Common ground: Sprouting a new American gardener

What I probably miss most living in rural America is the exposure to other cultures. I never regretted having moved for love from bustling New York City with its multitude of ethnicities to a tiny hamlet in a county with a highly homogenous population. I did many things on our mountaintop that I would have never done in an urban setting – first and foremost, I became a gardener. But that does not mean that I ever stopped missing the diversity I was seeking when I emigrated to America: people who, like me, came from another country, and with their background and traditions contribute to the rich cultural fabric of America.

Oddly and unexpectedly, that gap of connecting with other immigrants and kindred souls was filled after the November 2016 elections. Since then, I have made many new acquaintances, and I have made a few new friends.One of them is Khine Ngwe Hnin Zaw who was born and raised in Myanmar and came to the United States in 2013. Her son, Dan, was born in the US. She makes a conscious effort to teach him Burmese traditions and customs. She takes him to the Burmese Buddhist temple and practices meditation with him every night before bed. Dan is an eager student and loves the rituals.

Khine is the founder and owner of Khinez Organics, which produces a line of high-quality, all-natural, chemical-free bath and beauty products. Though Khine is a relative newcomer to the Lehigh Valley, she has already left her mark by supporting other small businesses and local farms, and helping girls and women who are victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Entrepreneur, single mother, community Samaritan – she packs a lot into her day.

The two or three times Khine visited our mountaintop, she was very appreciative and curious about the different fruits and vegetables in my garden. It only occurred to me a few months ago that throwing together a salad for dinner from raw vegetables, something I have done all my life without much thought, is not something Khine would do.

“Growing up in Yangon in the 1980s,” Khine said, “I believe it is safe to say that eating raw vegetables was as foreign to me and my siblings as seeing electricity for more than six hours a day. It is not that vegetables were not fresh. It is just impossible to keep them fresh when you are located close to the equator, and the only three seasons you’ve got are hot, hotter, hottest. The blackouts were part of our daily lives so some would say getting electricity six hours a day is an exaggeration. A regular household couldn’t afford a generator unless the parents had a successful business or a family member working overseas who could send thousands of dollars back home. We had neither.”

The daily food routine Khine described could not be more different from the American lifestyle. “Like most families, our family started the day with my mom or our cook visiting a local vendor at a nearby market to buy meat and vegetables. Whatever they brought home was already cooked by 8 a.m. We could not freeze anything, and microwaves were not available. The disadvantage of living at the heart of Yangon was that we never knew the source of those vegetables. We did enjoy eating certain vegetables like cucumber, tomatoes, and on rare occasions raw carrots. Any dish that included leafy greens was cooked at my parents’ home.”

Khine concluded, “Even now here in the Lehigh Valley, as grateful as I am that fresh, organic fruits and vegetables are abundant and available at any time, I always hesitate to eat salad because it is still foreign to me. I wonder if I’ll ever dare to make bowl of salad instead of cooking the vegetables.”

Whatever enthusiasm Khine lacks for fresh fruits and produce, her son unreservedly loves fruits and vegetables. Last summer I invited Dan to help me pick tomatoes in my garden. By the time we were able to arrange a visit, it was late September, and tomato season was over. There were still some potatoes in the ground, so instead we dug those and cut some chard and herbs. Dan was thrilled to put his hands in the dirt to pull out fingerling potatoes, and diligently cut cilantro.

Dan said he wants to come back this summer to pick tomatoes. And a couple of weeks ago Khine posted photos on Instagram with the caption, “Dan’s been telling me for a while that he wants to have his own garden. We got @shopgardenrepublic today and you can see his excitement.”

It looks like the gardening seed has been firmly planted.Burmese Noodle Salad (Nan Gyi Thoke)

For a potluck of the New Americans Caucus last winter, Khine brought her specialty, vegan Burmese Noodle Salad. I made it for dinner yesterday and it’s definitely a keeper (and I don’t even like cabbage that much).

Khine says you can add boiled eggs to it but I see no need for that, the salad is perfectly delicious without.

However, I made a couple of small adjustments to the recipe. I blanched the shredded cabbage for 1 minute, which I find makes it easier to digest. Because I did not have Burmese toasted chickpea flour I toasted common raw chickpea flour that can be found in well-assorted supermarkets and Asian or Middle Eastern grocery stores. And finally, because my husband does not like it too spicy, I strained the chili oil. You can add all or some of the chili and garlic back into the dish if you like it extra spicy and garlicky.1 (14 oz/400 g) fettuccine-style (wide) rice noodles

½ small green cabbage (to make 4 packed cups/600 g shredded)

½ cup (65 g) chickpea flour (besan/gram)

1/4 cup peanut oil

1 head garlic, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon turmeric

½ teaspoon chili flakes

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce, to taste

Toasted sesame oil for drizzling (optional)1. Bring a pot of water to a boil.

2. Cut cabbage in half and remove the core. Shred cabbage by hand or with the shredding disk of the food processor.

3. Add cabbage to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute. Drain and rinse with plenty of cold water to stop the cooking process, then drain again. Set aside.

4. Place an ungreased heavy skillet over medium heat and add the chickpea flour. Stir often with a wooden spoon while it heats and starts to change color. Lower the heat when it starts to brown and keep stirring so it browns evenly. When it has reached a deep tan color, remove the skillet from the heat and transfer the flour immediately to a sieve placed over a bowl. Let cool then sift the flour, breaking up any lumps with a wooden spoon.

5. Heat peanut oil in the frying pan over low to medium heat. Add minced garlic, turmeric, and chili flakes. Stir fry till fragrant and the garlic is golden brown, making sure not to let it darken too much or it will be bitter. Let cool, then strain the oil into a small bowl.

6. Cook noodles following package directions. Rinse and drain, then add to a large serving bowl. Add well-drained cabbage (lighty squeeze it if it is still wet), toasted chickpea flour, chili oil and 2 teaspoons salt. Toss well (I used my hands and ended up having yellow hands, it was worth it).

7. Add pepper, soy sauce and some or all of the solids from the chilly oil if you like it extra garlicky and spicy. Drizzle with sesame oil (optional) and serve.

Makes 8 servings

Food photography by Ted Rosen. All other photos courtesy of Khine Ngwe Hnin Zaw.

One thought on “Common ground: Sprouting a new American gardener

  1. What lovely story. I applaud you in your campaign to unite mankind at the table.
    Interesting to me is that the pasta and cabbage dish is fairly close to similar recipes from Poland and the PA Dutch cuisine. The spice is a nice addition. On my list of must try.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.