Of all Southeast Asia's cuisines, Myanmar's could simultaneously be the most obscure and most familiar. Even if you've not had the opportunity to try it, you probably won't be shocked by its curries, which could be Indian, or by its various fried foods, which include the likes of spring rolls and samosas, and very likely not by its noodle dishes, which taste like a carefully assembled fusion of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese flavors.
Still, because of how difficult it has been for tourists to enter and for Burmese cooks to leave, Myanmar is a kind of Last Frontier for Asian food, and Western knowledge of what you're supposed to eat and how you're supposed to eat it is scattered at best. Most of the tourists returning from a Myanmar tour complain of food that is too oily or too funky, and there are inevitably those who accidentally buy a snack of fried water fleas off the street (they do look tasty in person) and are scarred forever after.
Z Gyung (Joan) Lam is one of the cooks who managed to leave Myanmar and become a de facto ambassador for its cuisine. She was born in Kachin, the war-torn northern Burmese state. She left with her family in 2007, the same year that Myanmar and Somalia were named the most corrupt countries in the world.
Although she has ambitions outside of the restaurant industry — she says she would "like to go to school, maybe find another job" — she remains the proprietor of Yoma Myanmar, a small restaurant in Monterey Park, which she took over when she arrived in the States. With its exhaustive menu, the restaurant easily serves the most representative Burmese food in L.A. (Though Mutiara, run by the same man who founded Jasmine Market, and Daw Yee Myanmar, just down the street from Yoma, both do good things.)
The restaurant space is simple, as would be expected of a typical Monterey Park Asian dive, with a low ceiling and a few tables crammed into a tight room. The menu is a different animal, with 89 different dishes from nearly every province in Myanmar — a remarkable feat, considering the country's stark ethnic culinary divisions. (The name Burma derives from the Bamars, the majority ethnic group, in a country with 135 officially recognized distinct ethnicities.)
Yoma Myanmar offers 20 different Burmese salads, nine different kinds of curries and nearly every major Burmese noodle. Lam also cooks food from her own province, which is delightful considering Kachin food is excellent (try the shan khat), unique even compared with other Burmese food and hard to come by even in Mandalay. This menu of Burmese food, as comprehensive as it is, probably exists in only a few other places in the West.
When you enter the restaurant, you likely will be greeted by Lam, who will eagerly recommend a few Burmese staples: laphet thoke, the famous tea-leaf salad; Burmese samosas, the popular street snack; and mohinga, a thick fish noodle soup, which is considered Myanmar's national dish.
The laphet thoke is particularly excellent here, a potent mix of deep-fried beans, peanuts, garlic and chili scattered over funky fermented tea leaves. It's essentially a required order, issues of legality aside. The tea leaves, which come with a satisfying punch of caffeine, are chewed throughout the day in Myanmar, in much the way that Peruvians constantly munch coca leaves in the Andes. There are more salads, which include ingredients such as preserved eggs and pork ear, and the crunchy salad of shredded ginger, gin thoke, should be a priority.
It's worth visiting the restaurant solely for the noodles. Nestled around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China (Yunnan province), India and Bangladesh, Myanmar has noodles that include so many different culinary genes that none of them is unfamiliar, even to a first-time eater.
There are bowls of myi shay, noodles served with an herbal broth reminiscent of the lighter Vietnamese soups, and tophu nwe, which, with its heavy dose of sesame paste and chili, tastes like an offspring of Sichuan's dan dan noodles. It's easy to envision nangi thoke and mounti both being sold in a stall on the streets of Bangkok. Shan noodles, offered with broth or without, could just as readily be sold in a stall in Kunming.
The coconut-heavy ohn no khao shwe is pronounced practically the same as Northern Thailand's khao soi (a curry noodle soup) and is thought to have been the precursor to that dish, according to Bangkok-based writer Austin Bush. It's fitting that the noodle most specific to Myanmar is probably mohinga, the national dish, a sort of fish chowder that does not taste quite like anything else.
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Then there are the Burmese curries. Connoisseurs of Burmese curry, if there are any, could point out that proper Burmese curries should arrive with a host of side dishes, much like Korean banchan, but that Yoma Myanmar's curries arrive as a single plate. Eaters of food will counter that the curries are delicious regardless, sour and heavy on the fish sauce, as much of Burmese food tends to be. It's true that they are oily, certainly enough to make health nuts turn away, but it's not necessary or even normal to eat the curry itself, which operates as a flavoring agent. The focus is instead on the ingredients. The fish, pressure-cooked so that the bones hardly register between your teeth, is particularly enjoyable.
Thankfully, Lam says she won't close the restaurant anytime soon: "Where else do you find this food? Golden Triangle served Burmese, but it's closed." She thinks of her work as an effort toward cultural exchange, a way to advertise the wonders of Burmese cuisine. What a wonderful cause to get behind.