Stretched to translucence by a series of acrobatic, table-slapping wrist flips, then stretched just a bit further until it seemingly must tear under its own weight, the palata dough passes from the hands of Myo Lin Thway.
In a moment, other hands take over. Perhaps they fill it with minced spiced chicken, for keema palata, or perhaps they fold it instead into an empty square, soon to be the conveyance for masala-red curry. After a brief interlude at the griddle, the flaky flatbread is surrendered to still other, hungrier hands. Myo, in the meantime, has swirled a little oil on his tabletop and patted down another wad of dough, pressing it wider and flatter until it, too, can take to the air.
Showmanship is simply a natural byproduct of the palata-making process. Myo, 48, hopes that “people will like the way I cook.” He’s hardly a showoff himself. Even so, Burmese Bites – his food stand at the Queens Night Market, on summer Saturdays in Flushing Meadows Corona Park – has attracted long lines from the very first season of the market back in 2015. That year, Burmese Bites was nominated in the best-of-market category at the Vendy Awards, a celebration of the city’s best street-food vendors.
Two years later, Burmese Bites expanded with a weekday food cart in Long Island City at Court Square, a hub for office workers and courthouse employees not far from Manhattan. Monday through Friday, Myo began to serve not only palata but also a handful of less-showy menu items, to be devoured at office desks or, on pleasant days, in the tranquil park in front of the courthouse. Burmese Bites won a coterie of new fans – and won the people’s choice award at the 2018 Vendys.
Let’s look back, many thousands of palatas in the past. Myo grew up in Hinthada, a city on Myanmar’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, in a family of 10: father, mother, four sons, four daughters. Myo’s father, a high school teacher turned commercial fish farmer, in his spare time enjoyed cooking his way through the recipe book of a nationally famous chef. But at least one cooking technique, he found, couldn’t be adequately demonstrated on the printed page.
As Myo tells it, his father invited to their house a “freelance palata maker” – a trishaw driver, by trade – to demonstrate how the flatbreads were made. When Myo, then a young teenager, showed interest, his father encouraged him to try his hand. Some years later, when Myo moved to New York, he quickly found Burmese-speaking fellowship at the Queens-based Myanmar Baptist Church – in particular, at the church’s annual, outdoor, food-filled Fun Fair. When the palata maker at Myo’s first fair couldn’t participate the following year, Myo stepped in, and he’s been a fixture ever since. (By the time we first saw him in action, in 2007, Myo had at least 10 Fun Fairs to his credit.)
Showmanship is simply a natural byproduct of the palata-making process. Myo hopes that “people will like the way I cook.” He’s hardly a showoff himself.
In those early days in the United States, however, Myo was still pursuing a college education. After two years at RIT (the Rangoon Institute of Technology, still the popular name for what’s now Yangon Technological University), he had transferred to CCNY (the City College of New York), eventually graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Myo accepted a six-month internship at a New York City job, followed by six months of paid employment. Only then did he and his boss realize that the job wouldn’t secure a visa that would enable Myo to continue living and working in the States. Scrambling, Myo found another, eligible job for an importer and wholesaler in Midtown Manhattan.
Fifteen years and several promotions later, he was still at that same company: “9-5:30, in front of a computer, with air conditioning,” and with the salary and paid vacation that accompanied the position of operations manager. Myo, however, had come to realize that he “didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”
In 2014, Myo began road-testing Burmese Bites at New York street fairs, sharing the pavement with peddlers of zip-shut wallets, scented candles and novelty refrigerator magnets. The following year was his breakout season at the Queens Night Market.
Burmese Bites’ biggest business decision, to date, came in 2016. After discussing with his wife, Rebecca, how they would support a house, two cars and three sons, Myo left his Midtown office job to pursue the food business full-time. For her part, Myo quickly adds, Rebecca has not only kept her day job but also helps with cooking for Burmese Bites after hours. She’s on hand at the night market every Saturday, too.
Both in Long Island City and in Corona, only “5-10 percent” of customers are Burmese, says Myo. However, he makes few concessions to American tastes: “This is something I take pride in.” One exception concerns ohno kaukswe, an enthrallingly complex coconut chicken noodle soup that’s another stalwart of the menu. For the lunchtime office workers in Long Island City, Myo always asks whether they’d like their soup spicy; for the food adventurers at the Queens Night Market, a dose of chile flakes is the default.
His customers also appreciate speed. Myo, whose basic, folded palata offers only a few layers, once demonstrated for us the traditional method of winding the stretched palata dough into a rope, coiling it into a ball, thwacking it once or twice with the palms, then letting it rest for 10 to 15 minutes, ultimately creating a “hundred-layer palata,” at least in name. But “we’re New Yorkers,” says Myo, and in light of the long lines at the night market, “we don’t have time for that.” (NB: We would make time for that.)
Myo, Rebecca and their sons have traveled to the family home in Hinthada, and to his father’s fish farm, more than once. For the boys, who are growing up in suburban Long Island, it’s important, says Myo, that they understand where, and how, he grew up. We can only hope that palata lessons are part of the Hinthada curriculum.
Editor’s note: Through the end of September, Burmese Bites will be operating from their market stall at the Rockefeller Center outpost of the Queens Night Market (and not their food cart in Long Island City), Monday through Thursday, noon till 8 p.m.