Myanmar (formerly Burma) shares a border with Thailand, India, China and Bangladesh. Its cuisine, at least the version at Maung’s Etobicoke restaurant, is muted compared to its neighbours.
Many dishes feature coconut milk or noodles. Garlic is a frequent contributor, as are cilantro and caramelized onions. Fish sauce sometimes replaces salt. Curries of pork ($11.50) and chicken ($10.50) are straightforward affairs stained by turmeric and paprika.
Like Uzbek restaurant Taj, Royal Myanmar attracts both the culinarily curious and those connected to the newly democratic country. I learn about it from colleague Leslie Scrivener, who twice went to Burma to cover the political upheaval.
The room is plain but clean. A TV plays the YouTube series Burma Bites.
A smiling server (all staff are related to Maung) brings out green tea and glasses. She hands over an index card and a pen to write our order.
Speed is not Royal Myanmar’s strong suit. Every dish is cooked to order, one at a time; it can take hours to get through a meal. Staff advise diners to phone their choices ahead of time.
Me, I’d request fritters ($8.95), a haystack of battered bean sprouts that recall latkes. Spicy dipping sauce disguises the slight oiliness.
Not for brewing
The dish on every table is tea leaf salad ($9.95), unique to Burma.
Fermented chopped leaves — not leftovers from the tea pot — weave their welcome tartness through shredded cabbage, pulpy tomato and crunchy roast chickpeas, peanuts and pounded sesame seeds. Each forkful lingers in a good way. And, my goodness, the heat! Not only does this salad wake up the taste buds, it slaps them around.
Compared to that, Burmese mixed salad ($8.95) suffers only in comparison. The starchy tangle of noodles, potatoes and cucumbers comes across as bland. Even blander is another noodle salad, khauk swe thoke ($8.95).
Soup and such
Burma’s national dish, mohinga, is here: Rice noodles and hard-boiled eggs in fish broth made gummy by chickpea flour ($9.95).
The homey meal ends with either subtle coconut jelly ($2.50) or fudgy coconut-semolina cake dusted in white poppy seeds ($2.50).
While paying at the counter, I point out the intricately painted lunch box to my children. Yellow deer cavort on a red-and-black floral background; like all Burmese lacquer, the work is done by women.
“Impressive. It’s so beautiful,” my 12-year-old daughter says.
“How do they fit that in their backpacks?” her 8-year-old sister wonders.