by Adiba Nelson
When you see those words, I doubt the words “gangster” or “sandwich” come to mind. I also highly doubt that veganism comes to mind. However, that is exactly what Fat Mama is—a vegan gangster sandwich, the brainchild of four women living half a world away in Myanmar, who connected with Tucson Meet Yourself through one of Tucson’s Thai monasteries.
Meet Phyu Hlaine, aka Nan, creator and founder of Fat Mama Gangster Sandwiches out of Myanmar (formerly Burma). I spoke with Nan via WhatsApp and trying to coordinate days and times proved to be the most challenging part of our entire conversation. Myanmar is approximately 8,290 miles away from Tucson, and a full day and a half ahead of us, and so I was a touch concerned about being able to conduct a coherent interview at 8:30 p.m. However, Nan put my concerns to rest because, you see, Nan is me, she is your mom, your best friend—she is the mom rushing home to make dinner for her kids and make sure everyone’s homework is done.
Nan is a single mom of three boys, all under age 10. She works a normal day job, and on evenings and weekends joins the other three women that make up Fat Mama to sell her vegan sandwiches at the local market. Her counterparts are also all single moms, coming together not only to give their kids more, but also to share their love of food with their community. Nan and I spoke about so many things, but what stuck with me is how certain things transcend language, culture, and distance, and are simply inherent to being human. Speaking with Nan, I saw clearly that one thread that ties us together is love. Love for our children. Love for our culture. Love for self.
Adiba: We at BorderLore are pretty excited about your business being at Tucson Meet Yourself.
Nan: This is our first time at Tucson Meet Yourself and we are very excited!
Adiba: Might I ask how the connection to Tucson became a thing? Myanmar is nowhere near Arizona.
Nan: I heard about this event from the Thai monastery in Tucson I visited last year. After I came back from the monastery, I decided to attend this event.
Adiba: Go you! That is pretty bold! You must be incredibly excited, and your family must be very proud of you.
Nan: Yes, they are. We are ready to show off our traditional food.
Adiba: So, let’s talk about this food. The Fat Mama gangster sandwich. That sounds like something that was named after me! What goes into the sandwich? Take me step-by-step through the process.
Nan: First of all, I’d like to introduce Myanmar cuisine. It features six flavors: sour, bitter, salty, astringent, sweet, and spicy. Since we have China, Thailand, and India next to us, the cuisines are mixed. The sandwich we called Gangster Sandwich, translated from Lan ta yae mote, is similar to Dosa (Indian rice crepes) which is crisp, chewy and light wrapped around cabbage, chickpeas and green chili. Sometimes with tomatoes, eggs and anything you can add.
The batter preparation is in three steps:
1. First, soaking the rice for at least four hours.
2. Blending the rice in blender.
3. Adjusting the batter’s thickness by combining with baking soda and kosher salt.
Since it is easy to make, we have this sandwich for breakfast and as a tea-time snack.
Adiba: Oh! It’s kind of like a healthy burrito!
Nan: Yes, vegan. We will also present another national dish, lahpet tote, or green tea leaf salad. It has a very long history in Myanmar. In ancient times, they used fermented tea leaves as a peace symbol or peace offering between kingdoms at war.
Adiba: Amazing! So, let’s talk about the name. Why Fat Mama?
Nan: We came up with this brand because we are a group of women, foodies, who like eating and creating healthy food.
Adiba: I love it. I want to be a Fat Mama.
Nan: Mostly Burmese women are not slim, so we named our brand sarcastically.
Adiba: I’d fit right in. So, where did the “Gangster” part of the name come from? The word “gangster” has a negative connotation here.
Nan: Because this is a street food, so you know what I mean. You can only find this sandwich on the street not at the restaurant. It’s not fancy.
Adiba: I get it now. Tell me, how central to Burmese culture is food?
Nan: Huge. But people only know Burmese through the stones, ruby and jadeite. Not food. Actually, there are many traditional foods from Burma are very healthy and delicious. Like yogurt with plum sugar sauce. You can only find it in Myanmar.
Adiba: Plum sugar sauce? That sounds like something I’d eat right out of the jar.
Nan: We don’t use sugar, we use hta nyat, which is called jaggery. It comes from a palm tree.
Adiba: Wait. I’m sorry. Did you say a palm tree? They’re sweet?
Nan: We made the palm sugar or jaggery from the sap. Yes, it is sweet, and it is also an alcohol.
Adiba: Say what now? Are you telling me you can get drunk from palm juice?
Nan: Yes. Exactly. Palm wine is an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of various species of palm tree such as the palmyra, date palms, and coconut palms.
Adiba: Nan. You do realize that when this piece goes to print, you’re going to have single-handedly created a trend in Tucson, right?
Nan: (Laughs.) Well, to make jaggery or palm sugar, they boil the sap, reduce it, and cool it into a sticky, caramel-like texture, and then cut it into candy size pieces. We call it Burmese chocolate. We make the syrup from it and serve with yogurt. We will be bringing the jaggery with us to Tucson Meet Yourself.
Adiba: Can we talk for a moment about the other women that make up Fat Mama? I am fascinated by the notion that this business was started by four women who simply love to eat. You sound like my kind of people.
Nan: Yes. We are childhood friends. There are four of us: Me, Nan Ohn yee, Phyu Phwe Hnin, and Zinmar.
Adiba: And whose idea was it to start Fat Mama?
Adiba: Did you have any trouble convincing the other ladies it was a good idea?
Nan: Not at all! We all grew up crazy together!
Adiba: Now I have to ask, how is life for women in Myanmar? Specifically, in the workplace and in the home?
Nan: Well, we’ve been treated fair and same as gentlemen. The men gave respect to women, and yes, I must say we are treated equally.
Adiba: Equal pay?
Nan: Equal pay.
Adiba: Can I move there please?
Nan: Yes, please come.
Adiba: Don’t tempt me, Nan. A few more questions. Are there are specialty dishes for certain occasions? Is Fat Mama your main source of income?
Nan: Actually, Fat Mama is not my main income, we just do it for passion and want to upgrade our street food and share with many people. I want people to know my country for not only rubies, but also food. We want to help our community by sharing our traditional foods and culture. I work with farmers and many food vendors here. Also, small to medium enterprise (SME) people who want to promote the local products.
Adiba: Is your community mostly farmland?
Nan: Yes, mostly.
Adiba: So, you try to keep the ingredients for the sandwiches mostly local?
Nan: Yes. Lentils that we use we can’t get from anywhere but here, so we will bring those with us from Myanmar.
Adiba: And so, the money gets funneled back through the community by way of supporting the farmers via supply/demand?
Nan: Yes of course. We only buy our ingredients from farmers and small SME people.
Adiba: So, as a small business you support other small businesses.
Nan: Yes, this way we can grow together.
Adiba: I. Love. That. One last question. Do you plan on teaching your sons how to make FatMama Gangster Sandwiches, and pass the business on to them?
Nan: Yes. I would love to and I will.
Adiba: I believe it, Nan.
Find Fat Mama at booth #23 at this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself, Oct. 11-13.
Adiba Nelson is the author of the children’s book, Meet ClaraBelle Blue, and the forthcoming, 50. An active voice in the Body Positive community, she also performs burlesque. Learn more at her web site, The Full Nelson. She lives in Tucson.