YANGON — A number of restaurants serving authentic ethnic cuisines including Shan, Mon, Rakhine, Kachin and Wa have opened in Yangon in recent years. But I had never seen a Kayan restaurant until I stumbled on a hidden gem named Vista Do Rio in Thuwunna Township.
Since it opened on Myamarlar Street in May 2017, Vista Do Rio has been giving Yangon’s foodies a chance to taste Kayan cuisine while enjoying a river view beside the Nga Moe Yeik Creek.
Most restaurants offering ethnic cuisine decorate their walls with traditional musical instruments or artifacts, but at Vista Do Rio you will be served by a woman wearing traditional dress, bronze rings and the Kayan’s trademark brass neck coils — not to mention the beautiful smile on her face.
Other waiters and waitresses also wear traditional clothing and the restaurant has a small Kayan souvenir shop at the entrance.
I went there with a few colleagues last Saturday evening at around 5pm and the place had few guests. We chose a long table directly overlooking the Nga Moe Yeik Creek.
I fell in love with the vibe of this restaurant even before I had tasted a bite of the Kayan food; it’s so breezy and secluded from the noise of the city traffic, you immediately feel relaxed.
My previous knowledge of Kayan cuisine was limited to Kayan traditional pork sausage. My colleagues knew a bit more, but we asked the waiters to recommend a few dishes.
Some of the waiters were better trained and more able to explain the menu than others, but on the whole the staff was friendly and tried to be helpful.
At the waiters’ suggestion, we ordered Shwe Pae Ywat Thoke (Fresh Bean Leaf Salad, 3,000 kyats); Dee Mot Soe Pharr Kyaw (Traditional Smoked Frog with Onion Tempura and Crispy Basil, 8,500 kyats); Beef with Lemon Juice and Ginger Cooked in Bamboo (10,000 kyats); and of course the famous Kayan specialties, Potato Mat Khar (3,000 kyats) and Kayan Traditional Pork Sausage (4,000 kyats).
We also ordered a traditional alcoholic drink, Khaung Yae, a home-brewed liquor made by the restaurant served in a bamboo cup (1,500 kyats per cup).
With the exception of the item cooked in bamboo, the dishes were served promptly and arrived one after the other.
The Kayan Traditional Pork Sausage was served with its own sauce. The fried sausage was cooked perfectly, neither too hard nor too oily, and went perfectly with the sauce, though the portion was small.
I didn’t try the Dee Mot Soe Fried Frog, but my colleagues seemed to love it. This is really a fusion dish, combining smoked frogs sourced from Kayan villages fried up with onion and basil leaves.
My colleagues assured me the frog meat was tasty and was complemented perfectly by the Khaung Yae liquor.
The smoked frog dish portions were more generous and well worth the 8,500 kyats.
“I collected the frogs from seven villages in the Kayan region. The villagers catch the frogs and dry them in the sun before smoking them. That’s the only way to preserve the freshness of the ingredients, which are shipped all the way from Kayan to Yangon,” said Vista Do Rio owner Ko Zayar.
Ko Zayar is an adventurous fellow who spent two years preparing for the restaurant’s opening by going to remote Kayan villages to study the cuisine and collect recipes.
The idea to open a Kayan restaurant came from his wife, and he made it happen.
“Vista Do Rio” means “river view restaurant” in Portuguese.
“Before opening this shop, I had a beer pub in San Chaung. One day, my wife gave me the chance to taste some Kayan sausage and I loved the flavor. Fortunately, one of my customers, a friend of my wife, was Kayan. He helped me with many things and got me started on my Kayan cuisine journey three years ago,” Ko Zayar said.
The care Ko Zayar takes with his ingredients and the authentic preparation of his meals is evident both in his words and in the delicious flavors of his dishes.
The Fresh Bean Leaf Salad was bright green with soft leaves. While most Kayan dishes are spicy, this one is an exception, and stands out for its rich taste and freshness.
The beef dish cooked in bamboo could have been better, however; the meat was dry, despite being cut into small pieces. The dish included lemon peel, so the odd bite was very bitter.
The dish is cooked in bamboo but the portions are small, so I’d recommend ordering other main dishes that aren’t so pricy.
The highlight of the evening was the specially ordered Mud-Roasted Chicken with Herbs (20,000 kyats for a whole chicken).
This dish needs to be specially ordered in advance — and one of my colleagues did just that. For the best flavor, it needs to roast for eight hours, but we weren’t able to order that far in advance, so we ordered a four-hour version.
Despite being the quicker version, the taste was sublime. When the mud casing was cracked open, the aroma arising from beneath the banana leaves in which the chicken is wrapped was so delectable we were dying for a taste, despite being nearly full from the previous courses and the Khoun Yae.
But we easily made room for the Mud-Roasted Chicken; the meat was incredibly tender and the herbs with which the bird was stuffed blended into the sauce — the taste was heavenly. I definitely recommend this dish; it’s really worth a try.
Ko Zayar’s chefs are Kayan, so you don’t need to doubt the taste. This is authentic cuisine, though some of dishes would best be described as fusion.
The restaurant serves lunch and dinner. For those looking to catch up with friends at the weekend or just chill beside the river, however, evening is the time to go.
As we wound up our meal, the evening sky was slowly darkening and the other tables began to fill. Most of the diners were families or middle-aged couples.
The menu is not cheap, but it’s worth the price due to the fresh ingredients and amazing flavors, not to mention the perfect view. And you will be offered a variety of fantastic dishes that you simply can’t get anywhere else.
So, Vista Do Rio is a place you shouldn’t miss and a perfect choice for those craving an authentic ethnic dining experience.