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Burmese Underground 

At Jasmine Market, picking up the scent of Muslim Myanmar

Wednesday, Jan 9 2008
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In the crook of a Sepulveda curve, just down the street from Tito’s Tacos, Jasmine Market is an unassuming takeout joint next to an old Radio Shack, a place you would whiz by if road construction hadn’t immobilized southbound traffic in that exact spot, and if the men eating at the picnic tables out front weren’t rocking skullcaps in a multiplicity of shapes rarely seen outside a cosmopolitan mosque. Jasmine is like a U.N. for Westside Muslims, a place to stop for a cheap halal lunch or a quick cup of tea, a mound of tandoori chicken for the family dinner or instant takeout iftar dinner during Ramadan. It is also, as far as I know, the only Burmese restaurant west of the San Gabriel Valley — the only place to taste the catfish chowder moh hin ga, the noodle salad khauk hswe thoke, or a real Burmese samusa, which is the funky, lamb-stuffed pastry of your dreams.

Jasmine’s Burmese identity is not immediately obvious. There used to be an Egyptian café here famous for its fool muddamas and mud-thick coffee, and after that, I think, a basic sandwich shop. The clientele includes Muslims from almost everywhere, and the backlit picture menu on the wall is pretty close to something you’d see at a restaurant specializing in the dishes of Pakistan or Hyderabad. The grocery items on the shelves are generically South Asian. The calendar on the wall pictures Mecca. The soda selection in the drinks case is as multicultural as the crowd at a Barack Obama rally — you can choose from Taiwanese grass-jelly drinks, Thai ice tea, Lebanese-style tahn, Indian mango juice, all-American Sprite, and a flowery, “ice cream”–flavored Pakistani pop that tastes a little like the carved soaps in your grandmother’s guest bathroom used to smell. The $4.99 lunch special of tandoori chicken, naan bread and rice will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has had the briefest acquaintance with meaty Mogul cooking. I’m not even sure most of the regulars know that Jasmine isn’t an Indian restaurant — the Chinese, Lao, Thai and Shan-influenced components of Burmese cooking aren’t much in evidence.

But if you look around, you notice that about a quarter of the customers are reading the Burmese-language weeklies stacked on the counters, and fliers advertise a project devoted to making a Burmese-language Quran available on the Web. The final five items on the picture menu, the ones whose numbers are preceded by the letter W, are listed in florid Burmese script. And when you actually taste the food, even on the regular menu, the flavor betrays its origins as well. The gentle, intricate scent of the lamb biryani, cooked slowly for hours with herbs and aromatics, puts the rice dish closer to a Burmese dan pauk than to anything from Hyderabad, and the keemaparatha, a thin, crisp crepe stuffed with curried ground beef, is pretty close to the murtabak you may have tried in Malaysian joints.

click to enlarge Out of the fryer: Jasmine’s samusas
  • Out of the fryer: Jasmine’s samusas

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I’m sure that the chicken curry and the paya soup are based on Burmese recipes too, but I’ve never been to Burma. My experience of Burmese cuisine is limited to what I’ve eaten in a half-dozen restaurants in the Bay Area and Southern California, including Whittier’s excellent Golden Triangle. (In the context of this halal restaurant, the Burmese-style dishes I’ve tried in northern Thai restaurants, most of which seem to involve pork and potatoes, definitely don’t count.) The delicious boti kebab, highly spiced chunks of yogurt-marinated beef or lamb simmered with onions and fresh chiles, is definitely something I’ve eaten in Pakistani restaurants, but that may swing Burmese too. The tandoori chicken seems pretty traditional, as does the chewy curried goat. It’s a guessing game here.

But if you manage to make it on a weekend, the noodle salad is the essence of what I know to be Burmese cooking: Sour, hot, salty and sweet all at the same time, the slightly undercooked wheat pasta is tossed with shrimp paste and fish sauce, powdered garbanzo beans and tamarind. The turmeric-yellow tofu salad is pretty much the same thing. There will definitely be bowls of moh hin ga, the thick catfish chowder, laced with transparent rice noodles and thin sections of banana-tree trunk, garnished with crunchy split-pea fritters, that is powerfully flavored Burma’s national dish — a soup strong enough to overpower even that Pakistani soda.

The Weekly is set to move a few blocks from here later this spring. I expect that we’ll all be eating at Jasmine a lot.

Jasmine Market & Deli, 4135 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, (310) 313-3767. Open Tues.–Sun. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking. MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $14–$20; lunch specials $3.49–$5.99. Recommended dishes: samusas, tofu salad, catfish chowder, lamb biryani.

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