My Lucky Tummy: One chef's story

Chef Zaw Thin Nyein shares dish at local event and helps his family acclimate to Syracuse.

Two months ago, Zaw Thin Nyein relocated to Syracuse from Hawaii; now, he is one of the five home chefs featured in the sixth My Lucky Tummy popup food court.

On Saturday night, people gathered at May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, taking a bite of the world. Meanwhile, more than being a food court, My Lucky Tummy provides the attendees a space to “meet people and have some conversations,” said Adam Sudmann, founder of My Lucky Tummy.

Photo: Amanda Piela
Zaw Thin Nyein prepares Nishime, a classic Japanese meal often served at households on their New Year’s Day, for the My Lucky Tummy event.

The dish Nyein shared with the attendees of My Lucky Tummy is Nishime, a classic Japanese meal often served at households on their New Year’s Day. The vegetable stew includes radish, carrots, lotus roots, mountain yams, daikon, taro, shiitake, fried tofu, bamboo shoots, green beans, and konnyaku, adding some simple but essential condiments like sugar, soy sauce and rice wine.

“Simple is the best," Nyein said. "In Japan, people love fresh vegetables more than meat. The vegetables grow up [on] their own in the garden. And winter is cold in Japan, the simmered vegetable is comforting."

In order to provide a wonderful dining experience for around 300 people, Nyein collaborated with the other chefs, prepared the ingredients and cooked the cuisine for two days before the event. The home-style dishes from Burma, Eritrea, Japan, South Sudan, along with authentic desserts from Somalia, were made in the kitchen of the Food Studies program at Falk College.

Evan Weissman, Assistant Professor of Food Studies, said food is important to signify culture, and My Lucky Tummy is a great project that does a lot of work to connect different people in Syracuse.

“It allows us as a community to celebrate some of the new cultures that are coming into our city rather than to think about how to assimilate people. It’s a way to share and experience cultures,” Weissman said.

In the busy kitchen, the food items interacted. The flames bounced under the pot; the bubbles floated in the soup. The steam dispersed, exuding the smell of the exotic spices. Nyein, wearing a hat that said “Aloha," was chopping the vegetables carefully.

Originally from Burma, Nyein lived in Japan for 13 years. During that time, he learned how to cook Japanese cuisine. Afterward, he came to the United States in 2004, then got a green card through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. He met his wife on the Internet and got married. Life in Hawaii was good, but Nyein was not satisfied with the consumption level and the educational infrastructure, especially after the birth of his daughter.

Thaw Dar Khaing, Nyein's wife, said after Nyein made the decision to find a new life on the mainland of the United States, the family has traveled to Alabama, Georgia and Indiana since May 2014.

When asked about the reason Nyein chose Syracuse as home, he responded: “I looked around, I met people, and the people in Syracuse are nice. I don’t know for others; but for me, here is the best - for my business, for my daughter’s education.”

According to the official website, since My Lucky Tummy held the first popup food court in May 2013, it has featured 33 healthy homemade dishes from almost 20 countries around the world. Sudmann said the chefs came to My Lucky Tummy from different avenues. Mostly, My Lucky Tummy worked with people from refugee populations, allowing the guests to try the cuisines “people wouldn’t see otherwise,” Sudmann added. “Some of the cuisines you even can’t find on Google.”

Sudmann used “serendipity” to describe how he met Nyein. He was shopping in the Aphone Market, a “super cool” Burmese grocery store located at 826 Butternut St., and the shopkeeper introduced Nyein to him.

“The owner was like, ‘Hey, here is a new guy, and he just moved from Hawaii two days before. I think you guys should talk.’ And we talked,” Sudmann recalled. They became friends, discussed a lot of things, and of course sampled some food.

After that, Sudmann connected Nyein with the program manager of the Northside Up, an organization that seeks to improve the quality of life within the Northside of Syracuse.

Nyein wanted to open his own store. At the beginning, he searched on Craigslist, and asked advice from the Burmese community. Once he connected with the locals, Nyein got help from individuals like Sudmann, as well as related associations like Northside Up. He shared his story with people and got feedback.

“They told me ‘Wait’ or ‘Don’t rush’, and gave me lists. Then I met Joseph Hucko, the President of Washington St. Partners,” Nyein said.

Finally, he rented a storefront on the South Salina Street and signed the contract with a real estate company, taking the first step as a business owner.

And now, Nyein has realized one of his dreams, owning his own restaurant that will open before St. Patrick's Day. In December 2014, the business certificate of Aloha Japanese Bento Express has been filed at the Onondaga County. He hopes his 3-year-old daughter will attend preschool at PEACE, Inc. on South Salina Street. Nyein's wife said they have filled out an application. 

“People coming from all over the world are huge assets to us. With some help, they can really shine,” Sudmann said.

simple is best!

simple is best!

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