How to eat hibiscus like the Burmese

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roselle
  • Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm
  • Roselle

This week I wrote about the Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm, a one-acre city-owned lot in Albany Park tended by Burmese and Bhutanese refugees that's exploding with growth despite this cool, wet summer. The farmers are growing and selling all sorts of stuff you'd expect to see in the midwest—tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash, beans, carrots, basil, cilantro, etc. But during their twice-weekly markets they don't always display some of the more uncommon things that they ate back home and that they're growing for their own use, or to trade or sell among themselves.

Sometimes they get seeds for these unusual plants from refugee communities in other cities. Other times they buy them in Vietnamese groceries around Argyle and replant the stems in their plots. That's how the story goes with what the Burmese call chin baung ywet, known in English as roselle, a variety of hibiscus that nearly every Burmese-tended plot in the garden seems to be carpeted with. About two years ago some of the farmers purchased a bunch, put it in the ground, and now it's everywhere. When one farmer, Pak Suan, told me about it he was practically rubbing his hands together, because it's expensive in the store and he fully intended clean up on his crop by selling it to other Burmese.

But it's not like Hibiscus sabdariffa, with its distinctive red stems and three to five pointed green leaves, is some sort of exotic. In Mexico (and in many parts of Latin America) its dried red flowers (specifically the calyces) are used to make the tart-sweet red drink known as jamaica (aka sorrel, aka bissap).

chin baung kyaw

But the Burmese don't go for that. They like the green leaves, which have a lemony sourness. "Chin baung ywet" literally means "sour leaf," which is what it's prized for, in addition to its positive effect on blood pressure. A few weeks ago the farmers held a picnic and to me the standout dish was chin baung kyaw, or fried roselle leaves with bamboo, made by farmer Khaing Win. It was spicy, sour, and funky in a way that the reminded favorably me of the bamboo with green chile paste at Aroy Thai.

Though a common dish in Burma, it didn't make it into Naomi Duguid's recent Burma: Rivers of Flavor, but I was thrilled to find a few different recipes online, and I was able to whip together a reasonable version of my own.

A couple tips: the roselle leaves cook down significantly, so you need a lot of them. Also, don't be ashamed to reduce or leave out the shrimp paste. It adds a depth of funkiness that's too much for some, and which you can get as close as you want to with the fish sauce.

The Global Garden Farmers Market runs Thursdays from 3 to 6 PM and Saturdays from 9 AM to 1 PM, one block north of Lawrence at Sacramento and Gunnison. If you don't see any roselle at the table, just ask and someone will pick it for you. You can find any of the other ingredients in any self-respecting Asian grocery, like Golden Pacific, Hoa Nam, or Viet Hoa.

Chin baung kyaw
A big bunch of roselle leaves, stems removed (about 4 to 6 cups)
8 cloves garlic
5-8 red Thai chiles (or any other hot variety like cayenne)
A large white onion, chopped
1/2 t turmeric
3 T peanut oil
One 19-ounce can of shredded bamboo shoots, drained
1/2 t shrimp paste (aka ngapi, kapi, belacan, mam nuoc)
2-3 T dried shrimp
Fish sauce, to taste
One bunch of cilantro, chopped

Toast the shrimp paste for a minute or two in a hot wok. Remove and mix with one tablespoon hot water. Soak the dried shrimp in warm water for about 15 minutes. Drain and dry, then put them through a food processor until roughly crumbled. If you have a mortar and pestle, pound the chiles and garlic to paste. If not, puree them in a food processor with the onion. Turn the wok to high, and when it begins to smoke add the oil. Add the onion-garlic-chile paste and stir-fry for a minute or two. Add the dried shrimp, shrimp paste, and roselle leaves and stir-fry until wilted. Season with fish sauce, and take off the heat. Stir in cilantro and serve with rice.

chin baung kyaw ingredients

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