Born and raised in Myanmar, Soe Thein is born to a big family of devotees for anything food-related.
Although he has always enjoyed eating Burmese food, he has never started cooking and learning it until he moved to the United States. Currently, Soe writes about his life stories and Burmese food he grew up eating on his blog Lime and Cilantro.
The main idea behind his blog is to share his stories and recipes with anyone who either has a slight curiosity about Burmese food and culture or those natives who, like him ended up living abroad and want to have a dedicated blog for their hometown cuisines.
At the moment, Soe spends most of his time studying medicine, reading about how to make the best monhinga (Burmese fish soup) and catching up with Nigella Lawson’s new show Simply Nigella.
Lime and Cilantro has won 2016 SAVEUR Blog Award for Readers’ Choice under “Best New Voice” category.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
I grew up in a noisy household with 22 other people in an equally bustling seaport city in Myanmar, known as Yangon. A congregation of twenty-two people under the same roof is a very fertile ground for differing opinions, hobbies and interests. But, one thing that we all genuinely share is our love for eating. We console, celebrate, and express our love for each other through food. We take every opportunity throughout the day to eat and we never apologize for it, because those are the noisiest yet most fun times for everyone, and we all jokily admit it at one point or another. After high school, I moved from the loud household to Atlanta for college, and I suddenly felt deafened by the quietness, and nostalgia for Burmese food. After unsuccessfully scoured through YELP for any Burmese restaurants, I faced the reality of their nonexistence and started cooking. A few years ago, I became comfortable enough with the knowledge of Burmese food that I started blogging about it. So far, it has been a thrilling experience sharing my stories and recipes with anyone who either has a slight curiosity about Burmese food and culture or those who, like me ended up living abroad and want to have a dedicated blog for their hometown cuisines.
Tell us your knowledge and experience when it comes to Burmese cuisine.
I guess it is just talent. Haha, I am just kidding. I think that growing up eating good Burmese food really helps me train my palate to know what a certain Burmese dish is supposed to taste like. In a way, as weird as it sounds, eating helps me cook. Almost all my technical knowledge about Burmese food, however, comes from cooking with my mom and aunts, and from reading Burmese cookbooks. In all honesty, I don’t even consider myself a cook, but rather someone who has an obsession with Burmese food, happens to enjoy cooking as much as eating and learning more about it.
What makes Burmese cuisine unique? What differentiates it from other cuisines?
Myanmar (Burma) is strategically surrounded by India, China, and Thailand. Naturally, many of Burmese cuisines are products of 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 bold – they 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 braising 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 can be evident by dishes such as chickpea tofu (yes, it is soy-free tofu. Wholefoods should get on that) and fermented tea-leaf salad.
What is your favorite Burmese recipe or the most unusual dish of the country?
My favorite is definitely fermented tea-leaf salad. Every time I eat it, I just cannot help but notice how perfect all components, the crunch of fried peas and beans, pungent sourness from fermented tea leaves, soft drippy mess from tomato slices, and fresh green bites from crisp cabbage shreds, come together to create a balanced bite. It is unusual in that despite these in-your-face flavors it is usually eaten after big meals, as a part of dessert and long post-meal chitchats.
What other cuisines do you like or influence your cooking?
I really enjoy good home-cooked American dishes, which I can cook leisurely and pleasurably to feed my family and friends rather than to show off my cooking skills. In fact, nowadays, my week never ends unless I have made some type of pot roast.
What place would you recommend to visit in Myanmar?
I really suggest visiting Kyeik Htee Yoo Pagoda in Mon State, especially in winter times. The weather is cool and cloudy, and the attraction comes alive with thousands of people as early as 3 AM. If you are an early riser, I eagerly suggest you to try one of those roadside cafes on the way to the Pagoda for a traditional Burmese fried rice and coffee or tea for breakfast. It may not the tastiest, but definitely the most authentic rural Myanmar experience. Then, you can climb up to the Pagoda to experience the fiery egg-yolk slowly rising above the mountains. I have been to Kyeik Htee Yoo many times, and I still feel the urge to go back.
What are the main difficulties in Burmese Cuisine?
Burmese cuisine is very regionally diverse. Because it is not mainstream yet, it is very difficult to find a good reference and history on many of lesser-known dishes.
What would you suggest if you had to prepare a complete Burmese Menu: starter, main course and dessert?
Starter – Kha-yan-tee-mee-phoke-tote or burned eggplant salad
Entrée – Kyat–Tar-Arrloo or Chicken and potato curry, with Oone-hta-min (coconut rice) and mixed vegetables sour soup
Dessert – Fermented tea leaf salad and Nhat-pyaw-tee-mote (banana cake)