Memories of Myanmar

Learn about the long journey of the Karen people as they carried their seeds and culture from their war-torn country into North America.

Hte Da Win (left), Hser Ku (middle), and Naw Doh (right) display their harvest of Karen food plants.

When Hte Da Win first visited my farm, her eyes lit up at the sight of our turmeric plants, nearly as tall as she was. She asked me to save their leaves and stems for her community so they could make nyar bur, a quintessential Karen (kah-REN’) delicacy. She showed me how to wrap the large tropical leaf around small fish, shrimp, and chopped turmeric leaves, like a burrito. While I was at her farm recently, she made this for me on the grill right next to the hot dogs and chicken wings. It was the perfect way to enjoy part of a plant that I would normally send to the compost. In fact, every time Hte Da Win and other Karen farmers from Myanmar visit my farm, they teach me so much: how to cook our weeds (bedstraw, purslane, and mile-a-minute); green tomatoes; and the leaves and stems of squash, peppers, ginger, taro, and spilanthes in ways I never would’ve imagined.

The Karen people show gardeners at Truelove Seeds how to turn plant parts that many would discard as weeds or waste into culturally meaningful meals.

The Karen way with food plants was key to their survival and joy while living in the center of a civil war; then again while hiding in the jungle and escaping to Thailand, biding time in the tight quarters of refugee camps; and today, farming and foraging here in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their heirloom vegetables and traditional foods have become a lifeline, a heartstring, a refuge, and a delicious portal home.

Leaving Home

Hte Da Win’s father passed away when she was about 6 years old, so she started helping to put food on her family’s table. During the rainy rice-growing season, she would strap on sandals, wrap her lunch in a banana leaf, and set out from dawn to dusk with 25 water buffalo to keep them out of the rice fields. She carried a tablecloth to protect her from the rain and cold. She was “like a cowboy, but in the jungle,’’ described our interpreter friend, Naw Ta Blu Moo — or Naw Doh, as we call her. The buffalo were her village’s partners in farming, both plowing the fields and later hoofing across the rice harvest, freeing the seeds from their husks. At the end of monsoon season, the owners of the herd would pay her 30 large buckets of rice, and the buffalo would roam free in the fallow rice paddies. In spring and summer, Hte Da Win would harvest countless types of beans for market. At home, she would cook meals for her mother, Tay Aye.

Naw Doh (left) and Hte Da Win (right) delight over large turmeric leaves.



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