I understand Burmese cuisine just about not at all, and knew not a single bite of it until Rangoon arrived, slipping last summer into the downtown restaurant space vacated by Curries on Gloucester. Compared to its gastronomic powerhouse neighbours of Thailand, China and Indian, Burma (or Myanmar) is not a country that exports its cuisine widely. There are only a few Burmese restaurants in Canada, and not much more than a sprinkling in North America. So I must have company in my ignorance.
But not much company around these 10 tables. Perhaps (honorary Canadian citizen and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Aung San Suu Kyi’s beautiful photograph should be moved from where it graces an inside wall, to the front window? It might help draw people in.
Rangoon is named after Burma’s largest city and former capital. Its menu is not long, and no dish costs more than $11 Ã la carte. On it you find soups, curries, noodle soup dishes, full meal salads and ice cream.
And you won’t find nicer people to give you the Burmese brief. Tial and Tawk are good ambassadors, taking great pleasure in describing the highlights of their cuisine.
One of those is Mohingha, considered a Burmese national dish. We have it for lunch. Rice vermicelli paddles in a thick coconut curry broth, fragrant of ginger, garlic, turmeric, fish sauce, shrimp paste, filled in with tilapia, thickened with chick pea flour and refreshed with lemon. It has comforting, straightforward flavours. With it come spring rolls. These are better than the usual brown tubes of questionable goo, filled in lightly with potato, cabbage, cilantro and onion, and furnished with a tart mint sauce.
This leads us gently, into a fascinating salad, the likes of which I have never tasted. Billed as a tea leaf salad, this is an assembly of cabbage, tomato, cilantro, onion, fried garlic and broad beans, topped with a shower of peanuts and sesame seeds. The fermented tea leaves add a bitter finish, the toasted legumes give crunch and the whole is well and thoroughly garlicked. We acquire a real taste for it by bite five. Though possibly prefer the brighter house salad with its sour-tart dressing that refreshes the palate for curries.
Of the ones we tried – including chicken, beef, pork and shrimp – we liked best the squash curry, the sweet cubes smeared with a paste of ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric. The chicken curry was tasty, and the meat was moist, but would be improved with a better quality of bird. These chunks squeaked. Much better the bazun hinn – baby shrimp, stained with turmeric, flavoured with what I guessed was garlic, ginger, fish sauce, soy sauce, and greened with roughly chopped cilantro. Do I have that right? Likely not. But that’s what I took from this ‘hinn.’ What it took from me was $11, fed two of us for dinner and gave us leftovers for lunch.
Rice is central, of course, though you don’t rely on its soothing properties as much, for Burmese curries tend to be less complex and chili-hot than their Thai or Indian counterparts. They have a unique flavour, you might say, earthy from the use of legumes, redolent of garlic, onion and ginger, fragrant and coloured with turmeric. I found them a relief from the often sugary high of many of our region’s Thai restaurants.
You may liven them, if you wish, with the house-made tomato chili salsa that comes alongside, and with the small dish of fried-to-crisp onion and garlic.
There’s a bit of beer and wine with this food, but we drink pots of green tea, light and pretty tasteless, but warming on a frigid Ottawa night spent learning a bit about a cuisine from some endearing people.