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
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
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.