New to Burmese cuisine? Local writer Bert Archer tells you the three must-try dishes to start with.
I’m going to bet that, unless you’ve been to Myanmar, you’ve never had Burmese food.
Despite the popularity of Southeast Asia in general, and Thai and Vietnamese food in particular, there haven’t been many opportunities to try Burmese here in Toronto.
Those who remember Mirvish Village fondly may recall that Butler’s Pantry used to have one or two Burmese dishes on their menu. There was also an actual Burmese place in Etobicoke called Royal Myanmar and a food stall downtown called Delightfully Delicious that’s closed now.
“I was in India last year, and had some Burmese food in Delhi,” says Henant Bhagwali, the impresario behind the Amaya and Good Karma chains. It reminded him of his childhood when he’d go with his family on vacation to the east of India, where generations of Burmese diaspora have lived.
The memory was so sharp that he took an unplanned trip to Yangon, where he fell in love with the food, which he describes as a mashup of Thai, Indian, and Chinese.
Though there are dishes that lean heavily towards one or another of those influences, the most distinctively Burmese dishes have a palate all their own, heavy on the sourness and bitterness. There’s a lot of tamarind in Burmese recipes, and many ingredients are fermented before cooking.
And then there’s ngapi, the fermented fish paste that’s a Burmese staple. Other important ingredients, like banana-flower stems and fermented tea leaves, are tough to find in the GTA. Even an apparently familiar ingredient like tofu is, on Popa’s menu, made out of chickpeas instead of soybeans.
But this is where economies of scale can help, and Bhagwani’s small restaurant empire – Popa is his 45th restaurant – enabled him at first to import the ingredients, and then, when the coronavirus made that difficult, to start fermenting the tea leaves himself.
Though Popa’s full menu (which also includes dishes from Bali and Macao) is available for pick-up and delivery, he recommends three things to get you started.
If you’re not too sure about all that sourness and bitterness, khao soi will ease you into Burmese cuisine. A light, milky noodle-based curry dish, it’s a house favourite and a general palate-pleaser.
The national dish of Myanmar is a tamarind-infused fish noodle soup that’s eaten any time of the day, as a meal or a snack. Though Popa’s other fish dishes are made with red snapper, the mohinga is made, as it always is back in Myanmar, with catfish.
This is where you really know you’re not in Thailand anymore. Regular tea leaves are fermented, in Popa’s case with white wine vinegar, until their bitterness is reduced, when they’re mixed with red cabbage, lettuce, peanuts and split peas into a dish that could not have come from anyplace else.
When the restaurant was open for dine-in, waiters would offer a pungent shrimp powder as an option. Bhagwani says you can (and should) ask for a little on the side to try it out at home.
But what if you’re nowhere near Bayview Village? Though Popa’s available on the usual apps, they also do their own deliveries within a 22km radius (which is about as far south as Bloor).
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door
there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.
See it. Snap it. Share it. In every neighbourhood, around every corner, through every door there's something that begs to be discovered in Toronto.#OPENYOURCURIOSITY
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