Our meal this year was the most Burmese yet: we did it birthday style, like a birthday party for Jesus! We had mohingya, per community request:a traditional fish soup with noodles, often served at birthdays, and one of Thida’s specialities. She’s famous for hers, and it’s the best I’ve personally ever had. (I actually like hers, and I haven’t had any other I truly enjoy. That will be more understandable as you see what is put in it.)
We went to the market on Thursday to purchase 30 kilos of fish, one kilo of fish paste, a box of fish sauce, 100 kilos of noodles, ten kilos of green beans, quite a few kilos of onions and garlic, five kilos of cilantro, five banana stalks, five kilos of limes…lemongrass, turmeric, curry, salt, MSG (you can’t win at everything!)….and six bags of fried bean chips.
That evening, they started a pot of whole fish, all the fish paste, and lots of spices. That boiled in our yard for a few hours, then was set aside until morning.
The next morning we started before seven.
The fish were peeled or whatever was needed to get the meat out, which was all put into the woks.
We chopped banana stalks, boiled them in the sauce/liquid from the fish, and then added into the woks.
We chopped onions, adding half into the woks and leaving half as toppings. We chopped garlic, adding half to the woks and frying up half as toppings.
We chopped lemongrass, and added a whole lot of it into the woks. We chopped cilantro, another greenery (I couldn’t sort out what it was despite multiple conversations and dictionaries), limes, and green beans, all set aside as toppings.
Chili was cooked to be added later as a topping, and the pans it was cooked in are still making everything in them very, very spicy—a week later!
The woks were stirred together, adding water and more spices and sauces. It simmered for three to four hours.
We picked up the noodles, made and cooked fresh in the market, that afternoon. Each bowl is filled with noodles and sprinkled with pieces of fried bean chips, then set at a place at the tables. Here, a person can add their choice of mohingya: adding their own soup, adding any combo of crispy chips, green beans, cilantro, unknown greenery, chili, fish sauce, limes, onions, and garlic. Stephen and I prefer less liquid; the whole community prefers a lot. He searches for good pieces of fish; I love the banana stalks and onions. We both snuck inside to get more crispy chip pieces. I love adding lots of green beans and a bit of lime; Stephen adds chili.
This is what a good bowl looks like to our neighbors. (Ours look pretty different.)
As we set up tables and chairs, they started in Burmese tradition: kids & lesser-friends tables outside; then adult & important-persons tables inside. This is one of my least favorite traditions: the dividing out of VIPs, serving them more and better and whatnot. I had discussed this with Thdia before, so as they made plans together, I reminded her and explained to everyone else: we wanted everyone together. We loved everyone equally, so we’d all eat equally. We wanted all the tables on the same “level” and with the same service. Thida remembered, explained that this was important to us, and we went with it. Overall, this was a success; but I will say they just couldn’t resist when our church came—VIPs in their mind—and they pulled out our ceramic bowls from the kitchen. They were forced to sit on the same playing field, but they just couldn’t serve them in plastic!
We started serving at three o’clock in the afternoon, as the first kids returned from school. For Burmese birthday parties, you set out a few tables to serve at, and people come to eat, stepping into a free spot. Once finished, you clear out for someone else. We had tables and chairs for about thirty, but easily served near five hundred. I honestly have no idea.
There were a few things I loved about this years meal. First, it felt really Burmese: we had balloons to decorate, music—a shuffle of English Christmas music and Burmese pop—blaring from a speaker, people in and out everywhere. We had no fights or stampedes or food hoarding.
We served our church, who all came to join and prayed for our community.
Most of our dearest friends came initially, from three to four; then word spread to all around. By six, many of those we know best were still around for the party, and we had so much food still. By the end, our dearest friends ate three to four times! We still ended up inviting a nearby children’s home to come eat—another twenty to forty?—and ultimately sent home extras in the community at 8pm!
Thida and I were in the kitchen around five, when we hadn’t even finished one wok of soup. She exclaimed how excited she was we hadn’t run out yet, and said, “God is blessing it!” She seems to see Jesus more clearly than I do sometimes.
Later that evening as we cleaned, she said it just never ran out: they’d serve bowl after bowl, hundreds of people would come, and the wok would have the same amount in it. I told her a summary of the fish and loaves of bread, and how it never ran out and they had extras, even feeding thousands. We said it felt the same. It was a really beautiful conversation.
And for me, significant in this way: years ago, when we first started working in this community, we always marveled at how much it felt like we were living out the gospels. It was almost word for word, which was both encouraging, but also sometimes made decisions easier: we knew which way to go, we could see how God was in it. The past year or two, at some point or pattern I can’t identify, we faced so many decisions I just wasn’t sure about. Things felt so grey at times, where we weren’t sure where God was in it or how to give him glory or how to handle a predicament. At this point, and a few others in the past week or so, God was gracious to give us conversations or moments of clarity, confirmation; moments of grace.
This year, I loved the meal, the feel of the evening, the success of it. I love that people ate to their full. I love that we saw Jesus in it. I love that we also saw ourselves, just encompassed in this community: it was a Burmese party in all ways, but it was us, too. It’s weird how that happens slowly, until you realize suddenly, as if it just fell upon you. But you also like what you’ve found.
Please note: Nearly all photos in this blog are credited to Mway Mway. I realized after uploading them all that I forgot her watermark, so I’m going to give her credit here for very nearly all of these.