RANGOON — All of the dishes are native to Burma’s eastern highlands. Some are nationally famous, while others are little-known outside of the country’s largest state. But here in Rangoon, traditional Shan cuisine attracts an unlikely fan base: the Japanese.
With the aim of bringing authentic, traditional flavors of local cuisines from Shan State to Burma’s commercial capital, Shan Yoe Yar restaurant in Rangoon has been setting out its menu to both local and international visitors since 2013. A year later, the two-story wooden house-turned-restaurant is serving a disproportionately skewed clientele.
“I noticed that 30 percent of our customers come from Japan,” says Sai Htun Myo Thant, the restaurant’s manager.
“One of the reasons they come here is because traditional Shan food is not oily and dishes are low in fat,” he posits. “Plus, they enjoy the fresh vegetables we provide here.”
Phat tee tawt, a common soup from Shan State, is one of the popular soups among customers at the restaurant in Rangoon’s Lanmadaw Township. Traditionally, it is a soup abundant in various types of homegrown vegetables, prepared right before a meal. For more flavor, dried soybean (pal pote) powder is added before serving.
“That’s what the Japanese are surprised to learn: We use nattō [Japanese for fermented soybean] in our food because they use it too. In Shan food, pal pote is cooked in many different ways as used in phat tee tawt,” Sai Htun Myo Thant says. “The similarities between the two culinary traditions make them more interested in our food.”
Akihiko Hosada, a Japanese professional boxer who has been living in Rangoon for the last six months, said he “frequently” visited Shan Yoe Yar.
“I like Shan food as it is like Japanese food, especially the taste and smell. I like noodle, tofu and soybean. I eat the food two or three times a week,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Apart from soybean, to the delight of Japanese consumers, Shan people usually use tofu and sticky rice in their dishes—both are Japanese culinary mainstays.
The Japanese are also right at home tasting kaunt poat, a deep-fried, pounded black sticky rice cake that resembles the Japanese glutinous rice cake mochi.
“The difference between Shan and the Japanese tofu is the ingredients. We use chickpeas but they use soybean. They enjoy kaunt poat and fried tofu as snacks,” the manager says.
Another type of food in high demand is “pounded” dishes. Mainly based on vegetables or meats, some of these Shan traditional dishes are suited to breakfast, too. For example, “pounded eggplant,” which is served with a plate of white sticky rice.
“Pounded chicken” is also a favorite, especially with those who want to wash it down with Shan traditional liquor. With an alcohol content of 55 percent, the spirit is fermented with black sticky rice and rarely disappoints customers from a nation whose rice wine sake is internationally famous.
“Originally, the pounded chicken is a bit hot,” says Sai Htun Myo Thant. “But for them [the Japanese] we prepare the dish with little or no chili in it. So it becomes one of the best appetizers for them to go with the Shan liquor.”