Burmese Pork Curries and Buddhist Monks

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Burmese pork curry
Burmese pork curry

Our house was built in the valley, surrounded by the hills. It faced the great hill we climbed with guests and cousins visiting us during the summer vacations. We took a lot of delight tracking through the numerous trails leading to springs, pagodas and crags, monoliths resembling huge grey owls, reservoirs and rich people’s cottages nestled amidst cherry blossoms and pines. Picture perfect as a foreign shooting spot. The pride of our little town; it is called Taunggyi which means “the big mountain”. 

The opposite hill behind our house was lower in height, abounding in tall bamboo trees, shabby little shacks and timber cottages but equally interesting with pines, sour fruit trees, shrubs of raspberries, gooseberries, monastery with phonegyis (monks ranging from 80 plus to 4 year old acolytes). Because of the two monasteries up on the hills we took a lot of interest in the monks who came down early in the morning going about from one house to the next in order to collect alms, holding a lacquered round bowl in on one and a soft cane fan in the other, covering their faces partially, to avoid looking at the ladies who waited to dole out cooked rice, fruits, curries or sweets. It was a custom with the Burmese people that at some point or the other every boy child must serve a term at the monastery. Some stay for a year, many stay for three years and then older ones who have wholeheartedly embraced the monastic life carry on till death. 

For us that hill was more magical than any other places of visit because of our unending curiosity about these baby and teenager acolytes who seemed to be eternally playing football or kicking chinlone (cane balls) with their feet, legs, shoulders, heads without touching the ball with their hands or dropping them on the ground.

Playing chinlone

The best food from a layman’s kitchen, would be given as alms as it was intended not just to sustain the monks but also to demonstrate the giver’s selflessness and commitment to the faith. Buddhists also see the practice as a way of connecting to their deceased ancestors through the monks. The food offered to the monks is being indirectly offered to the ancestors who can enjoy them in their afterlife. Our neighbour had a transport business; he owned five lorries that plied between Taunggyi and Kengtung (a town closer to Thailand border) carrying merchandise goods. These lorries had to negotiate through treacherous roads, crossing rough rivers on rafts. A pretty dangerous and scary journey through dense forests teeming with dacoits. Every now and then when the drivers came across little wooden Pigeon hole structures holding little statues of “Nats” (spirit idols) guarding the forests and road, they would get down and offer a bagful of pork to appease the residing spirits, thereby seeking protection to complete their journey safely.  Such fascinating lores like those abound in Myanmar till date.

Somehow I feel so connected to these communities of monks for making me fall head over heels in love with the various types of Burmese pork curry! I am sure many of you may feel that perhaps I am talking through my hat. How can Buddhist monks be responsible for making me gooey eyed with of all things Pork curry! Many of us have grown up with the notion that monks all over East Asia are vegetarians; but a Burmese abbot much later dispelled this idea that monks belonging to the Theravada sect are allowed to eat meat so long the animals are not butchered in front of their eyes. I was at that point teaching English to a few Buddhist monk students and so asked them to have lunch (as a kind of donation) called “Soonkha” with us. 

Buddhist monks collecting alms in Myanmar

In Burma the monks would go about collecting their alms, cooked rice, vegetable curries, stir fries, meat curry, dry fish relish, fruits, and local sweets very early in the morning say around 6.30. And by 8.00 the monks would be back in their quarters and pile up their alms on the kitchen table and the monk heading the kitchen distributed the dishes equally setting them on the little five-seater tables. It’s potluck time– a kind of brunch. In the busy summer months, there were two meals per day– one at midday and one in the evening. Exceptions included Wednesdays and Fridays, traditional fasting days, on which only one meal was eaten. In the winter there was also only one meal. During Lent, the monks only ate one evening meal.

The novice knew he wasn’t supposed to be hankering for food other than what the faithful brought to the monastery. By bringing monks food each day, the faithful are investing in the faith, and in doing so they too make merit to nourish their own soul.

I remember how my siblings and I would drool watching our kitchen help Daw Ong May (Mrs. Ong May)prepare dishes for a feast for the monks, when her own son celebrated the Shin Pyu (donning of the monk’s robe to serve a term in the monastery for a short stint) just like our Hindu sacred thread or Poitey and since we too were invited to partake of the food we knew that after the monks finished eating their brunch. It was our turn to sit around the low wooden tables enjoying an amazing, soul comforting lunch of hot fragrant rice, eggplant cooked with tomatoes, garlic, dry fish, and bowls of sour soup, red and gold chicken curry and red and gold pork curry. Succulent pieces of tender pork floating in oil! That’s why the name is Si biyan (floating in oil). There would be little side dishes with portions of green mango salad (thayet thee thoke), Shrimp relish (Balachaung kyaw), fermented soy cake (pe poke chet). And finally the desert– coconut pudding with desiccated coconut and palm sugar or sago with palm sugar or jaggery. The entire meal would be so satiating, it’s pure Nirvana. Who would ever think a spread like this would come as an alms for the monks from a humble Buddhist housewife. Thereafter my mother would request her to cook this red and gold chicken or Burmese pork curry for us and guests too. 

Buddhist monks enjoying a meal collected as alms.

I carried on the tradition. That afternoon when my student monks came over to have lunch at home I cooked the same menu all over again but two items were added; I cooked Bengali macher jhol on request by one of those young acolytes and the ubiquitous Rosogolla. Needless to say how much they loved my lunch. The Ubazin (as the head monk is addressed by laymen in Burma) blessed me and taught me another pork recipe, pork with bamboo shoot. My childhood memories of the huge cauldrons being set up during festivals flashed in front of my eyes. The back hill monastery received a friendship gift of Ashoka Stambha, donated by the Indian community residing in Taunggyi and other parts of the Shan State. From morning till afternoon amidst yellow and

ochre robed men– cooks and volunteers got busy cooking kilos of pork with bamboo shoots and fragrant white rice. The aromas wafted from the hill spreading to the valley. Our brothers, kitchen helpers, gardeners would get ready with huge bags of tiffin carriers and pots, joined by their friends and neighbors and they would trudge up the cobbled stone steps to reach the venue.

They patiently waited for their turn to collect the aromatic pork with bamboo shoots and returned home with the booty. At home we eagerly awaited to pounce on them! Our feast would begin. We ate as if there’s no tomorrow! Later, much later the head monk affirmed saying that whenever there’s any ceremonial feast for the monks by the community pork with bamboo shoot is always an important dish; easy to cook, filling, healthy and enjoyed by more than 1000 people both the inmates of the monastery as well as the people either invited or gate crashers. Thus began my journey with pork curry, cooked in many ways. Private invitations often cooked another recipe called Hinlay, pork cooked with souring agents like gooseberries, crab apples, green mangoes, tamarind both green and brown, no the curry is never too

sour or acidic, composed with green chilies, garlic and tomatoes the outcome is an explosion of tastes. I have also added this to my pork repertoire. The Burmese people hardly ever use any of our Indian masalas, but yes they have to use a discrete amount of Ngapi (fermented shrimp) or fish paste to bring out the Umami flavour.

One never knows how and where we get to learn…. Have I ever thought that the culinary knowledge can be picked up from the least expected quarters? Thank you my monks for teaching me the finer side of food for the soul.

Photo courtesy: Chanda Dutt

Notes:

Burma- now known as Myanmar.

Poitey- the Bengali name for the sacred thread worn by Hindu men.

Macher jhol- a watery fish curry popular in Bengali cuisine.

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