By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2006
My friend Allan Janus wiped his lips, surveyed the remnants of the tapioca and raised a sly eyebrow.
"Pork belly and tapioca," he said, smiling in triumph. "Swine before pearls!"
Unless, of course, you consider us.
There is so much to desire at Myanmar -- with nearly 200 dishes, it's a one-stop tour of Burmese cuisine -- that you can easily make a pig of yourself. But as the folks there will tell you, they love to see people enjoying the food, so you may be forgiven for busting the calorie budget. (Which is, as it happens, the only budget you'll be bending: Myanmar's prices are as inviting as its food. Only two dishes at the cozy Falls Church cafe, one the whole crispy fish, top $10. )
Mohingar (sometimes seen as "moo hing nga") is the unofficial national dish, a yellow curry- and lemongrass-flavored fish chowder with hard-boiled eggs -- the mashed yolks adding creaminess -- ladled over thin rice noodles and flavored to taste, pho-style, with cilantro, chilies and lime. A $6.99 portion provides bowlsful for four.
Chili belly pork, which gives new and addictive meaning to the phrase "slab bacon," is a firecracker for $8.99, and although the kitchen is happy -- indeed, likely -- to moderate the traditional heat level of most dishes for novices, this is not one to tamper with. Ask for a more mid-level curry version. (The possibility of pork belly and pickled mustard might be the Circe of my next visit.)
Salads, which cost $5.99 or $6.99, are nearly light meals in themselves. The ginger salad, a tangy slaw with the added crunch of peanuts, toasted yellow peas and plenty of white sesame seeds, is fine, as are the somewhat similar pickled green tea leaf salad with peas, peanuts, crisp broad beans and tomato, and the watercress or wilted spinach salads.
The green papaya salad and the shrimp or squid salad will be familiar to Thai restaurant regulars, but -- Calling all macrobuffs! -- the yellow tofu salad, with chickpea curd ("Burmese tofu"), cabbage, kaffir leaves, onion, garlic chips and tamarind will put the heart back into any diet. And yet, gently; no garlic hangovers here, happily.
A lovely dish of four or five slender Japanese eggplant braised in onion curry is $5.99 -- with rice, of course. Think greens are dull? Check out sauteed Asian spinach with mushrooms, garlic and green chilies -- also $5.99. As a matter of fact, Myanmar is a vegetarian's paradise: In addition to more than a dozen all-veggie salads and several soups, it offers 16 vegetarian entrees, including such finds as sour (or fresh) mustard greens with tofu, spicy okra, pumpkin curry and the palate-cleansing green jackfruit curry. And those who eat seafood but not meat have two dozen options.
Culinarily speaking, Burma (also known as Myanmar) is the odd country out of Southeast Asia, for myriad reasons. Although the cuisine does obviously bear some resemblance to that of its neighbors, particularly Thailand, with which it shares a fairly long border (and the vital Mekong), the country also adjoins India and Bangladesh, whose influences are particularly obvious in the Burmese style of curry, especially those with "red" spices that are cooked in oil or ghee until they re-separate; the toppings of fried garlic chips or onions; and the popular seasoning known as balachaung , a fried-dry, crumbly mix of shrimp paste, shrimp powder, garlic, onions and hot chilies that tastes a little like it has bacon bits in its background. (A side dish of balachaung is a couple of cereal portions, at least, and it's definitely something to take home and play with: balachaung and scrambled eggs, balachaung on spinach salad, balachaung and shrimp curry, etc.)
Sheep and goat, which the restaurant substitutes for mutton, are much more popular in Burma than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. (Not entirely a coincidence, most of the Burmese peoples are not historically related to the Thai or Khmer but are Mongolian in descent.) Burma also touches the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, so its millennia of trade with Indonesia and Malaysia as well as with China have left it rife with peanuts (brought by sea from Africa), vinegar (from the Portuguese trade), coconut milk, noodles and chicken.
The Burmese add salt to the cooking water for rice, which gives it a fluffier, drier texture probably more familiar to most Americans than the rice in other Southeast Asian cuisines. And perhaps the most famous spice in Burmese food is fermented tea leaves, which add a smoky, slightly sour flavor to soups, salads and green sides.
If you're intimidated by the sheer number of choices on Myanmar's menu, a classic starter is the ohn-no kaukswe, coconut curry soup with fresh egg noodles and condiments to spice it up safely on the side. There are satays, which are nicely marinated and served with a sort of deconstructed sweet-and-sour sauce, dark with palm sugar, and crushed peanuts rather than peanut butter. But the meats are grilled almost to caramelizing, so if you're expecting the larger, more tender chunks, order the various kebabs instead.
Gram fritters are crispy falafel-ish nuggets served in a "salad" that's really a gentle cumin-scented soup ("chickpea gravy") with chunks of boiled potato and a little cabbage -- Israel meets Ireland. (Burma was a British, not French, colony, remember.) You can order classic Indian potato-pea samosas either dry or in the same "gravy."
The Burmese eat nearly as much noodles as rice, and there are dishes with egg noodles, thick chow foon-ish rice noodles and thin rice vermicelli, as well as a few fried rice recipes. If you like Indian or Jamaican goat curry, Myanmar's version, and the bones, will be very familiar.
But try at least a few more characteristic flavors: shrimp with sauteed pickled mustard, fresher and lighter than it might sound; pork with mango in curry; and spicy okra. Everything is cooked to order, so you'll have plenty of time to swap and share.
And leave room for the tapioca, fresh boiled in coconut milk with just a pinch of salt. Oinking never sounded so good.