Now all over the country rice is harvested and there is not much time for celebrations. Yet, Tabodwe is also a joyful time that finds it culmination in the harvesting festival, Burma’s equivalent to Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving Day as it is called in North America. Enough rice means that the people must not starve. So, the time of rice harvesting is not only a time of hard work but also joy.
This festival is called ‘Htamane’ after the special food offering that is cooked and eaten at this time. This gives women the most welcome opportunity to provide proof of their cooking skills. Htamane consists of glutinous rice, coconut (shredded), peanut or cooking oil, peanuts (husk removed), ginger (sliced), sesame and salt.
There are three ways in which the htamane – or rice cooking festival as it is also called – is usually celebrated. These are in the private family circle or together with selected friends and neighbours or communally. Whatever way is chosen to celebrate htamane it always means a big, happy gathering because many hands are needed to get all the necessary work done. There are lots of things that need to be done; from the preparing of the ingredients of htamane to the cooking itself. The rice grains and the sesame seeds have to be winnowed, the rice to be properly washed and soaked, the coconut shells to be broken, the fibres removed, the water/milk poured out and the pulp to be shredded/sliced, the peanuts must be shelled and the husk removed, the ginger needs to be peeled and sliced, and so on and so forth.
Cooking htamane is hard work as the extremely sticky htamane that – if, for instance, the feast is celebrated together with a larger number of people – is cooked in huge iron bowls or pots on wood or charcoal fire and must for a period of about half an hour be permanently crashed and stirred with long wooden ladles. However, this part of the cooking process is – although monitored and supervised by the women – performed by two or three men simultaneously as it requires considerable strength.
While performing their soporific job the men are sheered on and encouraged with shouts by onlookers and occasionally the beat of dobats played by dobat troupes. When the first batch of htamane is ready and the first helping is offered to Gautama Buddha and pongyis the exhausted members of the cooking team sit down to enjoy the fruits of their hard labour and the next cooking team takes over, then the next, and so on.
In the following I will give you a more detailed description of how the cooking of htamane works; you may try yourself to do it.
The first step is to give the peanut oil into the pot and fry the ginger and coconut one after the other. Do not forget to strain the oil after each frying. Then you set aside the fried coconut and ginger slices. The next step is to take about half of the peanut oil off the pot.
Then, in comes the rice, which was about two hours before washed and then put into clear water to soak till it is put into the pot with the remaining peanut oil. Water is added and then the rice must cook. About 30 minutes later the rice is soft and after some of the fried coconut and ginger is put aside for later use, to decorate the helpings of htamane served that is, all of the ingredients – except the sesame – are added to the rice. Some people do at this stage remove the pot from the fire as the htamane can easily burn when it remains on the fire and is not stirred very, very properly. However, the taste is much better when the pot remains on the fire until the htamane is ready. Both ways have in common that now the stirring act begins. The rice is first kneaded and crashed between the wooden ladles and properly mixed with the ingredients while the mass is getting ever stickier so that at the end it takes great strength to make the htamane yield to the ladles.
The last and easiest part is the sprinkling of the sesame seeds. This – so it is said – needs great skill as the flavour of the htamane depends on the person sprinkling the seeds handful by handful in regular intervals into the htamane while the strong men do the hard work to stir and mix the very gluey mass with their ladles. When the last sesame is sprinkled in the htamane is ready and the pot removed from the fire.
By the by, ‘sprinkling sesame seeds’ is a Burmese idiom that is disparagingly used for putting the finishing touches to something after the heavy and/or dirty main work was done by others. So, when, for instance, you are adding some condiments to already cooked meal that to be prepared and cooked took your mother (or wife) hours you are ‘sprinkling sesame seeds’. This idiom can be applied to any kind of work and is not confined to cooking.
When the htamane is ready it is divided into helpings (which goes best with a spoon or knife dipped into oil so that the htamane does not stick), nicely decorated with shreds and slices of the fried coconut and ginger and with sesame seeds and served. The taste of htamane is… , well, all I can say is, “Hmmm, yummy, yummy.” And it is very rich; you do not need very much of it to have had your fill.
The traditional way to serve it is on a properly washed and with cooking oil rubbed banana leaf. Tradition matters greatly in Burma what shows in many aspects of Burmese people’s everyday-lives as it permeates and occasionally even controls them.
Especially in rural areas the rice is often still cooked in earthen pots with a humped lit. This has the effect that when the rice is ready it has a peak-shaped top (called crown). This ‘crown’ is the choicest part of the rice. It is carefully removed from the rest of the rice and according to an old tradition set aside and reserved for food offering to Gautama Buddha and pongyis. This tradition is called ‘top priority for those to whom respect is due’ and a custom still practised.