minds. Then, it will be hard to be in touch with witticisms under these trying circumstances where so many are petrified by the fear and horror of it.

They know that their liberty is disturbed, and they lose their freedom. Then, they are looking for the stable system to cope with their crises. They know that the only way to end this crisis is to get vaccines.

As for a miracle, men like to look for philosopher stones or magic wands to alter the circumstances and create a virus free world. You can say fantasies can ring a note of hope that will lighten anxious minds and bring a sense of cheer to the depressed. As we ponder realistically or miraculously, we will definitely find a solution to wage the counter-attack on viruses. And, the virus crisis will end.

San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short stories and novels from Myanmar and English. Sometimes, he draws cartoons for fun. His writings has appeared in Asia Literary Review, Kitaab, Mad in Asia Pacific, Mekong Review, NAW, PIX, Ponder Savant, South East of Now, Strukturriss and several others. He has authored ten books including ‘‘An English Writer’’. He lives in Yangon, Myanmar.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.