Kitchen Encounters: Exploring Burmese Cuisine with Boca Raton’s Chef May Aungthet

Note to readers: This is the first installment in a series called “Encounters in the Kitchen,” a series of conversations with local chefs and other restaurant workers who add variety and depth to South Florida’s unique food culture.

With all due respect, your 6th grade geography teacher, when was the last time you ate food from a country you couldn’t find on a map?

Bordered by countries that produce the Asian cuisine you know and love (India, China, Thailand and Vietnam), Myanmar has always been a culinary enigma. This happens when tourism is wiped out by ongoing political turmoil, including the renaming of Myanmar after a military takeover in 1989. (The U.S. government still calls it Burma.)

Boca Raton chef May Aungthet is trying to introduce South Florida food to her home state (which she also calls Burma), one pop-up dinner at a time.

“Most people say, ‘I’ve never heard of it, and this makes me want to try it.’ That’s perfect. That’s who I’m catering to,” she says.

Sitting at one of her dinners, like the one we recently had at Sunset Café in Boca Raton, the air is filled with delicate aromas of curry, coconut, and ginger.

Here comes the tantalizing dishes, showcasing not the sophisticated aesthetics of an omakase bar (chef as jeweler), but the unpretentious natural beauty of everyday life. Vibrant color—green Chinese parsley rests against the sunny center of a soft-boiled egg—heralds bright, bold flavors to come.

Of course, realizing that there’s a good chance that other people you know haven’t had this dish, an authentic Burmese food experience, will have its own satisfaction.

Aungthet stopped by her Boca Raton kitchen recently to chat about her food while preparing a favorite dish.

Chef May Aungthet is pictured serving Burmese cuisine from her childhood at a popular pop-up dinner in Palm Beach County at her Boca Raton home.

May Aungthet, 30, is a native of Yangon (the former Burmese capital was once called Rangoon) who moved to South Florida when she was 8 years old. Aungthet holds a degree in Culinary Management from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and has worked in kitchens such as Morimoto at Boca Raton Resort & Club, The Grille at Congress, and Sushi By Bou at Chef David Bouhadana.

Over the past two years, Aungthet has hosted a series of pop-up dinners featuring Burmese food at Palm Beach Meats in West Palm Beach, NOBO Brewing Co. in Boynton Beach and Sunset Cafe in Boca Raton, among others. Aungthet believes that she and her one-man business, Ahmay’s Cuisine, are the only source of professionally prepared Burmese food in South Florida. Her next event is a Beer Pairing Dinner at NOBO Brewing on Wednesday, January 25th at 7pm.For information on tickets to this dinner and her future schedule, please visit Asian American Food Network.

Chef May Aungthet's coconut curry chicken soup called ohn no kyawswe served with pea fritters is a staple of daily life in Myanmar. She learned how to prepare it from her mother, and she learned it from her mother.

(Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

‘ohn no kyawswe’ is a daily staple and ubiquitous street food in the country It is a Burmese chicken soup for the soul. The stars of this delicious and fragrant dish share equal parts: chicken marinated in turmeric, ginger, and garlic served on a bed of noodles swimming in a chicken broth thickened with chickpea flour and coconut milk, garnished with fish sauce, MSG, chilli and other spices. Topped with lime, Chinese parsley, shallots and half a soft-boiled egg that slices open to reveal a bright yellow yolk. Tucked into the bowl was a pea fritter.

Chef May Aungthet says preparing Burmese food in Boca Raton reminds her of a simpler, safer time in the country: "It's like I'm back in my childhood home, my grandma's, and it's a normal everyday dinner."

While creating a pot of “ohn no kyawswe” in her Boca Raton kitchen, Aungthet talks about the dish’s cultural relevance, her hometown’s food traditions, and South Florida’s growing dining culture. Dialogue has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Can you describe it for someone who may not be familiar with Burmese cuisine?

A: Myanmar, which is now Burma, borders Thailand and China, so they have a lot of influence from those countries. Lots of fish sauce, lime, coconut milk. They do use MSG in everything, and a lot of seafood since it’s right by the water.

Growing up, you now hear Asian chefs and other cultural cooks say this a lot, and as a kid I was always made fun of for bringing food from home to school. We’ve all been there. It never occurred to me to introduce Burmese food to anyone.

But slowly, my friends started tasting it and realized they liked it. Then there was the boom in Asian food, restaurants opening up, Thai food, Indian food, Chinese food, Vietnamese food, I thought, well, Burmese food needs to be on the menu.

Q: Your dinners are usually sold out. How do you see South Florida evolving into a more adventurous dining community?

A: I think maybe in the last two or three years it’s started to become more diverse and people have become more open to it. But it could be more. Here’s another thing that’s happening in South Florida — people aren’t eating out just to eat out anymore. They want an experience, they want the chef to come out and talk to them.we have a lot of food networks [shows] Thanks to this, people are more interested in the “why” and “how” behind the scenes.

Q: What is the name of the dish you made, and why is it your favorite?

A: “Ohn no kyawswe” is the dish. It’s noodles, coconut curry and chicken soup. It’s always a weeknight dinner, it’s so easy to make, and my mom always eats it. In Burmese culture, assuming a friend does you a favor — walk your dog, water your plants — they certainly don’t take money. This is a favor. In our culture, you always have to give them something to eat, and it’s a soup that’s so easy to make that you take home with you. It is always used as “currency”. It’s everywhere, basically on every menu. It’s just a comfort soup.

Chef May Aungthet says this soup is called ohn no kyawswe "It has to be sweet, it has to be salty, it has to be sour. As long as the balance of the three is fine."

Q: Your mother taught you how to make it, and you named your business Ahmay’s Cuisine after her. Do you have childhood memories of cooking soup with her?

A: She always handed me little things my little ones could have made back then, like picking cilantro, or mixing chickpea flour in by hand. It also comes with a pea fritter for garnish, another thing I learned to make with her. It’s easy, but tricky at the same time because there’s no written recipe anywhere. It’s all about learning the consistency and how it works in oil when frying. It’s a trial and error process.

Question: Did you make this soup from memory?

A: Basically, yes. There is no written recipe. You taste it all the way, and it has three staples: it has to be sweet, it has to be salty, and it has to be sour. As long as the balance of the three is fine.

Question: What was on your mind when making this Burmese soup in Boca Raton, Florida? Do you think it’s weird? Or does it make you feel more connected to Myanmar?

A: I would say more links. It’s like I’m back in my childhood home, my grandma’s, and it’s a normal everyday dinner.

Q: Do you remember the first time you served your mother soup?

A: [Laughs] She always criticizes it. That will never change. [Laughs] She would always say it needed a little more sugar or too much sugar. But the best thing about Burmese food is that when you are in Myanmar, in any particular restaurant, food stall, street food, they always have spices in the middle of the table, and you can customize it to your liking.

So the chef probably prepared it one way, but if you like a little more fish sauce, you won’t offend the chef by adding more. Every bite on your own plate can be different. That’s another beauty of it. No matter what it is, whatever the dish, it can be soup, it can be curry, there is always chili, lime, fish sauce in front of you on the table.

Q: You prefer to call your home country Myanmar, but it was Myanmar when you lived there. Why did your parents come to America?

A: Growing up, it was always called Myanmar. I continue with it. There’s a lot of political turmoil going on there. The name of Myanmar comes from the name change of the military. Everyone present still calls it Burma. There aren’t many opportunities there. Dad came first, thinking, “I have two daughters, and there are no job opportunities in Myanmar.” To anyone else who has never been here, America seems like the land of opportunity, right? You can do anything, you can achieve anything. This is a debate between Japan and the United States. I don’t know his reasons, but he ended up in Florida and brought his family here.

Q: Would you recommend visiting Myanmar?

A: I would recommend it. It’s beautiful there. The food is great. Everyone wakes up at 5am to go to the market to buy food for the day, no one is going to the big box grocery store or stocking up. Everything is fresh every day. it’s beautiful. I went back in 2018 for my sister’s wedding. This is a grand family wedding. They serve four or five different curries, coconut rice and saffron rice. It’s comforting and fun.

There is a war going on right now and the military has taken over the government. Not much media covered it. There’s a coup going on right now, it’s not safe for anyone to visit here, and it’s very dangerous for anyone who lives there. This is a terrible moment. They need a lot of help. But hopefully when this issue is fixed soon it will be interesting for anyone coming here.

Staff Writer Ben Crandall can be reached at bcrandell@sunsentinel.com. continue Instagram @BenCrandell and Twitter @BenCrandell.