Taking Refuge

A Home-Cooked Meal from Burma

Reprinted with permission from Refugee Transitions
Text by Dani Fisher and Lauren Markham
Photos by Jennifer Martiné

May 4, 2015

Naw Htoo ran a stand in the center of the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, where she sold meals to other refugees and aid workers. With a small charcoal stove beneath a shaded booth, Naw Htoo cooked for dozens of people every day - and then went home to feed her family. "A lot of people really loved her food," says her 21-year-old daughter, Cho Mai. Naw Htoo's kaw swep yo [Coconut Chicken Soup] was particularly popular.

Resettled to Oakland with her family in 2008, Naw Htoo doesn't cook professionally anymore - but she still cooks for her family, as well as for celebrations at the Burmese Mission Baptist Church just a short walk from their apartment in West Oakland. Naw Htoo can find most of the things she needs for her dishes nearby. She frequents the shops in Oakland's Chinatown, the Thai and Vietnamese stores on International Boulevard, and the Korean Plaza on Telegraph Avenue. But her favorite is the downtown Oakland farmer's market on Fridays, where she - along with many other refugees from Burma - arrive early and scour the market for their favorite fresh goods: sprouted cilantro, mung beans, garlic.

Soon after her family was resettled to Oakland in 2008, Naw Htoo and her husband Lin Aung were matched with their tutor, Linda. "She helps us with so much," they say of their Refugee Transitions volunteer tutor.

She helps us practice our English and improve a lot - she even taught us how to use an oven. We cooked a whole chicken!

Before they moved to their small, bright apartment on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Oakland, they'd never had an oven.

Linda is in awe of Naw Htoo's skills in the kitchen. She explains that in Naw Htoo's village:

She [Naw Htoo] had no gas or electricity and so prepared this meal over charcoal, which they made themselves from wood. They even made the rice noodles by pounding rice flour with water and forcing it through a sieve by hand. The recipe seems labor-intensive, even with modern appliances, but imagine having to make your own charcoal and rice noodles, too!

"This soup is Linda's favorite," says Naw Htoo as she sits atop a green woven floor mat and pours the broth over a twisted nest of noodles.

Naw Htoo explains that this dish "is prepared in the hills of Burma's Karen State for weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations." Her mother taught her how to make it, and now she passes the knowledge along to her daughters.

Naw Htoo and Lin Aung's youngest daughter, Cho Mai, was a peer tutor at Refugee Transitions' tutoring program at Oakland International High School, as well as a refugee youth leader. She helped dozens of younger, newly arrived refugees learn how to navigate life and school in Oakland. A high school graduate, she now attends Alameda College, where she hopes to study nursing. "We are very proud of her," says Naw Htoo, who, in addition to studying at home with Linda, attended Refugee Transitions' adult literacy class for two years. To Naw Htoo, education - for her, for her husband, for her children - is the key to their success and self-sufficiency in America. So no matter how hard it is to learn the language, she keeps on trying, meeting each week with Linda to share English lessons and, sometimes, Naw Htoo’s home-cooked meals.

This story was reprinted with permission from the Between Meals cookbook by Dani Fisher and Lauren Markham, a project of Refugees Transitions. If you liked this story, you might consider purchasing the cookbook here. It features the stories and recipes of newly-arrived refugees in the Bay Area of California, and was published with support from Cal Humanities.

Check back or subscribe to Taking Refuge for more information on the following upcoming events from Refugee Transitions:

(1) June 20: World Refugee Day foodie events in restaurants around the Bay Area, California

(2) VICE Media's new online TV show, Munchies, will feature one of Refugee Transitions' students who also participated in Between Meals!

Kaw Swep Yo
(Coconut Chicken Soup)

For the Sauce:

  • 4 chicken breasts, cut into very small pieces
  • 2 tablespoons oil, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon powdered chicken broth plus 1 1/2 quart water, or 1 1/2 quart fresh chicken broth
  • 1 14 oz. can coconut milk
  • 1 14 oz. package dried yellow mung beans, rinsed 3 times in cold water
  • 1 onion, cut into 8 pieces
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 10 garlic cloves

For the Noodles:

  • 1 14 oz. package of yellow Chinese noodles (Spaghetti-like wheat noodles with tumeric added for color)
  • 4 quarts water

For the Toppings:

  • 2 limes, cut into 8 pieces for squeezing
  • 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro leaves
  • 6 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled, and left whole
  • 3 small red onions, sliced into paper-thin slivers
  • 1 3.5 oz. package of dried shahe rice noodles (you may substitute any wide rice noodle)
  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
  1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil, salt, and tumeric over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and stir-fry until cooked through.
  2. In a separate pan, heat the second tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the onion and paprika and fry until the onion is soft and translucent.
  3. In a large pot, combine the chicken brother (or water mixed with chicken broth powder) with the stir-fried chicken, coconut milk, mung beans, garlic, and stir-fried onions. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  4. Lower to a medium heat and cook about 30 minutes or until the mung beans are soft and begin to lose their shape.
  5. In another pot, bring water to a boil to cook the noodles until al dente, then drain.
  6. While the noodles are cooking, heat the vegetable oil on high heat in a wok or deep pan. Drop in dried rice noodles by the handful (noodles will spatter oil).
  7. Stir the rice noodles constantly until crisp and beginning to brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and repeat until all have been fried. Drain on a paper towel.
  8. Place both types of noodles, sauce, limes, pepper flakes, cilantro, slivered onions, and whole eggs in separate serving bowls. Serve sauce over boiled noodles and add toppings according to personal preference.

Naw Htoo and her daughter prepare Kaw Swep Yo together.