Why I Write About Food 029: Soe Thein of Lime and Cilantro

Soe Thein started cooking after he moved to the US when homesickness drove him to learn to recreate foods that he grew up eating in his hometown Yangon, Myanmar. He writes enthusiastically about his kitchen adventures and life abroad, and his spirited voice delivers insights into a cuisine that's deserving of more attention. 

Tell us about Lime and Cilantro. 
I was born and raised in Yangon, a former capital and a bustling seaport city of Myanmar. I grew up with a lot of micro-cultures centered on food, whether they be a group of middle-aged men catching up or gossiping while nursing sweet Burmese tea, women walking one-street-in-one-street-out with baskets of steamed maize on their head, yelling "ta-gyar-pyaune-cho-cho-lay", meaning "I have sweet corns to sell", or youngsters indulging themselves in BBQ skewers and beer in the bustling Chinatown. These are just a few examples. Admittedly, compared to other big Southeast Asian Cities, Yangon falls short when it comes to the restaurant scene. But I feel that the city makes up for its weakness by bold expressions of cuisine that neither appease tourists’ taste nor apologize for its authenticity. 

I am currently living in Irvine, California. Love the warm weather; hate the traffic on I-405.

I gave Lime and Cilantro the subtitle “Stories, Burmese Kitchen and SoCal Eateries” because I, like many other bloggers, would like my blog to be more than a collection of recipes. I never consider myself a cook, and it would be against my conviction to pretend that I am an expert on something when I am not.

So instead, what I like to do is write about dishes that I actually eat regularly, either because I ate them as a kid and they often bring some form of nostalgic comfort or because they are practicaleasy and fast to make for weekday dinners. I don’t ever try to invent a new recipe just for the sake of novelty. That’s the job for professional bloggers or chefs. My personality, in extension a purpose of Lime and Cilantro, is more fit for writing verbose stories and adding accolades on simple noodle dishes.

Why do you write about food?
I grew up in a family of 22, an unusual experience for many millennials who grew up in the United States. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of stories, memories and most importantly, traditions. For instance, every August, the whole house would sit around our front porch and pay homage to a spirit, and then we would eat sweetened sticky rice balls crusted with freshly grated coconut flakes. In February, we would pray to another spirit in the sky exactly at midnight, followed by a full-on feast right after. I actually never quite got why we did what we did back then. In fact, most of the time, I was annoyed that my whole family was doing things just because it was “the way we do things”.

When I moved to the United States at the age of 16, I initially felt quite liberated from what I considered rituals. However, after a while, especially during festival times, I noticed I was drifting away from the community that had been so integral to me. It came to a point when I decided not to let my childhood memories perish in a foreign land. What’s better than to preserve those memories, especially those that revolve around food, through writing and sharing? I know I am not alone when I sometimes feel lost in a far-away-land, and Lime and Cilantro, in a way, is a remedy for nostalgia, a nudge of encouragement for those who feel the same as I do.

What were some of the challenges faced when you learned to cook Burmese food after moving to the US?
Burmese food is not difficult to cook if it is well-documented. Unfortunately, about eight years ago, there were very few Internet resources on how to cook Burmese food. What made things worse is that I had never been in a kitchen back in Myanmar, and my cooking intuition, such as how much salt and pepper to put, how much heat to apply, was very limited. So when I started cooking in the United States, I burned and over-salted a lot of things. Sadly, these were also the times when I missed Burmese cooking the most.

What should we know about Burmese food?
Myanmar is strategically surrounded by India, China, and Thailand. Naturally, Burmese cuisine is the product of the amalgamation of distinct culinary influences from these countries, while amazingly staying rooted in its unique styles.

Like other Southeast Asian cuisines, many Burmese dishes, especially salads and side dishes, are boldthey are bright, pungent, spicy, and salty. I once said that whenever I am eating these Burmese dishes, I felt as if there is a San Francisco parade going on in my mouth. On the other hand, slow-braised curry dishes are very hearty, even without the help of coconut cream or butter. However, I personally feel that the real beauty of Burmese cuisine lies in its use of seemingly mundane ingredients to make something purely genius. This is evident in dishes such as chickpea tofu (yes, it is soy-free tofu. Whole Foods should get on that) and fermented tea leaf salad.

What are some of the vital ingredients to cook Burmese food at home? 
Whenever I run out of fish sauce, chickpea flour or dried shrimp powder, I curse. The topic on how and where they are used is more suitable for a book. You can easily buy chickpea flour in almost any Indian supermarket or online. Dried shrimp can be bought in any Asian grocery store and I grind them myself with a spice grinder.

You recently had your first Burmese cooking workshop. Tell us about it!
Mike Benayoun, the creator of 196 Flavors, had this wonderful idea of hosting a cooking workshop series, where he partners up with bloggers to create cooking classes from the cuisine of their chosen country. I helped him create a Burmese cooking class in October where we made chickpea tofu salad, Mohinga (lemongrass fish broth served with rice vermicelli), and htaw-phat-tee-lat-phyaw (avocado shaved ice).

It was one of those classes where everyone felt good at the end of the class. I found it especially rewarding when people got excited and told me how they planned to use chickpea tofu in other ways. I have heard of deconstructed hummus, vegan burgers and so on. Let’s face it. Burmese cuisine is not a popular one, and I don’t feel like it is my mission to make it more mainstream. In fact, I don’t think I want it to be mainstream, but I do rightfully take delight whenever someone shows an interest in the cuisine I grew up with.

What are you currently reading? 
I am currently rereading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It is one of those books which begs to be reread almost every year. Every time I go through the book, I get a different sensation depending on how my life is playing out at the given moment. I don’t see myself getting bored by its mystical story plot, poetic sentence structures and fluid metaphors.

What's your favorite recipe on Lime and Cilantro?
I feel like Burmese pickled tea leaf salad is the one dish that shines an international spotlight on Burmese cuisine. Having said that, I pick this dish every time someone asks for a dish that defines me solely because it holds such precious memories about being together with my family. For a lone immigrant, I feel like this personal aspect of food trumps the physiological sensation of taste. Part of me knows very well that I cannot cling to the past, because no matter how much I try, it is already gone. But another part of me is addicted to reliving those memories whenever I can.

Visit Soe Thein's website at www.limeandcilantro.com
Recommended Recipes:
Fish Vermicelli Soup (Mohinga)
Burmese Sweet Tea
Pickled Tea Leaf Salad (Laphet Thote)

INTERVIEW BY CHRISTINE LEONG. PHOTOS BY LIME AND CILANTRO.

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