The first mandala medicinal garden in Myanmar

March 24, 2018

On January 1st, 2018 I met Ei Shwe, just a few hours after landing in Yangon. Ei is the founder and executive director of Mirror Alliance. This initiative is a community-based tourism project that aims to provide alternative income to the inhabitants of Myinmahti (Kalaw Township, Southern Shan State in Myanmar). She is also promoting organic agriculture and launching education initiatives in the village like the recent construction of a library.

(View of the village of Myinmahti).

After discussing the current situation and potential initiatives, we visited the village and we came up with a list of things I could help with.

My first idea was to create a mandala garden with native medicinal herbs in a small piece of land in front of the library. The medicinal plants have a strong link with the culture of the people as they have been used as a remedy for health problems over centuries. Ei liked the idea.

(Myinmahti library and the small garden before the works).

This was the most ambitious and challenging project I run in Myanmar.

Idea: I suggested building a mandala garden with medicinal plants from the region in the library garden close to the village school.

Objective: The garden should include some of the most well-known medicinal plants from the region. It should be appealing and invite locals and visitors to walk around. The garden should include descriptions panels with the name of the plants and a short description of their uses and characteristics. 

Process: The first step was to level the plot in front of the library. This task required several days of hard work and some blisters. Fortunately, I got the help from Aung Kiyaw Lin, Hnin Hnin Mar’s husband (owners of the house where I was accommodated during my stay in the village).

Then I designed the garden and we started making the beds for the plants.

In the meantime, I asked some help to identify medicinal plants from the forest close to the village and started planting them in the new garden. The last step was to create the panels including the name of the plant in Myanmar, English and Latin as well as a short description of the uses and the main characteristics.

(At the left, Hnin’s family and Ei working together to get all panels ready. The picture in the middle shows the garden ready for the inauguration and at the right you can spot the first visitor =D ).

The last day before leaving the village we organised an inauguration party that people from different ethnic groups attended. (Da Nu ethnic, white clothes; Taung Yoe ethnic, black clothes; Pa Oh ethnic, blue clothes).

It was a good chance to talk to the locals about the differences between conventional and organic agriculture. I also created a couple of posters talking about this topic and about the time different kind of material takes to decompose in nature to be presented inside the library. I was happy to see the people’s interest and positive response to it!

(From left to right: Ei and I talking in the new garden. Me discussing about organic and conventional agriculture and the time different kind of material takes to decompose in nature)

I also delivered a workshop about how to ferment cabbage with salt (you can find the recipe below).

And, of course, I took hundreds of pictures 🙂

In the Hnin’s guesthouse, the only one in the village, I helped in the veggie garden and I tested an experimental bed with pine needles for planting strawberries (strawberries like acidic soils and the pine needles can help in making the soil a bit more acidic).

(From left to right: View from the balcony of the Hnin Hnin Mar’s guesthouse in the morning. View from my room. Garden of the house where I planted onion, potatoes and strawberries)

This experience allowed me a full immersion in the Myanmar culture and a unique chance to know more about their traditions, food and way of living.

For those who are interested in medicinal plants, I used the following book to identify them:

http://www.dtm.gov.mm/dtm/sites/default/files/MedicinalplantsofMyanmar-Vol(1).pdf

The following video shows a time lapse of the works and inauguration day of the garden.

Thank you Hnin Hnin Mar and your family for hospitality and making me feel like at home.

(From left to right: Hnin Hnin Mar, her daughter, Ang Liyaw Lin and myself)

If you are interested in getting a room at Hnin Hnin Mar’s house in Myinmahti you can drop a line at the following email address: mirroralliancemm@gmail.com

Recipe of the Sauerkraut

TIMEFRAME: 1 to 4 weeks (or more)

SPECIAL EQUIPMENT:

Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket,

l-gallon/4-liter capacity or greater

Plate that fits inside crock or bucket

l-gallon/4-liter jug filled with water (or a scrubbed and boiled rock)

Cloth cover (such as a pillowcase or towel)

INGREDIENTS (for 1 gallon / 4 liters):

5 pounds/2 kilograms cabbage

3 tablespoons/45 milliliters sea salt

PROCESS:

1. Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely with or without hearts, however you like it. I love to mix green and red cabbage to end up with bright pink kraut.
Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.

2. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go.
The salt pulls water out of the cabbage 
(through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. About 3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) of salt is a rough guideline for 5 pounds (2 kilograms) of cabbage. I never measure the salt; I just shake some on after I chop up each cabbage. I use more salt in summer, less in winter. It is possible to make kraut with less salt or with no salt at all; several salt-free kraut variations follow this recipe for those who wish to avoid salt.

3. Add other vegetables, if you like.
Grate carrots for a coleslaw-like kraut. Other vegetables that I’ve added include onions, garlic, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, small whole heads of cabbage, turnips, beets, and burdock roots. You can also add fruits (apples, whole or sliced, are classic), and herbs and spices (caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries are classic, but anything you like will work). Experiment.

4. Mix ingredients together and pack into crock. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any (other) sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.

5. Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock.
Place a clean weight (such as a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.

6. Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it. Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about 1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) of salt to 1 cup (250 milliliters) of water and stir until it’s completely dissolved.

7. Leave the crock to ferment. I generally store the crock in an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen where I won’t forget about it, but where it won’t be in anybody’s way. You could also store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.

8. Check the kraut every day or two.
The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds. Sometimes mold appears on the surface. Many books refer to this mold as “scum,” but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don’t worry about this. It’s just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.

9. Enjoy. I generally scoop out a bowl- or jarful at a time and keep it in the fridge. I start when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavor over the course of a few weeks. Try the sauerkraut juice that will be left in the bowl after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice is a rare delicacy and unparalleled digestive tonic. Each time you scoop some kraut out of the crock, you have to repack it carefully.

Make sure that the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine just add salted water as necessary. Some people preserve kraut by canning and heat-processing it. This can be done; but so much of the power of sauerkraut is its aliveness that I wonder:

Why kill it?

10. Develop a rhythm. I try to start a new batch before the previous batch runs out. I remove the remaining kraut from the crock, repack it with fresh salted cabbage, then pour the old kraut and its juices over the new kraut. This gives the new batch a boost with an active culture starter.

Recipe from the book “Wild fermentation, the flavour, nutrition and craft of Live-culture Foods” by Sandor Ellix Katz