In Tulsa, a Burmese culinary tradition takes center stage

TULSA, Okla. – The electrifying flavors of bawngsa kan – fried beef with generous amounts of tamarind, ginger and chilies – are easy to love. But finding the dish in an American restaurant is a challenge.

It is a food of the Zomi people, a minority ethnic group with roots mainly in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and India. Many are refugees who have escaped authoritarian rule and persecution for their Christian faith in their home countries.

Some 7,000 to 9,000 Zomi live in Tulsa — the largest Zomi population in the United States, according to Hau Suan Khai, president of Zomi Innkuan Oklahoma, a local community organization.

Yet even in Tulsa restaurants, it can take some detective work to track down Zomi dishes, which are often mere footnotes on the menus of Zomi-owned restaurants specializing in specialty foods. other kitchens.

A Zomi dish called lothang kang, vegetables cooked in copious amounts of garlic, can be found at Zogam Cafe, a Thai and Malaysian restaurant. Kai Burmese Cuisine offers bawngsa meh, a beef curry rich in tamarind, and an occasional specialty of sagoi – sausage stuffed with pork, banana flowers, ginger and garlic. Asian Star, a Chinese restaurant, once served bawng sungkua, beef intestine soup; its owner, Lian Haunung, wants to add more Zomi specialties, such as vaimim cim, a corn and rice soup.

This weekend, however, Zomi food won’t be hidden away on a menu — it’ll be the headliner. A conference called Zomi Khawmpi, which is held every two years, is expected to draw 5,000 to 7,000 Zomi from across the United States to the Mabee Center in Tulsa to play sports, compete, and eat their traditional dishes. More than a dozen outdoor stalls will sell Zomi dishes to the public on Friday and Saturday.

Zomi food, with its hearty soups and ingredients like corn and potatoes, originated in the cool mountainous climates of Myanmar’s northwest Chin state and the northeast states of Mizoram and Manipur. east of India. Spices are used to a minimum. Tamarind, ginger and garlic are the main seasonings.

But for many Zomi here, presenting their food to other diners is a secondary focus of the conference. As minorities in both Myanmar and the United States, they see the event as a way to ensure the survival of their culture and cuisine.

Mr Haunung, the owner of Asian Star, said he was proud of the conference’s focus on meetings to discuss how to help Zomi refugees. Tens of thousands of them still live in refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand and India, where they often lack proper health care and education.

“It’s important to show our next generation our traditional foods,” said Cing Sian Piang, 36, who will be selling mehkha kan, or stir-fried bitter melon with chillies. “It’s the most important thing for me – just not to lose the identity.”

The conference comes at a time when Tulsa’s restaurant scene has become increasingly diverse and gained national recognition. Five local chefs have been nominated for James Beard Foundation awards this year.

The connection between the Zomi people and Tulsa began with religion. The first arrivals came in the 1970s to study at Oral Roberts University, an interdenominational Christian school. In the years that followed, the military-controlled government in Myanmar, where the majority of the population is Buddhist, coerced the Zomi into labor and looted their homes and churches. Oklahoma, with its large Christian population, has become a haven of peace. The number of Zomi in Tulsa grew rapidly throughout the 1990s and in the early 2000s many of them were resettled by Roman Catholic charities.

In 2017, Mayor GT Bynum launched the New Tulsans Initiative, which connects Tulsa’s 45,000 immigrants to education, employment, and financial resources. “Oklahoma is far-right in many ways,” he said in a recent interview, but Tulsans are generally immigration-friendly. Mr. Bynum attributed this to the Christian missionary spirit of the city and its founders, the Muscogee Nation. “We were actually founded by refugees,” he said, adding that the people of this nation “were driven from their homeland on the trail of tears.”

The Zomi Khawmpi conference started in 2010 as a way for Zomi from different parts of the country to meet. This week will be the first in four years – the 2020 conference was canceled due to the pandemic – so organizers are expecting their biggest crowd yet.

Food is a major pride for the Zomi people, a way to show off the multitude of cultures in a small country like Myanmar, said Tual Khan Suan, chairman of the board of directors of Zomi Innkuan USA, the national organizing group of the conference. “It identifies our people as different from the Burmese people,” he said.

Many Zomi residents cook traditional dishes at home. Still, Zomi restaurateurs may be reluctant to serve it because the cuisine is still unfamiliar to many Americans.

“We don’t use a lot of oil and mostly cook with boiling water,” said Suan Lian, 32, owner of a sushi bar in Tulsa called Sian Restaurant. Americans like fried foods and sweet flavors, he added. “Zomi doesn’t like sweets.”

Suan Mang, 30, said the few Zomi dishes he serves at his restaurant, Zogam Cafe, are not strictly traditional; it incorporates ingredients like ramen to add mainstream appeal.

The conference therefore presents a rare opportunity for the Zomi to share their food, without inhibitions, said Cing Lian Vung, 38, a food vendor. “Store owners know that if they don’t mix Zomi dishes with other cuisines like Chinese or Korean or sushi, they won’t sell well,” she said.

At the conference, she can cook like she does at home. “We have the right to show our identity and culture, including food,” she said.

Nuami Lam Tung, 20, a student at Oral Roberts University who will be attending the conference, said she hoped to find sabuti, a corn and beef porridge that her mother often makes in the winter. “If we were in Myanmar,” she said, “we wouldn’t be so passionate.”

This passion is not shared by everyone.

“Zomi food is not fancy food,” said Samuel Lian, 28, a children’s pastor who came to the United States as a teenager. Ingredients are limited, he said. The seasonings are simple.

“A lot of people, like the younger generations, prefer other types of food. I mean, I rarely eat gatam, “canned white beans,” or corn soup, which is a very big part of the culture.”

“I like steaks,” he added.

Another local pastor, Dam Suan Mung, 65, thinks Zomi’s cooking doesn’t need to be saved. “If there is a better choice of food, why not choose this one?” he said. “Why should we stay with our Zomi food?”

Food, after all, is only one facet of a culture. At Kai, co-owner Vung Cing displays a framed photo of a hornbill, the national emblem of the Zomi people. Photographs of Myanmar and the red, yellow and green Zomi flag decorate the walls of Zogam Cafe. A cultural center, Zomi Innpi, opened in Tulsa four years ago, displaying traditional artifacts like musical instruments and clothing. And Tulsa’s Jenks Public School District stocks Zomi-language books in its libraries.

But Ms. Piang, a food vendor at this weekend’s event, has no intention of giving up the culinary traditions of her people.

One day, she explained, she will be too old to cook her own meals. Her daughter may not know how to cook. And she will have to find a place to eat vaimim cim.

About Jonathan Bell

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