Aung San Suu Kyi stares down serenely from a framed portrait hung on a neon-tangerine wall. Her placid image, a cherished fixture in most Myanmarese homes and restaurants, doesn't help calm our mounting impatience.
Myanmar's First Lady of Freedom may have sustained millions of impoverished followers and their thirst for democracy during her 15 years of house arrest. But we unworthy gluttons are obviously impervious to the charms of her Buddhist grace. As fragrant fried rice, fishy noodle soups and oily curries pile up on nearby tables, we anxiously drum our fingers, gulp our water and eventually stand up, waving to the sole server for attention.
Oh, for the shame of first-world hunger pains.
The military junta that controlled Myanmar (formerly Burma) from 1962 to 2011 may have failed to crush Ms. Suu Kyi's non-violent resistance. But it did largely succeed in controlling the migration of the nation's cuisine with sealed borders and restrictions on travel.
Myanmarese restaurants are relatively rare in North America.
In Vancouver, there are three: Amay's House, Wahh Tee Burmese and Laska King (Rangoon closed last month).
All have their virtues, but Amay's House, open now for almost two years, offers the most extensive menu and traditional dishes. A modest mom-and-pop eatery, it is owned by Hihaa Kyaw and his wife, Mya Nyunt.
Before they came to Canada in 1996, Mr. Kyaw worked as a cook at the Inya Lake Hotel, a four-star, colonial-style resort in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). He also trained as a pastry chef, which explains why his prata, a flat-grilled bread made from layers and layers of oiled dough, is so light and airy – almost like a thin, crispy croissant. Do try it folded inside a creamy egg omelet that you can dress with a clear fish sauce with lime juice called ngapi (similar to Thai nam pla) -- if your ravenous friends don't beat you to the side bowl and drain it first. Grrr.
Myanmarese cuisine – it still sounds strange not to call it Burmese – is strongly influenced by the cooking styles of India, Thailand, Cambodia and China.
The first Indian settlers arrived in 250 B.C. – long before the Tibetans (ninth century A.D.) and the Chinese conquest (1272). Deep, dark curries – built on a basic paste made from onion, garlic, chili, ginger and turmeric – are common. The paste is heated in a smoking wok, like Chinese cooking, and reduced until the oil floats to the top. But the flavour isn't greasy, probably because lighter peanut and sesame oils are used.
Amay's House makes a fantastic chicken biryani, slow roasted and richly redolent of cardamom. It's served on the bone, in a bed of pale yellow and bright orange saffron-scented basmati rice. The rice was silky and buttery. Mr. Kyaw wouldn't reveal his secrets, but we think it was finished with ghee.
Myanmarese cuisine also offers many cold salads, including a distinctively funky fermented tea leaf salad. The fishy ferment gives the tea a pungent, murky flavour and its caffeine will leave diners with a jolty buzz. But when mixed with fresh citrus, red onion, chunky peanuts and crispy lentils, the salad is actually quite lively and refreshing. (Wahh Tee Burmese actually makes the brightest version of this ubiquitous dish; Laska King's was a bit dark and dreary.)
Even better, is the ginger salad at Amay's House. It's tossed with the same choppy mix of peanuts, yellow peas, broad beans and sesame seeds. But instead of tea leaves, slivered ginger root pickled in vinegar is the main ingredient.
Royal noodle salad is one of my new favourite comfort foods. At Amay's House, the thick udon noodles (another Chinese influence) are prettily topped with chicken curry, dried bean powder, fried noodles, fresh cilantro, raw onion and boiled egg, all separated into their own sections. You pour a bowl of fish soup over the noodles and mix it yourself. It's hearty and rich, yet again bright and herbaceous. At Wahh Tee Burmese, they add shrimp powder, which it gives it even more sticky heft.
Last but not least on the must-try list is mohinga. The lightly flavoured catfish chowder, bobbing with rice noodles and crispy lentil cakes, widely considered Myanmar's national dish. All three restaurants make it slightly different. Laska King's is the heaviest, almost a stew, laden with extra lentils and a slightly gelled broth. Wahh Tee has the boldest chili heat, which sneaks up the back of the throat and slowly seduces. Amay's House is the lightest because, as Mr. Kyaw explained, he uses semolina flour instead rice flour.
Although Amay's House is the best of the bunch, adventurous eaters will want to try all three restaurants. Just be patient with poor Ms. Nyunt, who serves the dishes (alone) as fast as her husband can cook them. Great food, like freedom, comes to those who wait.