Hnin “Snow” Wai is on a mission to introduce Burmese food and culture to New York. Together with her husband, Snow (Hnin means “Snow” in Burmese, so she likes to be called “Snow” in English) is the co-founder of DeRangoon, a Burmese catering company based in East Elmhurst, Queens. The couple began vending at the Queens Night Market in 2017, and Snow’s tea leaf salad recipe was included in The World Eats Here: Amazing Food and The Inspiring People Who Make It At Queens Night Market (The Experiment, 2020).
Earlier this year we spoke to co-authors John Wang, the Queens Night Market founder, and Storm Garner, a filmmaker and oral historian, about the cookbook, which showcases 88 diverse recipes directly from Queens Night Market’s vendor-chefs, many of whom are first- and second-generation immigrants. We were fascinated by Storm’s oral history project, which formed the basis for the biographical chapters that accompany the recipes.
We wanted to hear from some of these vendors themselves, starting with Snow. So we asked Storm to edit and condense part of her wide-ranging August 2019 interview with Snow, conducted as part of her Queens Night Market Vendor Stories Oral History Project (all the full interviews from this project will be archived at the Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky). Below is an audio clip that has been edited, transcribed and tweaked for clarity, with the interviewee’s full consent. Snow shares her immigration journey to New York, how she learned to cook from her mother in Burma and her experience operating a stall with her husband in the Queens Night Market. Also included below is her recipe for tea leaf salad, a great balance of salty, sour, spicy, bitter and crunchy that is available at almost every street stall and tea shop in Myanmar.
From Burma to New York
Most people, they don’t know what Burmese food is. People are always asking me, “Where’s Burma?” and what Burmese food is. Sometimes it’s hard to explain. Since they don’t know where’s Burma, and what’s the taste of Burmese food. So we are trying to introduce our food, our culture, and everything to the city.
My name is Snow Wai and I’m from Burma – Rangoon. Mm, how to say that, like, mm, life in Burma before, they are struggling a lot. A lot of opportunity are missing in Burma, right? In my country, if you worked at that time, we didn’t have enough money to survive. So…
Actually, I finished high school over there, and after high school, I was trying to go to Japan – to Tokyo. And one of my uncles, he lives here. So my uncle told me to try here, it’s a better life, and then you can get like a better education and everything, and then your life’s more stable. So, I was like, “Oh okay, how are we gonna try?” And then he was like, “Oh, we can play the lottery – the US has a green card lottery.” And he told me to play it in that time, right? And yeah, so at that time, I won the lottery, and I came here. This is like how I come to New York, yes. It was like around 2008. So I never traveled alone before, before I came here! [laughs]
When I first came here, I used to work in Dunkin’ Donuts – Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway. In the same time, I went to the ESL classes as well. And, my first year was a very hard time, because I don’t know how to cook, I don’t know anything about how to make a laundry, and everything is so difficult for me, so I always called my mom: “Ohhh, it’s hard for me to stay in here, I don’t like it here…” In my country, I never worked, honestly! [laughs] This was the first time, when I came here, that I have to work for someone else. And my mom was like, “Oh okay, so would you like come back?” I said like, “Yeah, I want to come back.” So I went back to my country I think six months.
Learning to Cook in Burma
At that time I was like, “I don’t know what I want to do.” So my mom was telling me, like, “Are you sure that you want to stay here, without doing anything? You’re going to waste your time.” And so when I went to my country, I learned how to cook, how to prepare the food – yeah I learned from my mom. She has to cook every day for my brother and sister, so every day, like so – when she goes to the market, I go in the market with her. And then I always watch what’s she buying, how to prepare the food, how to cook it. So some time I told her, “Okay you just tell me how to cook it and I will do it,” right? Sometimes she watched me – what I’m doing – and then sometimes if I do something mistake, she told me, “Oh, no you have to put that much of sauce, and this much of sugar,” “You have to make sure that the meat is tender,” “You have to add the water” – she taught me a lot in this six months.
And then I was like, “Okay, that’s pretty good.” And when I came back, so I start cooking for my cousin, and he was like, “Oh, it’s very good that you went back for six months to learn how to cook!” [laughs] They are laughing at me!
Getting Involved with the Queens Night Market
I’m really interested about the business thing, like especially about the restaurant business, because I grew up in the restaurant industry, since when I was a kid. Like, my grandma side, my uncle, my dad, they all – everyone’s doing like a restaurant job, so – so me and my husband we always talking about, “Okay one day, how about we open our own small restaurant,” and he was like, “Okay!”
And one day, I saw on the Facebook, about the Queens Night Market, and so one night we go to visit to Queens Night Market, and then I saw a lot of long line, I was like, “Oh wow, what’s the long line for?”
So we like decided, “Okay, let’s try in the Night Market, and then maybe we can get some experience, before we start our own restaurant. And since we want to open a restaurant, you need a lot of experience and customer feedback. You need to know what they like, what they don’t like. So you need to have a lot of research.
The thing is, um, all the time, people are asking about, “Oh, where’s the Burmese restaurant? I never head of a Burmese restaurant!” And, “You guys don’t have a restaurant!” Because Thai – uh Thai, Indian, Malaysian, they always have like a population that’s really huge, and everywhere the Thai – you know as you know, the Thai restaurant is very popular everywhere. And the Malaysian is very popular too. We are their – very close to them, we are their neighbor. But our food is nowhere to be found, and so were thinking about, “How about we introduce something?”
The Triumph of Tea Leaf Salad
Like it’s very hard, honestly. This is the reason we start from the Queens Night Market, to get, like, customers. It’s like we try our best, to give the good food to the people, and then you know – and I got a lot of good feedback, and, number one is tea leaf salad. Like, we was like – Some people they are surprised that, “Oh, are you able to eat tea leaf? Because we only drink tea leaf, we never – I never knew the tea leaf is able to be eaten, we never know that!” So I told them to “Try it! And if you don’t like it, then, I’m gonna give you something different.” And then I let them try one – whoever comes to ask about the tea leaf salad. And then they really like it, and the feedback was really awesome: “Oh, we don’t know the tea leaf is good,” and you know, like, “Oh, if you don’t give the sample, maybe I would not buy this tea leaf,” because it’s this different thing, right?
I want to say to people who never have to try the Burmese food, I want to say: give a chance to try Burmese food, so that you know what Burmese food’s like, and especially the tea leaf salad – it’s really a must-try item, because this is our traditional food. And I want to invite everyone to try at least, give one chance to try the Burmese food.
Recipe: Tea Leaf Salad
Makes 2 servings
Fermented Tea Leaves
(If you prefer to skip this time-intensive step, US residents can purchase ready-made fermented tea leaves here.)
10 cups (2.4 L) boiling water
2 tablespoons loose dry green tea leaves*
1⁄2 cup (120 ml) canola oil
3 Indian green chiles (or similar), seeded
Juice of 1⁄2 lime
1⁄2 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Toasted Beans and Seeds
1 teaspoon canola oil
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1⁄4 cup (16 g) boondi (fried chickpea flour puffs)**
1⁄4 cup (40 g) salted, roasted peanuts
1⁄4 cup (35 g) salted, roasted soybeans
1⁄4 cup (30 g) roasted sunflower seeds
21⁄2 tablespoons fried garlic chips (such as Maesri brand)
2 tablespoons roasted pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon salt
1 head romaine lettuce or Taiwanese flat cabbage, shredded
6 cherry tomatoes
14 small dried shrimp
1⁄2 jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
2 lime wedges
2 teaspoons fish sauce, or 2 pinches of salt
* The best and traditional way of fermenting tea leaves is using fresh tea leaves, but since fresh tea leaves are hard to find in the US, use loose dried green tea leaves, available in Chinese grocery stores.
** Boondi can be purchased in Indian/South Asian grocery stores.
To make the fermented tea leaves, place the tea leaves in a pot and pour in 5 cups (1.2 L) boiling water. Let steep for 20 minutes. Drain through a fine-mesh strainer; pick out and discard any tough bits like little stems. Place the tea leaves in cheesecloth and squeeze out the water. Repeat and then soak in cold water overnight.
Drain the leaves, squeeze out excess water, and place in a food processor with the oil, chiles, lime juice, garlic, and salt. Blend into a slightly textured paste, just nearly smooth. Keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 days to develop the fermented taste.
To make the toasted beans and seeds, heat the oil to a large skillet over medium heat. Add the sesame seeds and toast until light brown, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and toast, mixing or tossing regularly, until shiny with a coat of oil, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, let cool to room temperature, and store in an airtight container.
To make the salad, divide the lettuce among two bowls. Around the edges of each bowl, arrange half of the cherry tomatoes, dried shrimp, and jalapeño, along with one lime wedge. Top each bowl with half of the toasted beans and seeds, then add 1 tablespoon of the fermented tea leaves, and 1 teaspoon of the fish sauce or a pinch of salt on top.
Serve, squeezing over the lime wedge and mixing well to eat. Leftover fermented tea leaves can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
To get all the latest news from DeRangoon, follow the catering company on Instagram and Facebook.
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