Friday, February 16, 2024

Rohingyan Beef Curry

We all miss home, but we cannot go back to the same fear. -- Nur Anya 

For decades, the Rohingyans -- a Muslim minority group --  have suffered under dehumanizing discrimination in Myanmar. The government refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingyan people, denying legal status to an entire ethnic group. Yet, the government passed laws that placed significant restrictions upon the Rohingya. For example, in the northern towns of Mungdaw and Buthidaugn, the authorities limited Rohingyan couples to two children. The government also requires Rohingyans to get approval before they can marry, as well as to travel or move outside of their home towns. These conditions are exacerbated by the fact that the area where most Rohingyans call "home," the Rakine State, is the least developed of Myanmar's states and has a poverty rate of 78%, which is more than double the national rate of 37.5% percent. 

The discrimination and repression led to violence in 2017, after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked police and army posts. The military cracked down on the Rohingyan people. As the United Nations would later find in an after-the-fact investigation, the Myanmar military showed "genocidal intent" and, in a 2018 report, the UN determined that Myanmar found that the military engaged in "clear patterns of abuse" that included, among other things, the systematic targeting of civilians, promoting discriminatory rhetoric against the Rohingya and establishing a "climate of impunity" for the government's security forces. After approximately one year, it is estimated that the Myanmar military and security forces killed nearly 24,000 Rohingyans.

Fleeing Death and Destruction

The violence and death led to mass displacement of Rohingyans, significant numbers of whom fled as refugees to other countries. I previously touched upon the Rohingyan refugee crisis as part of my culinary challenge involving Myanmar. Approximately 740,000 Rohingyans fled into neighboring Bangladesh. Many more fled to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It was, at the time, the world's fastest growing humanitarian crisis.

Rohingyan refugees. Source: UNHR Australia

The stories of those who became refugees is heart-wrenching. As Nur Anya recounted from a refugee camp in Bangladesh: 

In Myanmar, we had our lands where we grew flowers, vegetables and many plants. We had a big house where all the family members lived together. The violence and the killing drove us to leave our homes. They brunt houses in my neighbourhood. They shot and killed a lot of people in my village. We were living with fear every day.  When we decided to leave, we had no other option.

It was the most difficult journey of my life. We walked 13 days and nights. To cross the river, my family used a handmade bamboo raft. There were a lot of people with us -- I could not say what the number was, it was so huge. 

As Rohingyans became refugees, many of their villages were abandoned and even more were distroyed. At one point, 176 of 471 Rohingyan villages -- or more than 1/3 of the villages -- had been abandoned.  The Myanmar government cleared entire Rohingyan villages and farms. The government then built homes, infrastructure and military bases in their place. 

Preserving the Rohingyan Culture

The end result, and perhaps the government's objective, was to eliminate the Rohingya people from Myanmar.  The government sought to take the legal status of the people -- that is, no recognition of the Rohingyans -- and make that a factual reality. This creates a clear and present danger to the Rohingyan identity and their culture, including their cuisine. The stories from the refugees include accounts where they had to leave everything behind, including all of their cooking utensils, which makes it harder for them to prepare food for themselves and their families. This leaves the people dependent upon food aid, which has become more difficult to obtain, leading to smaller meals or even skipped meals.

Rohingyan refugees eating a meal. Source: UNHCR

There are efforts to preserve that culture and its cuisine. One example involves the Endangered Material Knowledge Program (EDKM), which provides grants to conduct research on critically endangered knowledge. One project that was under consideration in 2023 was entitled, Rohingya Recipes and Food Practices of stateless Rohingya Community in Camps of Bangladesh. The project description noted the historical difficulty of the Rohingyan people when it came to food: they struggled to maintain the needed nutritional demands, whether it was at their homes in Myanmar or in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. The objective of this project is, among other things, to document recipes and practices of the Rohingyan people. 

This research is sorely needed, as there are few resources and research available on the Internet about the Rohingyan people, their culture and their cuisine. I was able to find a few recipes (which was more than my previous research when I was working on my Around the World challenge). I found a couple of recipes, including one for Rohingyan beef curry.

This recipe is a very interesting one. It calls for beef with bones. When I went to the grocery store, I had to improvise: I purchased some stew meat and some marrow bones. The "masala" for this curry -- turmeric, red chile powder, coriander, cumin, and garam masala -- provided for an aromatic cooking experience and a lot of flavor to build upon the garlic/ginger paste. 

The end result is a delicious beef curry with a slight kick. (I used Kashmiri chiles for the ground red chile powder.) I could not escape the thoughts about how this dish is just a memory for nearly a million Rohingyan refugees who have been forced from their homes and subjected to even greater poverty than what they previously experienced. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to prepare this dish and prepare this post, as my effort to help publicize the Rohingyan culture and cuisine. More of this is needed so that the world does not forget the tragedies that unfolded over six years ago. 

Recipe from SBS Food
Serves 4

  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 1 kg diced beef, with bones
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 2 potatoes, diced
  • 1 tablespoon garlic paste
  • 2 tablespoons ginger paste
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 tablespoon red chile powder
  • 1 tablespoon coriander powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon cumin powder
  • 3 teaspoons garam masala powder
  • 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • Coriander, as garnish
  • Green chiles, as garnish

1.    Saute the vegetables and brown the meat. Heat oil on high heat in a large pot. Add onions, garlic paste and ginger paste. Stir for 2 to 3 minutes until brown. Add diced beef and bones and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add turmeric powder, red chile powder, coriander and cumin. Stir-fry for 2 more minutes. Add the garam masala and stir-fry for another 2 minutes. 

2. Add the liquid and tomatoes. Add 1 cup of water and diced tomatoes and cook on high heat for 5 minutes. Add the potatoes in the last half an hour. 

3. Finish the dish. Garnish with coriander (cilantro) and green chiles. Serve with hot steamed rice.


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