Huaxin Street, also known as “Little Burma,” is home to a diverse group of Burmese Chinese restaurant owners, each with a fascinating backstory.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JAMES BARON
On most afternoons, Henry Wong and friends sit outside A-Mui’s Noodle Shop (阿妹緬甸小吃, 41 Huaxin St.) in Little Burma, sipping tea from yellow cups. On cooler days the saucers go on top like sombreros, keeping the contents warm.
“Most Taiwanese aren’t used to this,” says Wong, pointing at his cup. “Too sweet.” Burmese milk tea, which uses condensed or evaporated milk and often contains a pinch of salt, is quite distinct from the nai cha (奶茶, milk tea) sold at typical Taiwanese drinks stores. “More like Indian style,” says Wong.
Based around Huaxin Street in New Taipei City’s Zhonghe District, Little Burma is a community of over 40,000, the majority of whom are overseas Chinese (華僑, huaqiao) and their descendants. The area emerged amid controversy in the early 1950s after Kuomintang (KMT) stragglers from the Chinese Civil War had carved out a fiefdom on Burma’s eastern border with China, further destabilizing a country riven by ethnic strife.
The Prime Minister of a newly independent Burma, U Nu, took the issue to the United Nations in 1953. Washington, which had been semi-covertly funding the KMT irregulars, cajoled Chiang Kai-shek into removing them and assisted with airlifts of around 7,000 soldiers and their families to Taipei between late 1953 and September 1954.
Few representatives of that generation can be found these days. Instead, you’ll meet others who arrived at different points in their lives and in wildly differing circumstances. They were welcomed and naturalized with minimum fuss by a KMT government that encouraged huaqiao immigration to Free China. These days the path to Taiwanese citizenship is not so smooth for Chinese Burmese. But as with Thai and Tibetan huaqiao, special provisions still exist under Taiwanese immigration law for “stateless” individuals.
Wong was 34 when he came to Taipei in 1982. He spoke no Mandarin upon his arrival but still muddled through as a cabbie for 15 years, picking conversation up on the job. “I couldn’t speak or read the signs,” he says. “At the beginning, I knew only how to say ‘show me the way,’ ‘go straight,’ and ‘turn right or left.’ I still can’t discuss complicated stuff like politics.”
Now retired, Wong is the director of the Chinese-Myanmar Bilateral Economic and Cultural Association, one of several community organizations facilitating ties to the old country. While Wong and his friends are all of Chinese descent, they converse almost exclusively in Burmese, with Mandarin and English proficiency varying within the group.
In contrast, the eponymous proprietress of A-Mui’s Noodle Shop is a veritable polyglot. Born in Yangon (then Rangoon) in Burma to Cantonese immigrants, A-mui (or A-mei in Mandarin) spent 25 years in Macau before arriving in Taiwan in 1994. In addition to Burmese, Cantonese, and Mandarin, she’s fluent in Taiwanese and competent in Hakka.
Like most of the shopfront signs, the lettering at A-Mui’s is bilingual: the Chinese simply reads “noodle shop,” while the Burmese reads “Burmese and Guangdong cuisine.” Falling mainly into the latter camp, the fare at A-Mui’s will be recognizable to Taiwanese.
Behind a pillar supporting the restaurant’s awning, an older gentleman sits apart from Wong’s group, slurping a bowl of Guangzhou congee. Bits and pieces familiar to Taiwanese residents poke through the rice stew: youtiao (油條, deep-fried bread sticks), century eggs (皮蛋, pi dan), and shredded pork. Still, Wong’s party insists that the flavor and ingredients are distinctly Burmese.
“It’s hard to explain,” says Wong. “Just a completely different taste.”
A taste of home
Across the road at Mama Zhuang’s Burmese Cuisine (莊媽媽緬甸料理, 61 Huaxin St.), Hsu Hui-hui is similarly adamant about a hefty pot of innards she’s just finished braising. Pork offcuts and organs (intestine, tripe, jowl, and trotter) float in a luwei (滷味) stock that wouldn’t look incongruous at a Taiwanese eatery.
“Oh no, no,” objects Hsu, who took over the restaurant two years ago. “Taiwanese couldn’t hack this flavor.”
Things are markedly different at Bao Ge Lai restaurant, a few doors down. On a table out front, samosas and savory bean a-kyaw (fritters) – three for NT$50 – sit in a wicker dish. They sit beside an oily fish curry and balachong, a crispy-fried shrimp and chili relish that accompanies almost any Burmese meal, including plain white rice. Bao Ge Lai’s owner, Mrs. Chen, who’s known affectionately as Mami, sports a bindi on her forehead. “I’m partly Indian,” she says with a deadpan expression.
“She’s kidding,” her daughter counters, rolling her eyes. “An Indian brahmin blessed her in Myanmar, and she’s worn that ever since.”
The notion of cultural appropriation would be lost on most Burmese, and the use of Indian religious symbols by ethnic Chinese reveals a certain easiness with identity within contemporary Myanmar. This is also evident in the cuisine.
While dishes such as mohinga are quintessentially Burmese, the combination of rice noodles, salty-sour fish broth, and fritter fragments conveys the country’s history as a gateway to Southeast Asia at the crossroads of two powerful civilizations. Most of the noodle joints on Huaxin serve mohinga, with slight variations in taste and ingredients.
Burmese curries are generally milder, oilier, and saltier than the Indian variety. For a superb selection, head to the buffet at Mother’s Love (母親的恩情, 60 Huaxin St.).
On a drizzly winter’s day, a group of Myanmar-born huaqiao students has gathered at the restaurant for lunch. They’ve taken the bus from Juang Jing Vocational High School in neighboring Xindian District, where they’re studying hospitality. From beneath the open collars of their black-and-orange windcheaters (the college’s winter uniform), bowties and white shirts appear.
“We’re training as bar and restaurant staff,” says student Yang Jia-mei. “Despite the weather, we come here for lunch. It’s the best place.”
Yang’s classmates agree. “Our parents cooked this stuff for us when we were growing up,” says Kuang Hsian-chin. “During our studies in Taiwan, we haven’t had many opportunities to go back to Myanmar, so this is like a taste of home.”
The group has brought along Yu Ping-han, a classmate of Chinese Indonesian heritage, for his first sample of Burmese cuisine. He’s suitably impressed. “It’s quite similar to Indonesian food,” he says as they tuck in. “Really good.”
Vegetarian options are limited at Mother’s Love; even dishes that are touted as meat-free, such as the spicy minced mango and bamboo shoots with pickled mustard greens, usually contain shrimp floss or fish sauce. Likewise, the eggplant and bitter gourd curries – unique to this restaurant – feature liver and pork, respectively.
An irresistible treat for many is the crispy-fried meat jerky. Salty, spicy, and saturated with oil, these balachong-type tidbits exemplify Burmese street food. The jerky is meant as an accompaniment but also works great as a stand-alone bar snack. For years, Nobel (諾貝爾, 48-1 Huaxin St.) eatery across the lane from Mother’s Love offered a delectable venison version of the snack, but import issues now limit the choices at these two stores to pork and, less frequently, beef.
A solid option for a light lunch is lahpet thoke, which runs mohinga close for the title of Myanmar’s national dish. In addition to shredded cabbage, tomatoes, and an assortment of deep-fried legumes, this salty salad famously features pickled tea leaves. Vegans and vegetarians can specify that they don’t want the fish sauce, or the ubiquitous shrimp floss added as a garnishing. Despite her gruff exterior, owner Hu Hui-ling is accommodating and happy to describe the items on her extensive menu.
Should you wish to try your hand at homemade lahpet, the ingredients, including pickled tea, fish oil, and pre-fried legumes, are available at nearby grocery stores like Golden Eagle (金鷹商行, 34 Huaxin St.).
With over 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, Myanmar is an incredibly diverse country. At almost 20 times the size of Taiwan and with a population of almost 55 million, it’s also not small. Staple dishes in one region can be unknown in other parts.
The Bamar people – from whom the names “Burma” and “Myanmar” both derive – represent over two-thirds of the population. Yet almost all of the businesses in Little Burma are run by huaqiao, who account for less than 3% of Myanmar’s population and are not formally recognized as a distinct ethnic group.
Although Little Burma’s origins lie in Kengtung, 95km from China’s Yunnan Province, most of its present community members trace their roots to Myanmar’s larger cities. Considerable intermarriage between huaqiao and native Burmese has occurred to the extent that many families can’t be certain of the exact admixture.
The food in Little Burma reflects the preferences of these two intermingled groups. Notable exceptions are a Shan or Tai (傣) eatery halfway down Huaxin and a Kachin restaurant at the western entrance to the street, close to two now rather dilapidated pillars advertising the “South Seas Tourist Food Street” (南海觀光美食街).
The Kachin (or Jingpo in Chinese) restaurant restaurant is A-Ying’s Authentic Jingpo Cuisine (阿英景頗風味料理, 16 Huaxin St.). It’s also known by the snappier toponymic Mali Hka (瑪哩咔) after one of Kachin State’s rivers. The restaurant’s manager, Yang Feng-yie, studied in Singapore before marrying her husband, who is of mixed huaqiao-Kachin heritage, and accompanying him to Taipei in the 1980s.
On one of the walls is a collage of images, including a photo of Yang in traditional attire with a background of colorful Manaw poles – animistic totems used in a Kachin festival of the same name. Smaller images include the Kachin State flag and a black-and-white snap of a young man in military uniform. “My great-uncle,” says Yang. “He was a pilot in the Burmese air force.”
At least five menu items are based around preserved bamboo shoots, a Kachin staple. These are served with meat, with tripe and snails among the more unusual options. A range of vegetarian items is available, including papaya and fiddlehead salads, stir-fried dragon’s whiskers, and various tofu dishes. Those wanting an overview should try the mixed platters.
No rundown of Little Burma would be complete without a word about the drinks. In addition to the hot sweet tea favored by older residents, a cornucopia of exotic beverages is on offer. Popular among these are variations of falooda, a treat that started life as a Persian dessert before making its way to Burma via India.
Burmese falooda – referred to as “Indian ice” (印度冰) in Mandarin – is usually based around rosewater, vermicelli, and basil seeds. Most places also add grass jelly, a generous blob of ice cream, and sundry sprinkles. The resulting kaleidoscopic gloop is a surefire hit with the kids, making Little Burma a great lunch destination for families.