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Get a Taste of Burma in the Richmond District

Beth Hughes, Special to the Examiner
July 28, 2000


Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon? Boycott or engagement of the current military regime? Tough questions all, best debated in the Richmond District restaurant, Burma Super Star.

There, under a bizarre indoor arbor festooned with plastic grapes, a meal of authentic Burmese dishes never fails to spark talk of a country mired in 50 years of crises, a surreal counterpoint to discussion of whether or not to just order appetizers because they're all so good in different ways - a little hot, a little salty, a little bit curry sweet.

"This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about," wrote Rudyard Kipling. Ditto, the food which will, like the country, intrigue you, and demand a return.

Often an appetizer meal is the best option if most eaters are trying Burmese food for the first time.

Samusa Burmese ($5.50) puffy pastry triangles stuffed with chicken and potatoes fulfill that comfort food urge, as does Kemar Platha ($4.95) another stuffed treat, this one containing onion, spices, chicken or beef.

The choice between La Pat Doke (tea leaf salad, $5.50) and Gin Doke (ginger salad, $5.50) is best never made. Order them both, and if you're alone, consider cloning.

La Pat Doke is a traditional salad, with peanuts, dried shrimp, lentils, fried garlic, yellow peas, lemon, tomatoes, thinly sliced chilies and other nice things all carefully arranged in little mounds around a pile of damp green tea. As the waiter tosses everything together, the dish exudes a heady scent of garlic, tea and nuts. The ginger option offers its own snappy perfume, despite all but the central ingrediant reappearing. In both versions, the textures of the ingrediants remain separate. One mouthful crunches, another sizzles. Chew on to bliss.

And even the least adventurous eater in your group will enjoy the Fried Shredded Onion ($4.95) with a tasty dipping sauce. Perfect beer food, with a satisfying crunch.

If you need more than assorted appetizers, or want more more, stick with the Burmese dishes, rather than exploring the Chinese offerings.

Soup fans should try Baya Kyaw Samusa Doke, ($5.50) which features little potato-stuffed samusas, fried yellow beans and what is described on the menu as a "many spices" broth. I defy anyone to figure out which spices are in the broth without a recipe, as Burma's is another of the crossroads cuisines of southeast Asia. A touch of Thai, an inkling of Indian, a chunk of Chinese all blended into an intriguing new whole. If you like curry, go for the Tan Poi Rice with Curry Chicken($6.95). It's the cinnamon and bay leaves in the rice that make the dish special. The same preparation can be orderedwith beef ($7.50). Both are good.

I don't like mutton, so I can report only that those who do have enjoyed the Burmese Style Curry Mutton ($7.95).

My favorite fish dishes are those prepared with lemon grass. Ask which fish is freshest and enjoy.

And yes, vegetarians can partake. Ma Po Tofu ($5.95) keeps those tastebuds jumping with hints of ginger, green onions and red pepper. A sauce of garlic and ginger makes Tofu a la Burma ($5.95) a good choice, even for carnivores.

As always, save room for dessert. Ignore your impulse to reject the unfamiliar and try a Paluda Sundae ($2.95). Grass jelly, tapioca and ice cream in a sweetened coconut milk sauce...none of this two spoons for sharing nonsense. Get your own!

But no matter how tasty the food, no matter how pleasant the waitstaff, no matter how much fun it is to watch friends discover this cuisine, I cannot escape a sense of overwhelming sadness when I eat at Burma Super Star.

Although Burma was once the s world's largest exporter of rice, Myanmar, as its rulers call it, today it ranks as one of the world's 10 poorest countries. Rich in natural resources, the country is excruciatingly far from fulfilling its potential having descended into ethnic conflict and disunity soon after achieving independence from Britain's colonial rule in 1948.

Now, at lunch alone, or at dinner with friends, the food carries me back to Rangoon years ago, when 7-day visas made a visit to Burma a race against time funded by black market deals in litres of Johnny Walker and cartons of 555 cigarettes.

One look at a garish painting of Shwedagon Paya on a wall at Burma Super Star, and I am transported to a full moon night spent dodging scurrying rats, fat from eating alter offerings, as I explored what Rudyard Kipling called "a beautiful, winking wonder" in "Letters From the East.

The La Pat Doke, in that intertwined way of taste and smell, always reminds me of the hot winds scented by wood-burning stove fires below Shwedagon Paya. As the sun set through the smoke-tinged air, the stupa's golden dome glowed red, countless tiny bells chimed, surfaces covered with mirrored tiles twinkled and sent out spears of refracted rainbows. When the moon rose, the available light clarified into an otherworldly iciness that illuminated a haunting assortment of statues, images and pavilions within the grounds of the most highly revered religious monument in the country, enshrining, among other relics, eight hairs donated by Gautama, the fourth and present Buddha.

Legend has it that when Shwedagon Paya no longer stands, the world will have ended. If I can no longer remember the sensory assault of that moonlit night, if La Pat Doke at Burma Super Star no longer evokes it, I will take the legend as truth.