Sunday, February 16, 2020

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Myanmar

This is not just any challenge.  For years, I have been trying to cook my way around the world.  I try to focus very hard on the cuisine of each country, usually steering away from politics or world events. That all changed when Myanmar became my next challenge.

From afar, Myanmar (formerly Burma) would ordinarily present a very interesting challenge.  The country has over 135 distinct ethnic groups (officially recognized by the Myanmar government).  This means that there is a wide range of cultures within the borders of the country. Different cultures usually translates to a variety of approaches to the use of ingredients, the preparations of dishes and, in the end, food traditions.

However, this challenge is about the 136th ethnic group, the one that is not officially recognized by the Myanmar government.  The one that has been the subject to a history of discrimination and exclusion, which in recent years has been marred by terrible violence that has degenerated into ethnic cleaning. Thiat ethnic group is the Rohingya.  A people who call Myanmar their home, but whom Myanmar won't recognize as its citizens.

So, this culinary challenge is not so much about the country, but the people who have been abandoned by that country.

The Rohingya have lived for centuries in the northern regions of the Rakhine State of Myanmar, which is located along the Bay of Bengal.  The Rohingya trace their history to Arab traders who sailed along the coastline and settled in the area during the 8th and 9th centuries A.D.  At that time, the region was known as Arakan.  The Arab traders settled among the Buddhist peoples already living in the area. Over time, the Muslim population grew in the region, bolstered by the influence and control of the neighboring Bengal Sultanate. Arakan eventually achieved its independence from Bengal control; and, for a couple of hundred years, there was an Arakan kingdom. As with all kingdoms, they raise and fall.  Arakan was eventually conquered, first by the Burmese Empire in 1784 and then by the British Empire in 1826. After the Second World War, Burma gained its independence, and, the Arakan region became a part of the new country.

Rohingya refugees.
Since the establishment of Burma or Myanmar (as it became known in 1989), history has not been kind to the Rohingya people. In 1982, the Burmese junta enacted a nationality law. The law recognized individuals who belong to an "indigenous race," and it recognized 135 of those ethic groups.  That did not include the Rohingya. The law thus left the Rohingya -- a Muslim minority living in a Buddhist majority country -- without a state. This unfortunate outcome disregarded the fact that, as noted above, the Rohingya have lived in the northern parts of the Arakan state for centuries.  To add insult to injury, Myanmar changed the name of the area in the 1990s from Arakan to Rakhine, which is the name of the ethnic Buddhist majority who live in the area.

Over the past decade, the Rohingya have been the victims of ongoing violence, that has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The violence ostensibly began with an attack by a Rohingya milita upon the Myanmar border police.  The government's response was not simply directed at the militia, but the Rohingya people.  The military went through Rohingyan towns, and, according to accounts, the soldiers murdered innocent civilians and burned down homes. It is estimated that more than 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the month following the start of the violence. Nearly a year later, the number of Rohingya killed in the violence climbed to more than 24,000.  The number of Rohingyan villages that have been destroyed totalled 288, out of 578. That is nearly half of the Rohingyan settlements.

As their homes burned, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyans were forced to flee.  They left not just their homes, not just the Rakhine state, but Myanmar.  More than 900,000 Rohingyans fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where they are referred to as the Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals or FDMN. Multiple refugees camps have been set up in the southeast of the country.  As the graphic to the left shows, some of these refugee camps are huge in size. While the World Bank announced nearly $1 billion in aid for the Rohingyan refugees, the conditions in such camps are not good. Disease is a major issue, with poor sanitation and water quality contributing to the spread of infectious diseases through the refugee camps.  Malnutrition is another issue, with nearly 25% of Rohingyan children being malnurished. In March 2019, Bangladesh announced that it would not accept any further refugees.  Other countries - such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia -- have accepted Rohingyan refugees.

While more than 1 million Rohingyans have fled Myanmar, there are perhaps 500,000 Rohingyans still living in the Rakhine State.  While a treaty was reached to provide for the repatriation of the Rohingya, no one is returning to what is left of their homes.  In the end, the Rohingyan remain a stateless people living in more than 1 state.


This challenge is particularly difficult because there is very little information about the cuisine of the Rohingya people. I started with some research about the cuisine of the Rakhine State, but there was little to no differentiation between the cuisines of the ethnic groups who live in that state. I tried to focus my research on the Rohingyan cuisine, but I was only able to find one dish.  It is called Durus Kura, a traditional fried chicken that can be served with either eggs, potatoes, rice and/or chapatti. As one would expect, there were different ways to prepare this dish.  I gathered those different recipes  and tried to merge them into one preparation.

Rohingyan cooks prepare Durus Kura with what is easily available to them, starting with the chicken.  Typically, in the Rakhine State, it would start with an Ayam Kampung, or a free range chicken.  Free range chickens take on a yellowish hue from the food that they eat, which sets them aside from factory farmed chickens. As with anything, care should be exercised in selecting the chickens.  As it turns out, some farmers in China have taken to dipping their chickens in yellow dye to fool unwary customers.  I was able to find a free range chicken (or at least a chicken tha was labelled as "free range") in a local grocery store.

The recipes call for the chicken to be marinated in a green chile mixture.  For the chiles, I used a combination of Anaheim chiles and serrano chiles.  The larger Anaheim chiles provided the base for the mixture, while the serrano chiles provided a little heat or kick.  I made the mixture with the rest of the ingredients (onions, ginger, etc.) as well as the spices. I also followed the recipe in terms of first boiling the marinated chicken. After I removed the boiled chicken, I tried to create the sauce, although I was not able to get a consistency that I liked.  I also fried the chicken as called for by the recipe. The resulting dish, which was very tasty, is pictured below.

Recipe from The Stateless and the Rohingya Learning Center
Serves many

Ingredients (for the chicken):
2 inch piece of ginger, grated
2 tablespoons ground turmeric
1 tablespooon of garam masala
5 small red onions, grated 
1/5 tablespoon green chile paste
1 kampung chicken (or regular chicken)
4 cups of water (or more if using a regular chicken)
3/4 cup of vegetable oil for frying

Ingredients (for the green chile paste):
7 green chiles

1.  Make the green chile paste.   Bring the water to a gentle boil in a pot and add the chiles.  Boil the chiles over low heat for five minutes.  Remove from the heat, set aside to cook before placing the chiles in a blender.  Process the chiles until you have a thick liquid paste.

2. Marinate the chicken.  Pound the ginger and garlic until you have a thick rough paste.  Add the turmeric and garam masala with some salt.  Add the grated onions and green chile paste.  Stir until it is all well incorporated.  Cover both the inside and outside of the chicken with the paste. Marinate for one hour.  Once fully marinated, truss the chicken by cutting small incisions in each skin flap either side of the cavity and tuck in each leg tightly on the opposite side.

3.  Cook the chicken.  Place the chicken in a large pot and add the water.  Cover and boil over moderate high heat for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.  Depending on the size of the chicken, the cooking time will vary and you might need to add some more water.

4. Complete the boiling of the chicken.  When ready, you will have a thick gravy like sauce.  Remove the chicken from the pot onto a plate and set to the side.  Reserve the sauce in the pot.

5.  Fry the chicken.  Heat the vegetable oil in a large deep frying pan or wok over a high heat.  When the oil in a large deep frying pan or work over high heat. When the oil is hot, carefully place the chicken and fry on all sides until it has a crispy skin and golden.

6.  Finish the dish.  Place the reserved sauce on the bottom of a serving plate. Plate the chicken on top and serve with steamed rice or chapatti.

*     *     *

As I mentioned above, the chicken was very good.  The flavors of the marinade (the onions, ginger, garam masala, etc.) could be tasted in the chicken, although I think with a longer marinade, those flavors could have been more present in the dish.  Still, it was a very good effort and kindled an interest in learning more about the Rohingyan people, their history, culture and, of course, their cuisine.  Until next time ...


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