Fishes on dishes and other Burmese delights – a welcome variation for London’s southeast Asian food scene – 7.5/10
London is fortunate enough to be spoiled with a variety of excellent southeast Asian restaurants, predominantly focused on Thai or Vietnamese food: Som Saa, Kiln, Smoking Goat, Sông Qûe Café, the list goes on… Before my visit to Lahpet, I can honestly say that if someone had asked me where to get Burmese food in our city, I would not have had a clue. After a quick Google, Mandalay on Kilburn High Road looks to be the only other real option in London. It is a very rare thing these days to be able to discover a whole new cuisine for the first time, but happily I have a Burmese friend who agreed to show me the ropes, so off we trot to Bethnal Green Road one Friday evening after work.
Lahpet is yet another example of a London food stall that has successfully transitioned to a full-blown bricks-and-mortar restaurant. Even now, they still hold true to their roots with a takeaway outlet in Spitalfields Market. While my friend gives me a crash-course in Burmese cuisine and food terminology, I order a house margarita, which comes planted on a large betel leaf. The waiter encourages me to tear off a bit and chew it before sipping the margarita.
It is common across southeast Asia to see people chewing betel leaves together with the red areca (or betel) nuts and sometimes tobacco. The mixture, generally known as kun-ya in Burma and paan elsewhere, apparently produces stimulant and psychoactive effects. Unfortunately, it also produces a red kind of sludge, which leaves the chewer with stained teeth and is often spat out in the street to such an extent that some countries have banned it. Based on my decidedly non-hallucinogenic experience, the leaf is harmless by itself and just has a smoky, peppery taste – perfect with tequila.
Our first dish is a trio of fat dumplings (balachaung mote lone), decorated with slices of pickled radish. Balachaung is a typical Burmese condiment made from fried onions, dried shrimp, garlic, ginger and red chillies, often eaten as a simple accompaniment to rice. In this case, it is stuffed into thick dumplings, which have an almost mochi-like texture and are served in a pool of rice wine vinegar – an effective foil for the concentrated shrimp flavour. Mote lone yay paw (a sweet version) are the quintessential treat eaten at Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Water Festival. Groups of friends or families sit and roll the little dumplings, stuffed with sweet jaggery (htanyet) or palm sugar, before tossing them into boiling water, setting them on a banana leaf and dusting them with coconut flakes.
The eponymous dish at Lahpet is Burma’s national delicacy: a colourful mélange of pickled tea leaves, fried beans, peppers, cabbage, tomato, dried shrimp with a shower of toasted sesame seeds. It is eaten at pretty much any time of the day or on any occasion in Burma and is often served deconstructed in a round, compartmentalized dish called an ohk. The pickled tea leaves have quite a curious taste: bitter at first, then savoury and slightly zesty, as the aroma of tea drifts up into the back of my nasal passage – very pleasant with the salt and crunch of the fried vegetables.
Next, a fried bream (ngar kyaw hnut), which is the highlight of the meal for me. The rather grumpy-looking fish (understandable in the circumstances) is served whole, crispy on the outside but still tender on the inside. To our relief, it is also boneless, which avoids the need to pick tediously through a mountain of bones to extract meagre morsels of flesh. The relish on top is delicious: not-too-sweet caramelised onions, together with the usual garlic, coriander seed and a gentle touch of chilli. The green vegetable on the side initially looks like pickled pak choi stems but actually turns out to be “morning glory” or water spinach, a staple accompaniment in most Burmese households.
Two particularly plump crustaceans arrive in the king prawn curry (bazun hin), but, despite their size, they are quite tough and lack depth of flavour. We were also not particularly fussed by the asparagus spears, which are thin and limp.
Mohinga – essentially the national dish of Burma – is a kind of catfish stew served with rice noodles, egg, fried fish cake and a crispy fritter. Little bits of pickled garlic and lemongrass bob up and down in the soup, which is rich and (to state the obvious) very fishy. In Burma, mohinga is available on almost every street corner and considered a staple part of the diet, typically for breakfast. It’s the kind of dish that every family might have their own recipe for and no-one else’s ever quite tastes the same. It is pretty close to the way my friend’s mother makes it (in taste, but not texture), which is surely a good sign.
Tofu nway is described on the menu as “silky”, but I would describe it more as “thick and soggy” as the sauce coats the noodles like a kind of thick satay without as strong a flavour. According to my friend, it would typically be flooded with a much thinner soup and topped with lots of fried tofu pieces. The tofu fritter and pickled mustard greens are pretty good, but consumed completely by the beige goo. We fish the noodles and other nibbly bits out and leave most of the “soup”.
We are so full by this point that we only manage one dessert between us. The orange and semolina cake (sanwin makin) may not be for everyone but I’m a big fan: it is delightfully stodgy and drenched in a citrus syrup with a couple of splodges of whipped chocolate cream. A large boule of orange and pineapple ice cream (I think) sits on top of a tempting pile of jaggery crunch and possibly hazelnuts, which lend some texture to the cake. All of the different components work together and, frankly, the combination of orange, chocolate, pineapple, nuts and sugar is bloody delicious.
I very much enjoyed my first taste of Burmese cuisine: not as spicy as Thai and Vietnamese, the flavours are subtle and light and the dishes are remarkably varied. Real Burmese food is apparently much oilier than the food at Lahpet, but I’m glad that Dan Anton and Zaw Mahesh, both of whom have Burmese heritage, have tweaked it for the London palate. There were only a couple of unconvincing dishes, which is to be expected when accustoming yourself to a new cuisine. I realised as I was leaving that I hadn’t tried a single meat dish and will therefore be back soon to try the pork and mustard green curry and the Shan noodles. Burma has opened up to tourists since 2012 and it has certainly moved up my list of future travel destinations if the food at Lahpet is anything to go by!
A Moveable Feast