A great pop-up meal is a distinct dining experience, accomplished through a unique venue or a limited-time menu. For me, though, the memories evoked through the food and the stories shared at the table are what elevate a meal from ordinary to unforgettable. My recent evening at Chef Ma’s table was one such experience.
Savory aromas waft from the kitchen where Chef Ma Mona tends the night’s ingredients. Guests tentatively wander in and join me at the communal dining table. Perennially early and dining solo, I am grateful for the new company. Ma enters, explaining what distinguishes her dishes from those at longstanding Burmese establishments, of which she is a veteran: “Everything is made fresh today,” she tells her diners. “At the restaurant, food is prepared two to three days in advance and put in the fridge.” She adds, “That’s why I’m so tired after a dinner.” This garners a chuckle and a round of applause before she retreats back to the kitchen and her sous chef, who is also her husband.
She begins the meal with a surprise appetizer, a crunchy vegetable slaw. “I just decided to make this as extra for you,” she tells us as she places the family-style plates amidst the single pink lilies on the table. Thinly-sliced cabbage, hunks of fresh tomato, and shaved carrot are flavored with torn mint and cilantro, jalapeño, and lime juice. The first bite is reminiscent of a Thai green papaya salad–it’s cool and well-textured, its spice and citrus waking up the palate.
Ma’s paratha arrives next, its warmly-spiced fragrance transporting me back to the apple cider donuts and fried dough of fall fairs in New England autumn fairs. This flatbread, akin to an Indian roti, is a crown encircling a luxurious yellow curry studded with potatoes, scented with cinnamon and bay leaves, and garnished with fresh mint. The paratha is clearly deep-fried, but its layers are delicate. I have never experienced such magnitude of flakiness, and I bond with my table-mates over heaping spoonfuls of the curry and perhaps one too many pieces of the paratha.
The conversation easily flows into the Riesling generously provided by my neighbors. As we learn about each other, Ma serves her centerpiece: a pork belly curry of modest presentation and generous portions. She informs us that the pork belly is stewed for over nine hours in a pressure cooker, which is evident in its fall-apart status. The garlicky sauce is a marriage of the belly with potatoes, carrots, baby bok choy, cauliflower, onions and Ma’s spice combination, a secret blend she will not divulge. White rice remains untouched except for some cilantro sprigs and a few frizzled shallots.
Amidst bites and tidbits of talk, plates are cleaned and glasses clinked in affirmation. Dessert is Ma’s concoction of gelatin, condensed milk, and fresh mango. Joining the two-toned jelly is a ripe piece of the dessert’s signature fruit, silky and a bit spicy. Mine is gone in a few quick bites, a restorative and slightly tropical way to end the feast.
After more clapping for Ma, twenty gracious eaters continue to chat and drain the dregs of their wine glasses. The lingering of diners long after the food courses have stopped coming, in my mind, is one mark of a truly successful meal. For two hours, Ma’s genuine cuisine and humble passion entertained and satiated. It was unique without pretension, a relatively short-lived and rare time of authentically delicious food and honest human interaction. I can’t wait to eat at her table again soon.