At this juncture, I reflect back to eating out and the restaurant scene in 2013. Eating out in a restaurant then tended to be in ‘canteen’ style places where the curries are on display and you choose by pointing at which ones you want. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of joint. (especially when command of the language is lacking it makes for an easier dining out experience). It is just an observation.
Feel Restaurant is typical of this type of establishment serving what is described as typical Burmese food. The food there is authentic, delicious and what you might expect to find in any home, with a huge variety to choose from. We stopped at a great branch on the highway to Naypyidaw. (The appointed capital of Burma with its administration buildings and civil servants relocated there in 2005. And incase you are wondering, the Naypyidaw stop was scheduled in for practical reasons, enroute to Bagan. There is NOTHING worth stopping for in this soulless city, other than somewhere to sleep after a late arrival in the darkness of night)
Back in 2013 if your Burmese hosts wanted to take you somewhere fancy or upmarket, invariably you would end up at a Chinese restaurant, such as the famous Shew Be (translated as Golden Duck) for the delicious signature roast duck.
Of course, there already existed places such as Padonmar Restaurant and Shan Yoe Yar, whose surroundings are more comfortable. By which I mean they are less hectic and crowded, where the restaurant is not vast. But neither do I mean any less atmospheric and convivial for it!
These beautiful restaurants are set in converted traditional old style houses, giving an authentic setting with a higher end service and a menu in English (!). Back then, these places were the exceptions and not the norm.
There are also places called ‘chettee’ restaurants, which have always existed, serving ‘danbauk’ (biryani Burmese style) or mutton curry and dosai or platha and other such foods from the Indian Subcontinent. My Aunty Dolly’s (mum’s younger sister and only surviving of four sisters) husband, pointed out one of these places where mum loved to eat dosai. It’s not far from 51st Street where they live. (Note to self must go next time).
And small food stalls can be found on every street corner, near a market or around a park, much like those found anywhere else in Asia, where all the locals eat. A few low tables and stools are placed around the stall which will specialise in just the one dish, for example hot pot. You choose the sticks you want to eat and place them in the hot pot of broth until cooked. You need to remember which is yours as the broth pot is shared by everyone who’s managed to squeeze around it. You do get your own dish of dipping sauce. No need to worry about double dipping etiquette on that front! Quite a fun way to eat and good way to meet people!
A special mention of 19th street is a must. Here it comes alive at night with hundreds of BBQ stick and beer joints spilling out into the street and selling long into the night. The street is an actual thoroughfare for traffic but so many tables spill out onto the street that cars are unable to actually drive down it when the place gets going. Fab place!
However, several places have been ‘tidied up’ or moved along to new areas. Such has happened around one of the main drags leading up to Sule Pagoda. I notice this area has been replaced by fancy shops, even a small mall. I couldn’t see many street traders left. A bit of a shame as the colourful and bustling atmosphere of daily life is lost. But this is what I expect some would say is considered progress and good for the local economy.
What’s happening on the restaurant scene in Rangoon ?
The immediate difference I notice in the eating out scene, is a wave of new ‘modern’ stylish restaurants opening. By which I mean hip, with on trend design aesthetics. Such as neutral or whitewashed walls, exposed brickwork, metro tiles, chalkboard menus, etc, etc….(most importantly air conditioning!). Places which would not look out of place in London, New York, Singapore….and even Manchester (!). You could well be in any metropolitan city in the world.
Burmese expats or second generation born and educated abroad, have returned opening modern and stylish places. Equally, this trend has had a ripple effect on the local restaurant owners, cottoning on to this new appeal and renovating or ‘modernising’ to up their game and keep up with trends.
One of these ‘new style’ of restaurant is Rangoon Tea House. So good, that in less than 48 hours we went back for another meal! The design was hip, modern and laid back. Sitting inside you would forget you were in Rangoon. (not that you wanted to!).
Downstairs a cool and hip city vibe, airy and bright. (did I mention hip?). Upstairs a more moody, laid back and upmarket vibe. More traditional, old school style, colonial house decor with dark woods and comfy chairs abound. On our second visit we sat upstairs, where it’s more suited for dinner, sipping gin tonics and relaxing. This food is really quite good too!
What else? A new farmers market in Yangon?
The former is a monthly event according to its instagram page ‘Yangon’s sustainable farmers’ market for families’. It is an upmarket farmers market. It sells not only produce and ready to eat food but homespun wares and crafts by artisans. Held in a beautiful space, a renovated old tea factory. I can see the attraction and the local enthusiasm and appetite for this kind of place. Another telling sign of the direction of change in Yangon.
Regional & ethnic Restaurants
Before leaving the UK, the little research undertaken about regional and ethnic dishes had been limited. It isn’t written about much. With exception to the main ones such as Shan, Rakhine etc. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But one thing I was not expecting was the immense regional variety to be found.
What I discovered from locals and ‘what’s on, where’s new’ types of publications is more restaurants are opening which state they specialise in specific regional and ethnic cuisines. This is great to see as it showcases the variety and diversity of food Burma has to offer. Thus, filling a gap in the restaurant scene.
The two stand out ones I discover in Rangoon is Kayan Alah (meaning beautiful Kayan. It also oddly trades by another name Vista da Rio. I do kinda understand this choice of name, as its situated right beside the river (but why its in Spanish I’m not entirely sure?!).
Another restaurant I encountered specialises in Kachin food called Jing Hpaw Myay. Both places serve delicious food using unique ingredients from the regions. Ingredients I have not encountered before. Both are outstanding and both are run by extremely passionate owners. (My next piece will tell you more about them as they deserve a full review)
A Thank you: At this point I should thank my cousin Soe Thant, for introductions and setting up the accesses to kitchens. He is my father’s younger sister’s son and spends time between Burma and Australia. Unfortunately, our paths have not crossed in a very long time (in fact I don’t actually recall the last time it was, as its been so long). So a big thanks to him and hope to see him soon on another trip 🙂
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