A Taste of North Indian Tradition

By Oliver Gruen 14 April 2015

YANGON — From Shan to Kachin to Japanese food, speakeasies to pizzerias, the area between Yangon’s central railway station and U Wisara Road has become a hot spot for lively bars and diverse cuisine.

There are fresh vegetables, fruit and fish served at street markets; fast food prepared by street vendors; noodles and sushi; tea and cocktails—all within walking distance of Bogyoke Market.

Amid this hubbub of activity, where competition is high and choices abundant, award-winning Indian restaurant Bawarchi has now opened its doors.

First established in 1998 in Bangkok, Bawarchi has earned a reputation for delivering excellent traditional northern Indian cuisine. With five branches in the Thai capital and eleven across India, the restaurant chain has expanded to cities as far-flung as Auckland, San Antonio and Dubai.

Bawarchi’s latest venture opened in Yangon’s Dagon Township near the Park Royal Hotel in late 2014.

After making reservations for a Sunday lunch a few days in advance, this reviewer arrived to find an ornately decorated interior dominated by wall-to-wall ebony woodcarvings. The smattering of Indian diners was the first good sign the restaurant would meet expectations.

The Hindi word “Bawarchi” means “chef,” and in India almost everyone knows the 1972 film of the same name about a family with such a bad reputation that nobody wants to work as a cook for them. The opposite is true of this restaurant chain that has been awarded “Best of Bangkok” on numerous occasions.

Soon after placing our orders with the attentive and friendly staff, complimentary starters arrived—a very crisp flatbread with red sweet and sour sauce and a green spicy herbal dip. Perfect to awaken our appetites.

While our selections remained on the traditional side, we soon found the dishes retained a welcome modern twist.

The classic Mulligatawny (3,500 kyat), a lentil soup, was a rich yellow color, mildly seasoned and perfectly balanced, with an optional dose of lime juice added for a kick of freshness. It remained at almost the same temperature for minutes and was an ideal entrée.

We decided against beer, since the spices in the food would dominate. Instead we ordered lime juice (3,000 kyat) which, with a dash of salt and sugar and a slice of fresh lime, made for one of the best yet sampled in Yangon.

Other fresh fruit juices, soft drinks, cocktails, beers and whiskeys were available, including the astronomically-priced Johnnie Walker King George V Scotch Whiskey, at 40,000 kyat per glass.

All the main dishes were served simultaneously. The bharwa paneer tikka (5,500 kyat), made of chunks of paneer (a non-melting curd-cheese) grilled on the tandoor, was tender on the inside and crisp on the outside. Served with tomatoes and loads of fresh coriander, it was an explosion of tastes and textures and a superb vegetarian alternative to chicken tikka.

Raita (3,500 kyat), a cool condiment made of cumin and black mustard, fresh vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, and fresh yoghurt, was a great partner for the karela fish curry (6,500 kyat).

The karela, a bitter melon also known as a gourd that is widely grown in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, was offset by the coconut milk and curry leaves and therefore shone through very elegantly. The fish was well textured and evenly cooked; not at all dry, but glossy and compact.

While there wasn’t much room left for the dal bawarchi (4,000 kyat), a vegetarian curry, it was hard to resist the slow-cooked black lentils and the creamy texture that was melt-in-your-mouth stuff.

Ideal to wipe up the remainder of our curry and dal were servings of roti (1,000 kyat), a flat, crispy type of bread from Punjabi roasted on the tandoor, and kulcha (1,800 kyat) which was stuffed with onion and fluffy on the inside with a hint of sweetness.

Wine was not yet available, although the Bawarchi website lists an array of wines from all over the world. My one quibble is that none of these wines are from India. Last November, I sampled at least 10 different Indian wines during the Asian Wine Fair in Hong Kong, all of which would have met Bawarchi standards.

The chain plans to open two more restaurants in Yangon in the near future—a sign it is anticipating success in a city strongly influenced by Indian cuisine. Next time, appetite permitting, I’ll stay for dessert.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.