Burma is an impossible country. A) It is impossible to get into. I once met a lady at a hostel in Bangkok who said she had been lining up at the Burmese embassy every day for weeks, trying to get a visa – apparently they only give out a limited number per day. Lazy woman. Get up earlier.
B) It is impossible to understand. Despite the fact that I have seen Burma VJ, I find the country shrouded in mystery. Other than censoring the media, what do people do? What do people wear, look like, and most importantly, eat? What is the country even called? Burma, Myanmar – it’s all very confusing. Disclaimer – I am not trying to make light of the country’s long history of oppression, or the serious challenges to human rights that exist within its borders. I know exactly why I don’t know more about Burma – but hopefully, in time, this will change.
I figure that Burmese food is much like Thai food. Burma is next to Thailand – that much I know. I went to university with a guy who spent some time shepherding small children over the border to a refugee camp in Mae Sariang.
So on my latest food expedition, I headed up to Edgeware Road to check out the fare at Mandalay Way. En route, I apologised profusely to Emma, Jon and Andrea in advance, in the instance that the place was crap. First of all, let me say it was not crap – not even close. But walking north on Edgeware Road from the station, past the Green Man pub and the plethora of Chicken Cottages and their subsidiaries, one might be a tad bit concerned. This far from Marble Arch, there are no tourists on Edgeware Road; a few miles up, in fact, after passing through Maida Vale, its name changes to Shoot-Up Hill. Nice.
Inside the restaurant, the bleakness of the road disappears immediately. We were pretty glad we’d booked – the whole (tiny) place was full, save two tables, one of them ours. It was warm and smelled delicious and I couldn’t wait to sit down with my £9.50 bottle of wine and devour the menu.
We’re not talking about a fancy place – but most of the time, the best food is not fancy. We sat at the table closest to the kitchen, next to a small counter come bookshelf, laden with well-used favourites, like Cloud Atlas – clearly, these people have taste. The walls are adorned with slightly worn photographs of temples and Burmese cultural icons and small children, which all make me want to sit the waiter down and ask him all sorts of questions about his food, his family and his country – a place so close to where I once spent so much time, yet also very far away.
Three things about Burmese food and culture. One, the eldest eat first. We let Andrea and Jon hash this one out. Two – if you are pregnant, you shouldn’t eat chilis. The Burmese believe that this causes children to have sparse scalp hair. Three – tea is eaten as well as drunk.
We started with an order of minced chicken samosas and two orders of calabash fritters. Mandalay’s selection of fritters is excellent – we went for calabash, because we didn’t know what it was, in much the same way that I once signed up to volunteer in Vanuatu, because I didn’t know where it was.* A calabash, it turns out, was one of the first cultivated plants in the world. Originally used as a water container, it is also called a bottle gourd, and makes for a very good soup – or fritter.
Following this, we selected two chicken dishes – chili chicken and chicken with tamarind, a “country style” lamb dish and coconut vegetable noodles. The noodles had a distinctly Thai infusion, confirming my suspicion that because Burma is next to Thailand, their food will share similar qualities. Otherwise though, I was pretty off the mark. I’d have to say that Burmese food is, more than anything, a hybrid of Indian and Chinese, with more seafood and fish sauce.
The tamarind chicken was a massive hit – although many people associate the pulp of the fruit with dessert, it works extremely well with meat and made for an incredibly unusual and bold main course. The chili chicken was also very good, albeit less distinct – in both dishes the meat was very tender, and it was clear that they had served up only the best quality bits.
We lingered for a while over our food – perhaps unfairly, seeing as at least two groups came in while we were eating and were turned away for lack of space. Oh well – you snooze, you lose, right? Throughout the entire evening, the staff were extremely welcoming, the service was attentive but not in your face, and we never felt as if they were trying to rush us out to make room for other parties – so rush we did not.
For dessert we had an order of tapioca and banana fritters to share. We didn’t eat tea – maybe next time.
The damage: For three starters, four mains, rice, naan, two desserts, a lychee juice, three beers and a bottle of pretty decent red wine, we dished out a total of £60, split four ways. The verdict – it’s worth the trek; I’ll be back.
As we were getting ready to leave, a couple sat down next to us for some late night grub. “I heard the food here is very good,” the man said to his wife. “You won’t be disappointed,” Jon said, as we left a large tip, and went home.
If, like me, you don’t know very much about Burma, and this makes you feel slightly ashamed – don’t. Even Obama hasn’t figured it out yet. If you have a burning desire to learn more – Burma VJ is probably a good place to start. Next stop – the library. Those places still exist, you know.
*Vanuatu is a chain of islands in the South Pacific, west of Fiji. Out of the 83 islands, 65 are inhabited, and I worked on one called Malekula. It took me 59 hours to get there, 27 of which were on a fairly small boat.
Need to know:
444 Edgeware Road
Nearest tube: Edgeware Road
Opening hours: Lunch from 12 noon to 2:30 pm daily, dinner from 6-10:30
Evening reservations recommended.