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At Burmese Dissident's Cafe, A Taste Of Politics And Salad

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At Burmese Dissident's Cafe, A Taste Of Politics And Salad

Foodways

At Burmese Dissident's Cafe, A Taste Of Politics And Salad

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And as we just heard in Scott's story, there's some skepticism about how dedicated to democratic change the current Burmese regime really is. It's a feeling shared by many activists living in exile. NPR's Jason Beaubien recently caught up with one dissident in Thailand to talk about the politics of his homeland.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Myat Thu was an activist in the 1988 student protests in Rangoon were brutally crushed by the military. Two years later, he fled Burma, on foot, for Thailand. Now Myat Thu runs a small café restaurant in the Thai border city of Mae Sot, just across the river from Myanmar. On a Friday night, the restaurant appears as a Burmese bohemia, revolutionary posters with images of Che Guevara and Aung San Suu Kyi gaze down from the walls.

Street dogs wander among the tables. In front of the bar, folk trio, including Myat Thu himself is singing about change. Myat Thu says he's watched the recent changes in his homeland, but he still doesn't trust the government there.

MYAT THU: I hope this is not a game that the regime has been playing.

BEAUBIEN: He worries that it could be dangerous for longtime critics of the government, such as himself, to return.

THU: Because there are still a lot of political prisoners in different prisons inside Burma, and still fighting going on.

BEAUBIEN: Myat Thu opened the Aiya restaurant on the Thai side of the border as a place for Burmese exiles to get together. He also missed the food of his youth, the food of Rangoon.

THU: This is one of Burmese dish.

BEAUBIEN: In his kitchen, a chicken curry with eggplant is simmering in a tin pot. The main stove is just two burners connected to a small gas tank. Plain glass jars of ingredients are scattered across the countertop.

THU: These are kind of like a mushroom sauce, (unintelligible) sauce.

BEAUBIEN: Despite his country's political isolation over the last five decades, Myat Thu says Burma's cuisine is decidedly regional.

THU: We use sesame wild and some Chinese food, especially.

BEAUBIEN: Burmese dishes draw in influences from neighboring Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India. He offers an Indian style pumpkin curry in a Thai chicken and peanut sauce on his menu. But Myat Thu's passion is Burmese fresh salads. His signature dish is a tea leaf salad with crispy fried nuts. There's a green mango salad with chile. The ginger salad is a mix of shredded cabbage and raw ginger tinged with lime and garlic, there's a smokey eggplant salad.

Myat Thu's cooking career began at the age of 14. After his younger sister was born, his mom declared she was no longer going to cook. Myat Thu was placed him in charge of dinner. Unsure of what to prepare, he copied the salad vendors on the streets of Rangoon.

THU: One lady, all women will, you know, sell the salads. And we order something and then she put everything in front of me and a baked salad. And so I learned from them, mostly.

BEAUBIEN: Throughout more than two decades in exile, foot has been a link for Myat Thu back to the country he fled. Although there are some dishes that he can't recreate here, he still craves a particular style of dried, salted fish that he's only ever found in Rangoon. He says eventually he wants to return.

THU: At the moment, it is very complicated. I had a plan to go back, but I don't know when or I don't know how, you know.

BEAUBIEN: For the moment, he plans to wait and see if the changes unfolding in Myanmar are real. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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