"Man from the Hills, what ails you? Are sick, are you ill?" "Sir," the Man replied sadly, ''I want to work as the others are doing, I want to gain merit, and I want to join in the feast. But to my utter regret, I cannot do so. Who can work on an empty stomach?" On hearing this explanation, the Villager rushed into his kitchen, brought out a bowl of rice, a basin of vegetable soup, and a dish of fried chicken, and offered them to the Man from the Hills.

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Hinjo and the Hungry Man
from the Burmese Hills

(e-SoupSong 29: September 1, 2002)

ONCE UPON A TIME a man in a small Burmese village was making preparations to give a great feast. He invited, according to custom, all and sundry to take a share of his merit by helping in the building of a temporary hall of bamboo and thatch, in which alms would be offered to the Buddhist monks. In response to the invitation, people from the neighboring villages came and took part with skill and enthusiasm in the building of the alms hall. Amidst the bustle and excitement, the Villager noticed a Man from the Hills who stood all alone watching the others doing the work, and with a sad expression on his face. So he went to him and asked kindly, "Man from the Hills, what ails you? Are you sick, are you ill?" "Sir," the Man replied sadly, ''I want to work as the others are doing, I want to gain merit, and I want to join in the feast. But to my utter regret, I cannot do so. Who can work on an empty stomach?" On hearing this explanation, the Villager rushed into his kitchen, brought out a bowl of rice, a basin of vegetable soup, and a dish of fried chicken, and offered them to the Man from the Hills. Then he resumed his work together with the others. After a short time he looked towards the Man from the Hills and was surprised to see that he was again standing and watching the happy throng of workers with the same sad expression on his face. Greatly concerned, the Villager rushed to the Man and inquired what was the matter now. "Sir," the Man replied sadly, ''I want to work as the others are doing, I want to gain merit, and I want to join in the feast. But to my utter regret, I cannot do so. Who can work on a full stomach?"

This is one of many tales created at a flashpoint in Burmese history: when the British conquered the lower part of the country, circa 1876, and put the divided country in extreme fear that its national religion (Buddhism, since the 11th century) and its very way of life would be extinguished. Politicized and thrown into confusion, the Buddhist clergy splintered, even in its relationship with King Mindon. But the great monk Thingazar Sayadaw sought to heal rifts and keep Buddha's truths alive through a literary genre he invented called The Monk's Tale.

In the tale cited above, Thingazar Sayadaw is responding to a dear friend, an "extra assistant commissioner" working for the British in Rangoon, who was a devout Buddhist in principle but not in practice. "Oh," this Burmese commissioner had said to the monk, "I can't possibly keep the Sabbath on religious days because they're not British holidays...and, oh, I can't work on British holidays either because I have too much work to do." And when he retired? "Alas, my lord, I find that I cannot concentrate on religion because my mind is never at rest, worrying about the welfare of my family." It was then that the learned Monk replied, "Great layman, you are like the Hungry Man from the Hills!" At which point he told the opening story.

But what about that basin of vegetable soup? It was a traditional Burmese "sweet" soup, or hinjo--that is, vegetables only--and would have been served at room temperature. And whether packed thickly with veggie chunks or brothy, it was there to serve as beverage to the meal--for that is a traditional role of soup in Burmese cuisine, whether it's a "sweet" soup or a "bitter" one (hinga, which is stew-like, includes meat, poultry, or fish, and is always served hot). In Burma, all courses of a meal are served at a blow and without tea or other liquids, just like in the story of the Hungry Man from the Hills.

As for Burmese cuisine itself, it's strongly influenced by its Indian, Chinese, and Thai neighbors, but still distinctive. Think seafood, with all that coastline, especially in its distinctive fish sauce (nam pya ye) and strong shrimp paste (pazun ngapi). Think New World hot peppers (since the 15th century), peanuts, potatoes, and squashes. Think coconut, rice, ginger, noodles (classic in the traditional fish soup, mohinga), and turmeric. We're lucky in the U.S. to have Burmese restaurants in most major cities--for example, John Tinpe's superb "Burmese Restaurant" on 6th Street, NW, here in Washington, DC.

Okay, one last story before trying a few recipes. This one is the great monk's response to an almsgiver who pressed him on whether her vegetable soup was good to taste. Thingazar Sayadaw gently replied, "It is not proper for a monk to pass remarks on the alms food that is offered to him--and if he does, he not only breaks a vow, but brings trouble on his head, as in the case of the Monk and the Cabbage Soup."

Ready? A Farmer and his Wife had been able to save some money, and with their savings they built a monastery and installed a Monk in it, The Farmer was good-natured, the Wife was fussy, and the Monk was young. One morning the Wife brought some cabbage soup, rice, and curry, and when the Monk had eaten the meal she asked, "My lord, was the cabbage soup nice?" The Monk did not answer, but the Wife persisted in her questioning. At last the Monk, who wanted to please his patroness, replied, "Laywoman, the cabbage soup was very nice indeed, and, in fact, it is my favorite dish." The Wife went home and said to her husband, "Husband, our Monk's favorite dish is cabbage soup and so you must irrigate your cabbage patch so that there is an adequate supply of the vegetable throughout the whole year." The Farmer did as he was told, and the Wife offered cabbage soup to the Monk every morning until the latter became sick and tired of it. But he consoled himself with the thought that the rainy season was nearly over, and when the rains stopped the cabbage plants would die.

At last the long rainy season was over, but, to the consternation of the poor Monk, the cabbage soup continued to come every morning. Unable to contain himself any longer, he asked the Wife, "Laywoman, surely cabbage is now out of season, and yet you seem to have a large supply of it." "There is no need for my lord to worry," replied the Wife with great satisfaction. "My lord will never lack cabbage soup, for our cabbage patch is well irrigated even in the driest months." The Monk brooded over his misfortune and early next day he left the monastery quietly and went to reside in another village. The Farmer and his Wife were heartbroken over the sudden departure of their Monk and wondered where he had gone.

After some months they learned from an itinerant trader that their Monk was now residing in a village some distance away. They were overjoyed at the news, and the Wife sent with the trader the following message to the Monk: ''I watch the road,/I shed a tear./When will he return,/Our Monk so dear,/Our Golden Monk?" On his next round, the trader brought from the Monk the following message in reply: "Watch not the road,/Waste not your tear./There is no return/Till your patch is clear/Of Golden Cabbage."

Katen Joshi--Lentil Soup with vegetables (but no cabbage)

This is classic thin "sweet" soup, but with all the solids spooned in at the end to make a meal filling enough to bloat that Hungry Man from the Hills.

  • 2 cups red lentils
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste


  • 2 hot green chile peppers, cut into rings and soaked in white vinegar to cover for at least an hour.
  • 2 cups chopped sweet onions, cooked slowly in 1/3 cup peanut oil until dark and carmelized.
  • 2 potatoes, peeled and grated and cooked in an inch of hot oil until crisp and golden brown, then drained on paper towels.
  • 2 cups bread cubes, cooked in an inch of hot oil and butter until golden crisp--watch carefully, this goes fast.
  • 1 cup cilantro, chopped.

Wash the lentils thoroughly, then pour into a large pot with 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook partially covered until the lentils lose their shape and make a thick porridge. Stir in the chopped cilantro, season to taste, and set aside.

While the lentils are cooking, begin preparing the garnishes, in the order given. As they're done, place in small bowls to pass with the soup. When ready to serve, pour the soup (barely warm) into a tureen and take it and the garnish bowls to the table. Invite your guests to put 2-3 ladles full of soup into their soup bowls and heap the garnishes in a pile in the middle of the bowl.

Schwe Payon Hinjo--Pumpkin soup with Thai basil

There is no end to New World ingredients in Burmese cuisine--first the chiles and potatoes of Katen Joshi, above, now pumpkin and peanut oil. All subsistence crops in Burma today.

  • 1 Tablespoon peanut oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 1 and 1/2 pounds pumpkin or other winter squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup Thai (or sweet) basil leaves, finely sliced

Heat oil in a medium saucepan, then lightly saute the garlic for 3-5 minutes, until it is fragrant. Add the cubed pumpkin and stock to the pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 25 minutes, until pumpkin is tender. Puree in a blender, solids first, until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. When ready to serve, stir in finely sliced basil and ladle into bowls.

Best regards...and thone saw bah (please enjoy!),
Pat Solley

Resources: translator Maung Htin Aung's Burmese Monk's Tales; Joe Cummings and Tony Wheeler's Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma), 1993; Judy Green's "Introducing the West to Burmese cuisine"; Copeland Marks and Aung Thein's The Burmese Kitchen; Claudia Saw Lwin Robert's The Food of Burma; John Tinpe and his mother at Burmese Restaurant, 740 6th Street, NW, Washington, DC; and Helen G. Trager's We the Burmese: Voices from Burma.
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