The ongoing ethnic food boom in Tokyo has somehow bypassed some of the most interesting, savory and satisfying food in all of Southeast Asia — the cuisine of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma before the accession of the current military government in 1989).
The reasons why some nationals still refer to the country as “Burma” while others happily use “Myanmar” are as complex as the ethnic makeup of the country itself, which has some 135 ethnic groups. This immense diversity — compounded by influences from Myanmar’s neighbors — explains the fascinating variety in the cooking. The impression one gets when sitting down to a Myanmar meal is that it is like eating Indian, Chinese, Thai and Malaysian food — all at the same time.
Masala-spiced curries served with paratha bread are set alongside spicy seafood noodle dishes, a kind of tofu made from yellow lentils, miso-flavored stir fries, long-grain rice and salads created with a myriad of exotic ingredients. Not all food is hot and spicy, so there is something for everyone.
A glance at a map helps one make sense of all this. Myanmar borders India, Bangladesh, Laos, China and Thailand — and less than 500 km of Thailand separates Myanmar from Malaysia. The country is at the crossroads of Southeast Asia, and nothing reflects this more clearly than its cuisine.
Surprisingly, finding authentic Myanmar food in Tokyo is a fair sight easier than locating similarly authentic food from other Asian nations. While it’s not unusual for Chinese, Indian and Thai restaurants in Tokyo to adjust dishes and flavors to suit Japanese tastes, in Myanmar restaurants this is the exception rather than the rule.
The main reason is that the majority of customers at these restaurants are from Myanmar themselves. In fact, there is a cohesive — and growing — community of people from Myanmar living in Tokyo, with many of their businesses clustered around Takadanobaba Station. Ma Hay Mar of the Japan Myanmar Culture Center estimates there are at least 30 Myanmar-owned businesses in the area; in addition to her center, these include restaurants, karaoke bars, general stores, computer schools, a travel agency and beauty salons. One reason many Myanmar pubs and eateries stay open late is to cater for Myanmar customers dropping by after finishing often low-paid jobs in the restaurant trade
Ma Hay Mar estimates that nearly half of the estimated 20,000 Myanmar nationals in Japan live in the general area of Takadanobaba and its adjoining stations. Reflecting the eight major ethnic categories into which the people of Myanmar are classified, this expatriate community is itself diverse. Among the many Japan-based organizations for Myanmar nationals, there are two major cultural groups, three political organizations, two Buddhist associations and a dance troupe. Not surprisingly, there are also three monthly and two weekly Myanmar-language publications printed in Japan.
In the restaurants, too, Myanmar is the operative language — which makes ordering food as much of an adventure as eating it. English is not widely spoken, and though Japanese can be used with varying degrees of success, be warned that in a few places (usually drinking establishments) almost no Japanese is spoken.
Where there is a Japanese-language menu, it usually has only brief descriptions. (Comprehensive menus in Japanese can only be found in a few restaurants, such as Nagani, which also has a limited menu in English.) Not to worry, however, because ordering a drink presents few problems and it’s generally easy to order a little food, too.
One good tactic is simply to explain that you want some real Myanmar home cooking, so “bring it on!” This approach has invariably produced an excellent spread of food — often at a startlingly low price.
So what is likely to be set before you? Despite the country’s culinary diversity, there are a few dishes characteristic of Myanmar. The best known of these is lape-toh, a salad made of fermented tea leaves, nuts, sesame seeds, garlic, dried fish, lettuce and other ingredients. Another is mohinga, a highly savory stew with a fermented fish gravy the consistency of pea soup, and containing chicken, vegetables and fine wheat-flour noodles virtually identical to Japanese somen. Tofu-joh is fried squares of yellow-lentil tofu, served with a hot and sweet dipping sauce.
A hint when ordering is to pay attention to the last syllable of the dishes. Those ending in -toh are some kind of salad (the word means “mixture”). Dishes ending in -joh are fried, and those ending in -hin are stews, usually spiced with masala.
Beer seems to be the most popular beverage among Myanmar customers, and it is also the best match for the food. In most places, draft beer by the mug is surprisingly cheap; Cafe Rendezvous charges just 280 yen. For non-beer drinkers, almost all places offer various types of cocktails, usually shochu-based and also invariably inexpensive. Nagani Burmese Kitchen offers some unique drink experiences, including their delicious Tamarind Fizz and several other cocktails made with Southeast Asian ingredients.
Nong Inlay, which specializes in the heavily Chinese-influenced cuisine of the Shan region (which borders Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China), offers the most exotic drink experience in the form of shan-iye, an interesting liquor made with grain spirits which have been infused with a mixture of herbs. The appearance is like whiskey but the flavor is akin to Chinese herbal medicine. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a place that serves htan ye, a rural favorite made from the fermented juice of the toddy palm.
Apart from the numerous Myanmar eating and drinking possibilities within Takadanobaba’s relatively small area, there are also a number of stores where Myanmar locals shop. These are mostly general stores stocking foodstuffs, magazines and newspapers, rental videos, tobacco products and even sundries like toothpaste, cosmetics and patent medicines all the way from Myanmar. The Irrawaddy store, underneath the Seibu Shinjuku Line tracks, sometimes offers fresh durian fruit, which are notorious for their pungent smell but prized by enthusiasts for their sublime taste.
Most of the ingredients to make typical Myanmar dishes are readily available at these stores. A typical shopping basket of essentials would include masala spice mixtures, turmeric, ngan-pya-ye (a thin sauce made from fermented fish or shrimp), ngapi (a salty paste made from fermented fish or shrimp, and used in practically everything), packages of fermented tea leaves and other ingredients to make lape-toh salad, long-grain rice from Thailand, canned coconut milk, sesame oil, peanut oil (for frying), and various gauges of rice noodles. Though certain types of vegetables and fish are unavailable, there are many acceptable Japanese substitutes. For example, mitsuba, a Japanese leafy vegetable, can be used in place of min kwa yue, a leafy vegetable shaped like a horse’s hoof.
A visit to one of the general stores will reveal an array of ingredients bewildering to the uninitiated, but for starters there are also ingredients familiar to Westerners, including beans of nearly every description, Chinese-style noodles and even bags of fried pork rinds (also called cracklings or chicharrones). With these in your basket, why not branch out into the unknown with a bottle of fermented-fish seasoning or a stinky durian?
And to clean up after a Myanmar feast, whether eaten out to karaoke accompaniment, or whipped up in your own kitchen, perhaps you’ll want to take home a tin of Myanmar tooth powder.
* Cafe Rendezvous
Yanagiya Bldg. B1, 2-18-6 Taka- danobaba, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 5285-0128
Tiny restaurant said to serve the most authentic food, this is nearly always packed with Myanmar nationals.
NT Bldg. 3F, 2-14-8 Takadano- baba, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3200-6961
A wide range of specialties from various regions of Myan- mar offered at this family- oriented restaurant.
* Nagani Burma Kitchen
Yanagiya Bldg. B1, 2-18-6 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3205-0560
Attractive restaurant that’s comparatively spacious.
* Nong Inlay
2-19-7 Takadanobaba, Shin- juku-ku; (03) 5273-5774
Specializes in the cuisine of the mountainous Shan region, which borders southwestern China. Don’t miss the Shan liquor.
* Century pub
Dai-ni Kyoya Bldg. B1, 3-29-7 Takada, Toshima-ku; (03) 5921- 2622
Very loud Myanmar-language karaoke and a friendly, casual attitude.
* Rangoon pub
#5 Bldg. 3F, 2-15-9 Takada- nobaba, Shinjuku-ku
Myanmar karaoke, cheap drinks and light foods. Myanmar people appreciate applause after a karaoke number.
TTA Bldg. B1, 3-18-11 Takada, Toshima-ku; (03) 3204-5121
A popular drinking place with karaoke in English and several Asian languages, along with a comprehensive menu.
* Wonderful pub
#5 Bldg. 4F, 2-15-9 Takadano- baba, Shinjuku-ku
Friendly pub that provides the ultimate in cultural immersion.
* Irrawaddy general store
2-18-6 Takadanobaba; Shin- juku-ku; (03) 5272-3709
Stocks everything from fresh durian to a wide range of Myanmar food products, along with magazines and videos to rent.
* ZAW Gift Shop
Tak 11 Bldg. #801, 2-19-7 Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 5272-5103
Selling handicrafts, wood carvings and gold items, this is where Myanmar people in Tokyo buy gifts. The fifth floor is a general store.
* Japan Myanmar Culture Center
Offers lessons in dance, traditional dress, harp music and language of Myanmar. Cooking lessons are also slated to begin. For more information, contact Ma Hay Mar at (03) 3203-6032, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org