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Burmese cuisine - an untapped market?


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There has never been a heavy presence of Burmese cuisine in New York; the Burmese community is small here. But once upon a time, there were a couple of decent Burmese restaurants. Road to Mandalay on Grand St. used to be passable, and Mingala on E. 7 St. used to be a downright pleasant dining experience. It's still there, but it turned into a bad Chinese restaurant in all but name years ago and I haven't heard any credible suggestions that it's anything else now.

What happened, is there some good or at least decent Burmese eatery in some odd corner of the five boroughs, and why do you think that, in a city that loves Chinese food and supports Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian eateries of various levels of quality and authenticity, we seem to lack a genuine representative of a cuisine all its own but one that people who like any of the other cuisines would seem to have a good chance of enjoying?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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A further thought: If you or a friend of yours were opening a Burmese restaurant, what do you think would be the most effective way to present and sell the cuisine here?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I assume Burmese food is a lot like Thai? I'm surprised not to see any Burmese spots, given Thai food's popularity of late in NY. Sadly, restaurateurs might have to sell it as "Thai with a twist".

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Have only eaten in two Burmese restaurants (Palo Alto and San Francisco). Can't remember the distinction very well from Thai--but I did have two unusual salads that I think are Burmese--Ginger Salad and Fermented Tea Leaf Salad.

They are both composed of minced ingredients like roasted peanuts, fish sauce, dried shrimp and hot green chiles, frued garlic, cilantro, etc.

They were incredibly good; packed w/taste. Reminded me a little of the Thai appetizer, Miang Kum

Does anyone else know specialities, distinguishing characteristics of Burmese cuisine?

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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What are some distinguishing characteristics of Burmese cuisine? Is there a significant Burmese population in NYC? This usually starts the ball rolling in developing interest.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

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My folks have a Burmese cookbook called The Burmese Kitchen, written by Copeland Marks and Aung Thein. The dish I liked best in the cookbook, and which I've cooked, is a chicken dish that included various spices one might think of as Indian plus five-spice powder. I forget all that went into it, but it's a very good dish.

Mingala used to serve things like Golden Triangles, which you might think of as a Burmese take on potato samosas. They include cilantro and are eaten with a savory dipping sauce something like some Thai sauces but different. It's not so easy for me to describe Burmese cuisine, but from my limited experience, it seems to me that the biggest influences on it are Indian, Thai, and Chinese, which makes sense given the geographic position of the country. And that synthesis produces something unique and different from any of those other cuisines.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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  • 1 year later...

Ah, it always pays to search eG before posting.

Dined at Mingala last night w a party of 6, chose it mostly for location (show at CBGB afterwards) + fond memories of their short-lived branch in the West Village c. 20 years ago.

I was pleased. We have some TRULY BAD Chinese joints in Jersey & Mingala was way above that level. Yes, I'm always a little dismayed when I see the usual Americanized vegetable mixture in some of the dishes, but what the heck, at least they were fresh & properly cooked. Interesting mix of flavors; our companions enjoyed the Rangoon night market noodles; my lemon chicken was at least nicely cooked & had a well flavored sauce (damn low-sodium diet limits me). Sheila's Mingala Kow Swear Kyaw, a Burmese take on Pad Thai, was excellent; I cleaned up the last few bites that she couldn't finish.

I would return for the Young Ginger Salad alone. Most refreshing.

The fact that there was a huge Burmese family/friends gathering of c. 20 people at a series af adjoining tables along one wall may be a sign that they've changed cooks again, & for the better this time.

In any event, at $18 a head, incl. tax & tip, I think we got an excellent value & a delightful experience. I can't overemphasize how gracious & attentive the service was.

I like this place at this point in time & will definitely go back.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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  • 1 year later...

Any update on any Burmese restaurants in NY? Anyone been to Village Mingala lately and able to report back?

I love Fermented Green Tea Leaf Salad, so I'm hoping to find a restaurant that serves a good version of it. BIG thanks if anyone can recommend a place to buy fermented tea leaves in NY, or anywhere in North America. I've struck out everywhere.

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A further thought: If you or a friend of yours were opening a Burmese restaurant, what do you think would be the most effective way to present and sell the cuisine here?

I think you have touched upon why Burmese cuisine has not established itself here.

(by the way isn't Burma called Myanmar these days?)

To become established here in the US, I believe there are several factors that can lead to success.

One is a substantial population of immigrants living here and or some level of commerce between countries--a familiarity with a country's culture.

Myanmar (Burma) is a fairly closed country being a military dictatorship and I believe there is a trade embargo in effect at the moment. (they never really had much business dealings/trade with the US anyway. There is certainly not much of an immigrant population here. there are few, if any, "Burmatowns."

Also the cuisine of the country has to be distinctive enough and relatively easy to "get"

It seems to be a challenge to describe Burmese cooking. Also it has to be fairly varied.

I think Korean food has a large enough immigrant population behind it but the cuisine is not easy for American palates to adapt to. The reliance upon fermented items (mainly kimche) as noted by Jason Perlow in another thread, may be responsible, at least in part--the cuisine is too "foreign" to our palates.

Malaysian cuisine is another hard one. The easiest to "get" dish is Rijsttafle (which is not Malaysian but rather a Dutch/Malaysian concoction). A lot of the rest of Malaysian cooking is really much like Indian, Thai, Chinese etc etc in nature. There isn't anything really unique (other than its polyglot nature). Bourdain did a great episode here that explained a lot.

Satay's are a staple of many cuisines--Thai, Vietnamese, Indian all better established here.

It sounds like Burmese cuisine is "like" other more established cuisines here (it is like Indian etc).

With no substantive population to support and nurture it and little familiarity with the peoples and culture, it is easy to see why it has not established itself here.

Someone who has a good grasp of the cuisine and cooking could start up a place which would be unique and have a good chance at getting some notoriety--they would certainly stand out. But I wonder if the cooking (and I am not very familiar with it myself) is distinctive enough and easy enough to get/define without the native population. That is it is a hard sell with no beachhead established here.

Minneapolis was never known for it Asian restaurants until the late seventies and early eighties when large numbers of Vietnamese and Thai peoples immigrated there (many of the charities and relief funds were based there). Now, one can get some pretty incredible vietnamese, Thai etc food there.

Edited by JohnL (log)
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Malaysian cuisine is another hard one. The easiest to "get" dish is Rijsttafle (which is not Malaysian but rather a Dutch/Malaysian concoction).

Not to highjack this thread, but I think Rijsttafel is a Dutch/Indonesian concoction. Malaysia was an English colony and Indonesia was a Dutch colony. IIRC, Rijsttafel is Dutch for "rice table."

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Any update on any Burmese restaurants in NY? Anyone been to Village Mingala lately and able to report back?

I love Fermented Green Tea Leaf Salad, so I'm hoping to find a restaurant that serves a good version of it. BIG thanks if anyone can recommend a place to buy fermented tea leaves in NY, or anywhere in North America. I've struck out everywhere.

I've been to the Upper East Side branch of Mingala Burmese. I really enjoy it and find it somewhat underrated/it doesn't seem as busy as it should be, considering the flavors seem authentic, unique, and tasty. It's a bit kitschy there, sure, but it serves its purpose.

The menu is indeed wide-ranging as is the cuisine, with some dishes leaning Indian, others Chinese or Thai as others mentioned, and others just plain who knows what. Their fermented tea leaf salad is OK, although I had a better, fresher tasting version in San Francisco once. (That place, I don't recall the name, was incredible.) I like their dumpling dishes which come in a nice, lemongrass-type broth.

Edited by jeanki (log)
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Their fermented tea leaf salad is OK, although I had a better, fresher tasting version in San Francisco once. (That place, I don't recall the name, was incredible.) I like their dumpling dishes which come in a nice, lemongrass-type broth.

Maybe it was Burma Superstar on Clement (in the Richmond). I think that is the name of the place in SF that I alluded to earlier in this thread.

click

309 Clement at Fourth Ave.

http://www.burmasuperstar.com

Cozy Clement Street restaurant features stunningly good Burmese cuisine, itself a blend of Thai, Chinese, and Indian influences. Start with the moo hing nga (fish porridge), the samusa soup, or the elaborate, 22-ingredient rainbow salad. Then order a side of rice (coconut, spicy Indian-style, or Burmese fried) to go with entrees like an exquisite pork and potato curry, squid sautéed with chilies and basil, or curried noodles with chicken and coconut milk. For dessert, try the coconut custard fritters. Small, affordable list of beer and wine.

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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John, Malaysian cuisine is really a fusion cuisine par excellence.

I believe satay/sate is truly an originally Nusantaran (Malaysian/Indonesian) dish that has become popular elsewhere, whereas Malaysia has adopted (and adapted) so many dishes from elsewhere, like Hainanese chicken rice, roti canai (from Chennai=Madras), etc. I don't think "Malaysian" cuisine has been too much of a hard-sell, it's just been watered down to pablum for an Anglo audience. This from a country where "If there's no chili, there's no taste" is a common expression but white people are known to "not like spicy."

But getting back to Burmese cuisine, if it is a fusion of three different popular cuisines, why would that be a hard-sell? I'm not sure I understand that. In my limited experience (having never been to Burma/Myanmar), it doesn't seem to be characterized by the prevalence of salty/fermented foods found in Korean cuisine, but seems more like a delicious melding of things that remind me of Thai, Indian, and Chinese cuisines. The concept of fusion is popular, anyway, so I doubt a lack of distinctiveness is the problem. The very small number of Burmese in the area is probably more at issue.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Their fermented tea leaf salad is OK, although I had a better, fresher tasting version in San Francisco once. (That place, I don't recall the name, was incredible.) I like their dumpling dishes which come in a nice, lemongrass-type broth.

Maybe it was Burma Superstar on Clement (in the Richmond). I think that is the name of the place in SF that I alluded to earlier in this thread.

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For what it's worth, Philadelphia has a very good Burmese restaurant (referenced upthread), that has been doing quite well for many years now, and I don't think there's any especially large Burmese community in the city. Everyone I've taken there has just loved it, so people don't seem to be too intimidated by the unfamiliar dishes. In fact, describing it as somewhat Thai-Indian-Chinese usually makes it a pretty easy sell.

And they do make a pretty killer tea leaf salad, although the spring ginger salad is my particular weakness...

eG thread in the Philly forum here>>

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Most likely was Burma Superstar. They're probably the standard-bearer for fermented green tea leaf salad in the States (and Canada?). We love the dish so much that we'll try it in NY, even at the risk of disappointment.

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  • 2 weeks later...

When done well, Burmese cuisine is a very distinct entity itself, with lots of influences from Thai, Indian and Chinese, but also its own very particular character.

Yeah, I agree that the lack of a significant Burmese population is the problem. From what I understand, the great Thai restaurant Sripraphai in Queens almost entirely subsisted off business from the local Thai population of Queens for the first several years of its existence, until the rest of us began to discover how great it was, and how it completely blew all the other Thai restaurants off the map. Clearly there's nothing like this in NYC for Burmese, given how Americanized the food at Village Mingala is. I had lunch from there about a year ago and it tasted like Americanized Chinese food. I don't know; maybe it's better at dinner.

There must be a Burmese population in the D.C. area, because there is a mind-blowingly good Burmese place called Myanmar Restaurant in Falls Church VA. It's been there for at least five years. There's also a very good Burmese place that recently moved from College Park to Silver Spring MD. And a place in D.C.'s Chinatown that gets mixed reviews -- haven't been to that one. If only NYC could get Burmese and Ethiopian places matching D.C.'s, then NYC would be a huge step closer to total restaurant perfection IMHO!

I've read about a place in Flushing Queens that does a few Burmese dishes, along with lots of Thai and Malaysian stuff, but the reviews indicate that it's nothing spectacular.

(...by the way isn't Burma called Myanmar these days?)

The name is sometimes (but only sometimes) rejected by pro-democracy people. From Wikipedia:

In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English version of its name from Burma to Myanmar, along with changes to the English versions of many place names in the country, such as its former capital city from Rangoon to Yangon. However, the official name of the country in the Burmese language, Myanmar, did not change. The renaming proved to be politically controversial. Because the military junta was not legitimately elected, some governments have contended that it did not have the authority to officially change the name in English. This stance has also been adopted by most Burmese who oppose the military regime, who do not necessarily dispute the semantics.

The name "Myanmar"... also refers to a resident or citizen of Myanmar, or more specifically, a person from the majority Bamar ethnic group.

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[...]Clearly there's nothing like this in NYC for Burmese, given how Americanized the food at Village Mingala is.  I had lunch from there about a year ago and it tasted like Americanized Chinese food.  I don't know; maybe it's better at dinner.[...]

I can't see any reason why it would be. It sounds like it's the same as the last time I ate there, after they changed their chef something like 12 years ago.

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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