Burmese Food for a Great Cause

In May of 2008 Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, killing over 100,000 people and causing massive destruction; it was the worst natural disaster in the history of the country. Here in the United States some Burmese immigrants created a charitable foundation, the Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation, to raise money for the victims, and in June of that year they organized a food bazaar as a fundraiser. The need for money is still great, so they had the second annual food bazaar on June 13th of this year. So while most New Yorkers were out at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party last Saturday, I made my way up to a school in Queens for Burmese food and a great cause.

The event was free, but in order to eat you needed to purchase tickets at a dollar each and redeemt hem for food. I arrived about half of an hour after the event started and already the school’s cafeteria was filling up. I got $10 in tickets and headed to the tables.

It was a warm day and the first thing I had was a refreshing bowl of yangon faluda. What is that? I’ll tell you what I can: start with a bowl with a few cubes of egg custard, then pour in a cold, slightly sweet pink fruity soup chock full of jelly cubes and pearls, plus a fruit that may have been lychee, top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Surprising and delicious. Then it was on to more hearty fare.

Apparently the Burmese often make their tofu with a yellow pea variety, hence the bright yellow color. The texture was also different than soy-based tofu, these had more of a granulated texture. Topped with vinegar sauce, fried shallots, shredded lime leaves, and (at my request) a pinch of spicy dried chiles. This was a bit strange at first, but the more I ate the more I loved it.

Good but not great were the vegetarian spring rolls. A warm filling of cabbage, carrots, and tofu surrounded by a fresh (not fried) wrapper. They were served with some lettuce and fresh scallions, so I ate them Vietnamese-style wrapped in lettuce, dipped in the sweet dipping sauce.

I was pretty full by this point, but then I noticed a sign that read “Grass Jelly Juice” and I knew I couldn’t leave without trying it. I asked the people serving it up what, exactly, grass jelly was. “Ummmm…” was the first answer. “I think it’s made with some kind of grass…” “It tastes kinda like licorice. It’s jelly.” And so on. I decided to just try for myself. I thought it tasted kind of like flat Coke, in a good way. There were tiny cubes of some kind of jelly floating through it, reminding me a bit of bubble tea. The jelly didn’t have much taste at all beyond a hint of citrus.

As I was savoring the drink I was approached by one of the event’s volunteer organizers, Htu Aung, and this turned out to be the highlight of my day. He was interested to know how I found out about the event (I saw it advertised on Eating in Translation, an excellent food blog). It turns out that they didn’t do much advertising for the event this year, because they weren’t sure until the last minute that they were actually going to hold the event — the threat of swine flu almost cancelled it. The were expecting fewer people than the 300 that showed up last year, but they were thinking about making this a yearly thing and wanted ideas about how to get more press (I’m doing my best right here!). All of the workers at the event were volunteered, and all of the food was donated. The food was, by Htu’s estimation, 95% authentic Burmese — that final 5% being held back because the grass jelly juice can be found in Thailand and China, not just Myanmar. They were having the event at PS 150 in Sunnyside because it was a big Burmese neighborhood, and most of the Burmese immigrants have family back in Myanmar. We ended up chatting for about 10 minutes, and he couldn’t have been friendlier.

On the site they are now saying they collected about $8700 for the foundation, which is wonderful (even if you didn’t attend, you can donate money if you’d like). I hope that the success of this year’s food bazaar means that they definitely make this an annual tradition. Maybe I’ll see you there next year.

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