Taking the Machismo and MSG Out of Myanmar's Tea Shops
Tiny cups of sweet tea, MSG-laced dishes, and underaged waiters are the backbone of traditional Burmese tea shops, but Rangoon Tea House in Yangon is trying to change that with delicious food and a more welcoming atmosphere.
Photos by the author.
Burmese tea shops are manly joints. The tiny cups of sweet tea, the miniature stools that require some awkward squatting, and even the underage boy waiters that you beckon with kissy sounds—yes, cat calls—might not seem all that outwardly macho, but tea shops are where the men of Myanmar spend a good deal of their free time.
"You don't get tea shops like these in the West," Htet Myet Oo, co-owner of Rangoon Tea House, tells me. "You get cafes and places that may serve high tea, but no place that could ever quite replicate the buzz and atmosphere of a Burmese tea shop. For me, they're so unconventionally cool."
The only downside, Myet Oo says, is that tea houses are almost always dominated by men. "I know a lot of women might be a bit intimidated because there are a lot of men and they don't want to go in, be stared at. Most of the women in my family feel the same."
Myet Oo wants to make tea shops less macho, but still wants his own place to retain their loudness and lively, social atmosphere.
He also wants Rangoon Tea House to make Burmese food cool. What tea shops serve is much more than Burmese food, however. "It's tea shop cuisine," says Myet Oo.
Burmese cuisine is defined by curry and rice. The origins of the tea shop go back to when Myanmar was part of colonial British India. The cuisine begs and borrows from this multicultural heritage, and its neighbors: Chinese steamed buns, Indian flatbreads, and grilled meats typical of Muslim cooking.
Opened the last week of November in a historic, colonial building in Yangon, Rangoon Tea House is part modern reincarnation of a traditional tea shop and part time machine that takes you back to the days of grand old tea houses—a time when the country was rich and teak furniture was more plentiful than plastic.
"We took a chance by occupying this building because it was up for demolition," says Myet Oo. "We could've lost all of the money we put up. So on top of just the food, we are trying to reuse spaces." Revival is the theme for both the food and the building.
Myet Oo was born in Myanmar and raised in the UK. After studying economics in London, he moved back to Myanmar about two years ago. He didn't plan on working in food service. It was actually his work for Yangon Heritage Trust—an organization that preserves heritage buildings—that sparked the idea for Rangoon Tea House.
Plus, the local food scene was bad. There were fine dining joints and street food stalls, but not much in between.
"No one has ever attempted to improve the level of Burmese food in the way I wanted to see it. The best chefs usually want to cook French and Italian food. Food is no longer just taste—the presentation, smell, what you're hearing whilst eating. They're all tools that we try to tap into when dreaming up a potential dish."
Finding local chefs with both talent and an interest in cooking Burmese cuisine is a challenge. Rangoon Tea House went through six before they found Kyaw Htet, who used to work on a container ship. Myet Oo told me this is typical—ships pay good money.
Rangoon Tea House is in dialogue with tea house traditions, but it's like a different dialect—international feel in a local accent. The menu includes refined, healthier, and sexier takes on Burmese tea shop classics like split pea paratha, aloo samosas (served with jaggery and tamarind sauce), chicken curry, and noodle dishes like nan gyi thoke (thick rice noodles that are often described as the spaghetti of Myanmar). But it also serves foods from elsewhere, produced with local ingredients, like steamed pork bao with cucumber, hoisin, sriracha, and coriander (inspired by Taiwanese gua-bao); and the just-added bel thar mont, a sort of duck empanada served with mint yogurt, sriracha, and pickles.
Mostly importantly, there's mohinga—the country's national dish and culinary ambassador: delicate rice noodles in a pungent fish broth with endless toppings, some of them deep-fried.
The mohinga at Rangoon Tea House is the result of four months of testing and tweaking. The broth is smooth, but with a kick. The noodles, similar to angel hair pasta, nearly dissolve on their own. The deep-fried toppings soften, leaving little crunchy bits. Fresh herbs fight their way through the strong flavour of the broth.
"Mohinga in Yangon is not that great compared to mohinga I've had in Mandalay," Myet Oo tells me. "It is not as authentic here. Too many places use too much fish sauce, too little fish. They often use too much pea powder. In Mandalay, they use pea broth, so here we make a pea broth from scratch. We use butter fish; traditionally, most locals use catfish."
The variations—and the emotions that they tend to evoke—are endless.
Myet Oo says Rangoon Tea House caters to locals, trying to raise the standard of tea shop cuisine. For out-of-town folks, it is a good introduction to Burmese food, making it taste both familiar and foreign. Take the triple-cooked tofu chips: Shan tofu (made from chickpea flour) is boiled, blanched, fried, and then served with tamarind sauce and garlic aioli. "The inspiration was polenta fries."
"Burmese restaurants in Myanmar lack refinement and restraint. That's why the food is often too oily, super salty, super sweet. At Rangoon Tea House we take the best of tea shop food and add a little restraint." This method is threefold: analyze what foods exist, take out what is unnecessary (this means you, MSG) and experiment with new techniques.
"It would surprise you the number of places in Yangon that put plastic in their fried food to make it crispier, food colouring in their chili flakes, tissue into the milk to make it thicker."
MSG is everywhere in Myanmar, but Rangoon Tea House cooks without it. "The idea is to add umami, that extra layer of flavour. MSG is a little bit bitter and sour, but sweet, too. But in mohinga, for example, you can get it from fish stock made from the bones, or you can really enhance the flavour by using the right salt. It is the idea of adding Parmesan cheese to your spaghetti to add extra flavour. More is not necessarily better. MSG doesn't have a strong flavour—that is often the excuse here to pack it in."
Food aside, if you call yourself a tea house, tea has to come first. Rangoon Tea House has sixteen variations of laphet yay (Burmese tea). Served hot or iced, the tea menu doubles as a color-coded chart, an illustrated lesson in all of the possible combinations of condensed milk, evaporated milk, and kyat yat (tea).
"Food has to be a bit like rock n' roll, or watching a beautiful film. It has to keep you on the edge of your seat," Myet Oo says. "We were told people in Myanmar don't drink tea after midday, don't eat mohinga after breakfast, but we sell tea in the evening. We're still selling mohinga at 10 at night."