While Awng Htoi was growing up in Myitkyina, Myanmar, his mother would put him to work: His extended family lived in a house in the Northern Myanmar city, and his mother was one of ten siblings. While he would peel garlic or chop potatoes, his mother would cook dishes fragrant with shalap leaf (also called chaplu leaf) and culantro, laden with mushrooms and bamboo. The cuisine of Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin state of Myanmar, pulls culinary influence from nearby India and China and incorporates fresh herbs used by the Kachin for generations.
Kachin refers to a group of tribal communities primarily in Northern Myanmar; the Kachin state’s isolated location kept it separate from much of the country historically, until tensions between Myanmar’s military government and Kachin leadership led to an ongoing violent internal conflict. Htoi left the Kachin state as a refugee in 2013 and hasn’t returned since; most of his family is still there. But since he left, finding the flavors of home — even in Portland Burmese restaurants — has been difficult.
It was that yearning to celebrate his heritage and culture that inspired him to open Village Kitchen, his new Kachin food cart in Sellwood’s Piknik Park pod. Htoi runs his cart with his business partner, Van Phou, and his romantic partner, Chris Todd, serving his mother’s recipes alongside warm ginger tea and Burmese coffee. “It’s not only bringing Kachin culture here, but also its delicacies,” Htoi says. “Things haven’t been really good there, but we have a beautiful culture.”
Htoi developed the recipes for the Village Kitchen using memories from his family’s kitchen, cross-checked via FaceTime chats with his mother. The dishes on the menu all have names like “Village Curry” or “Village Cooking,” renamed out of a desire for accessibility. The Village Cooking, a personal favorite of Htoi’s, is made with pork or chicken, using a foundation of turmeric, paprika, and Sichuan peppercorn as well as fresh herbs like culantro, shalap leaf, and holy basil. Bamboo shoots, used in several Kachin dishes, are prominently featured, as well as mushrooms. The dish is also a favorite of Phou’s, who met Htoi at Scandals years ago. As the two got to know each other, Htoi would cook them Kachin meals; while Phou is Cambodian, the use of specific herbs and things like tamarind felt familiar. “The flavors would resonate,” they say. “The Village Cooking, it brings me home, even if it isn’t Cambodian.”
Another dish, the Village Curry, emphasizes the influence of India on Kachin cuisine: The tomato-based curry — earthy with curry powder, turmeric, and bay leaf — comes with plenty of potatoes and a choice of chicken or pork shoulder. The Village Delight also uses a tomato base for a shrimp sauce, served with okra and rice. Those familiar with Burmese cooking will likely recognize the tea leaf salad on the menu; marinated tea leaves arrive tossed with cabbage, onions, garlic, tomato, and fried beans, served with hot rice.
The menu is intentionally small, and will shift seasonally; Htoi hopes to add more thokes, or salads, as the weather gets warmer, including one made with century egg; in the fall, the menu will start to include items like pumpkin curry.
If the Village Kitchen is successful, Htoi would like to open another cart specializing in salads; Phou is contemplating opening a Cambodian cart or restaurant, as well. Beyond expansion, however, Todd hopes that the Village Kitchen can make enough money to help Htoi’s family reconnect — either to cover their tickets to Myanmar, or to fly the family to the United States. “I haven’t seen them since I moved out,” Htoi says. “I dream about them almost every night.”
The Village Kitchen is open at 1122 SE Tacoma Street.