Rangoon Tea House Gives Haute Burmese Cuisine a Home
By Claudia Sosa 3 January 2015
While growing up in northern England, Burma was the happiest of places for Htet Myet Oo. It’s where he spent family holidays, and it’s the origin of the food that his mother would recreate in Sunderland. One week after graduating university, Htet Myet Oo returned to Burma, where he is now the proud figurehead and owner of Rangoon Tea House, an upscale teashop in the commercial capital overlooking the lower block of historic Pansodan Road.
“A lot of the things my mom did for me as a kid food-wise resulted in this teashop,” Htet Myet Oo says about his commitment to using only locally sourced, premium ingredients and to make everything down to the samosa pastry and mohinga broth from scratch. The menu is a pared down version of what you’d find at a standard teashop, including lahpet thoke (tealeaf salad), nan gyi thoke (sometimes described as the Burmese equivalent to spaghetti) and curry platters, all the while seeking to appeal to Burmese cuisine first timers with clever illustrations of the different varieties of lahpet. The setting, meanwhile, strays drastically from the usual array of mismatched plastic stools that spill over onto the pavement. While the antique taxi meters and milk bellies on display are a nod to the teashop’s rich presence within Burmese history, the minimalist black and white palette and high ceilings lend the place a spacious, casual feel.
The menu and the owner both highlight the inclusive atmosphere of teashops, where everyone can gather to talk and share food. While Htet Myet Oo says that “teashop culture doesn’t discriminate; everyone can come here,” it’s clear that at 1,500 kyats (US$2.50) for a cup of tea, not everyone will. So why pay 5,000 kyats for a bowl of mohinga when it costs 500 kyats down the block? “We’re not trying to hide behind numbers. We don’t want tourists to come here and pay 5,000 kyats for mohinga because it’s a novelty. … We have to charge that amount because of the ingredients we put in, and because of the time and care we put into the food,” explains Htet Myet Oo. Indeed, when you hear him talk about the painstaking, months-long process that’s behind each of the dishes on offer, it radically increases your appreciation of the subtle tamarind hints in the samosa dipping sauce or of the fact that both fried bean and fried red onion patties are served with each generous bowl of mohinga.
Rangoon Tea House might very well be the first restaurant in Burma whose mission is to celebrate Burmese food by refining it; by beginning the journey that takes a homemade bowl of coconut noodles to the level of haute cuisine. In effect, when going out for a nice meal in Rangoon, there are myriad Japanese or Italian restaurants to choose from, but where to go out and splurge on some gourmet samosas and lahpet ye (tea)? It’s about time someone took a traditional teashop pork bun, shed off the MSG, and served it up with fresh cucumber, cilantro and honey-glazed pork. With millions of expats and tourists passing through Burma, Htet Myet Oo says that “the last thing I want them to do is come through and think, ‘Oh, Burmese food gave me diarrhea.’ I want people to come here and leave with the impression that Burmese food is some of the best food they’ve ever tasted.”
So how does the food fare? Well, Rangoon Tea House excels when it most deviates from the norm. Even if premium ingredients are used in mohinga that took months to develop, the balance of flavors was too subtle to wow. Meanwhile, when the cuisine strays from the expected, such as with the pork buns, the flavors dazzle. With a new menu debuting this week—highlights include ono kaew soi (coconut milk noodles) and steamed buns stuffed with butterfish—there’s an undeniable optimism that as owner Htet Myet Oo and his chef Kyaw Htet continue to develop the concept and the menu, they’ll arrive at the ideal combination of premium ingredients and rich flavors that will help Burmese food shine on an international level.