You have almost certainly eaten Thai food. You have probably tried Vietnamese or Malaysian a fair few times too. However, tell people that you could ‘murder a Burmese’ and they will almost certainly take you literally – and not just because they associate the country with brutal military dictatorships. Burmese food has never really broken out into the wider world in a big way. There is a reason for this: Burmese curries do not generally possess the subtle, layered cross-pollination of flavours found in their Thai counterparts. They are often astringent, with a pungent hit of dried or fermented fish or crustacea, but lack the capsaicin kick that you may be accustomed to. Typically, they come submerged in a thick, glowing layer of oil, which often is used to keep flies out of a dish that may be left out for several hours, in tropical heat. Of course, a country with 135 different ethnic groups and several different climatic zones does offer a wide variety of cooking styles, in addition to excellent Indian and Chinese cuisine in its larger towns. Nonetheless, Burma does feel like something of a culinary ugly duckling (oh, wait…isn’t that a Philippine dish?), in comparison to its more extrovert neighbours.
The Shan State takes its name from Burma’s the easternmost administrative division. The Shan themselves are ethnically- and linguistically-distinct from the Bamah majority and have close ethnic and cultural ties with other T’ai peoples in Laos, Thailand and Yunnan. The name ‘Shan’ is thought to derive from the same root as ‘Siam’ and ‘Assam’, meaning ‘free’. Since Burma was granted independence in 1948, the region was plagued first by an invasion of Chinese Nationalist forces, who sought to use the region as a base from which to reconquer their homeland, then by nationalist uprisings, following the military coup brought that Ne Win to power, in 1962. The area became notorious for smuggling and opium production, with the area bordering Thailand and Laos forming part of the ‘Golden Triangle’.
The Shan State of Shaftesbury Avenue has none of the exotic, orientalist ‘opium den’-chic that one might expect in a restaurant that is trying to make Burmese food accessible to West End crowds. Instead, one finds a chirpy, clean-cut, brightly-lit joint that doubles-up as a bubble tea salon. The Road to Mandalay it ain’t, but it does have an intriguing menu. I never did find out what the ‘Chicken Balloon’ involved, nor the ‘Lobster Shower’ (which sounds like something out of a rather niche Japanese adult movie). However, after some querying, I was able to discover that the ‘Monk and Fish Noodle’ was not, as I had suspected, a dish devised during the food shortages that followed the 2007 uprising, but was actually mohinga – considered by many to be Burma’s national dish.
Having ordered this, I saw a plate of crisp, fluffy Shan-style chickpea-tofu winding its way towards a neighbouring table and ordered some immediately. I remember Shan tofu as something of a gateway drug, having successfully persuaded my two skeptical, meat-addicted travelling companions of the virtues of fermented pulses, in a way that the wobbly, insipid Cauldron Foods equivalent would never have been able to. It arrived with some excellent beansprout fritters, labelled as ‘Myanmar Tempura’ – although the gram flour-based batter gave them a more savoury flavour and slightly harder texture, perfectly-suited to the tart, tamarind sauce that accompanied it.
The mohinga arrived, an enticing mess of rice noodles, coriander and vegetables, in a fragrant fish stock, coated in vermillion chili oil. A hard-boiled egg slice floated on the surface, staring at me accusingly. As I delved deeper, I found a rich seem of green lentils and the occasional fragment of fish. At 12.95, I had expected a bit more of the latter, but my dismay way partially offset by the arrival of yet more fritters, to serve as an Asiatic crouton substitute.
My friend eyed this all jealously from above the bowl of clear chicken broth, lightly-flavoured with fresh herbs and bulked-out with beansprouts and spinach. The dudu noodles that he had chosen (five different varieties are available) were thicker than my delicate vermicelli, but I could sense that he regretted not ordering something more pungent, something more distinctly ‘Burmese’.
I intend to return to The Shan State in the near future, with a view to working my way through more of the vast menu. As much as am intrigued by what ‘Chew the Tiger’ might involve, I am very curious about their take on the ubiquitous fermented tea-leaf salad and to see if they can salvage the reputation of Burmese curry, or gali.
Value for Money: 7/10