The Upper East Side of Manhattan is an odd place for New York City’s ONLY* Burmese restaurant. On the far east side at 72nd Street is Cafe Mingala, consistently plagued by construction of the 2nd Ave subway line. On a recent Tuesday the place is overwhelmed with a rowdy party of older locals who seem to have befriended or married Burmese people. The walls are painted with bright landscapes of Burma’s cultural treasures. Beautiful Inle Lake with its picturesque huts on stilts jutting into the water. Shwedagon Pagoda, a temple in Yangon covered in gold leaf is behind us. And Bagan, an area of 40 square miles in north western Burma littered with ancient Buddhist temples and pagodas. It’s a bit kitschy but if are craving Burmese, you don’t have much of a choice.
*There are a few other places you can find Burmese dishes but Mingala is the only place with a full menu. Burmese noodle bar is a pop-up join in Williamsburg and Ditmas Park that served food on Mondays and Sundays. Crazy Crab, in Flushing, serves Tea Leaf Salad, Ginger Salad and a few fried Burmese tofu dishes.
The cuisine of Myanmar (Burma) is a complicated mix of the countries that surround the Southeast Asian nation. The kite-shaped country has borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand and somehow the best aspects of these cuisines melted together to become Burmese food. Rich pungent lime and fish sauce-heavy soups and salads are similar to Thai cuisine. Fiery turmeric-heavy curries come from India and flash fried vegetables and noodles from China. I first tasted it in 2007, in San Francisco’s EXTREMELY popular Burma Superstar. Go, just GO.
I say without hesitation that it’s my second favorite cuisine in the world (Japanese will always be #1) but I don’t say it lightly. Burma has been under a brutal military dictatorship for a very long time. In most recent takeover in 1988/9, the generals in charge renamed the country Myanmar because “Burma” was a name given to the country by the British when the country was part of their empire. Burma became an independent nation in 1948 and hasn’t been stable since. Take the time to read about the history. I recommend watching the documentary “They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” which as of today is available to stream on Netflix. In 2011 the acting president Thein Sien invited all of the country’s exiles back home and in 2013 most political prisoners were released. After so many years of isolation, the military government realizes it needs foreign investment to build infrastructure to survive. There’s an election taking place in November of this year that promises to be more democratic than the one that took place in 1988 which was immediately nullified by the government. Protests erupted and thousands were killed by the military. Again, I urge you to read up but since 2013 the borders have opened up to ex-patriots and tourists alike. Still, it remains a dangerous place for anyone who dares to speak out against the government and thousands of people live in desperate poverty.
Hundreds of different ethnic groups call Burma home. The “Burmese” cuisine I’m familiar with is probably only a fraction of what’s available. I’m actually going to find out for myself in November!
But back to Cafe Mingala.
You absolutely MUST order the Burmese Tea Leaf Salad and the Ginger Salad. Don’t turn your nose up at the iceberg lettuce! It serves as a canvas for the pungent flavors of fermented tea leaves and pickled ginger.
From the menu: Spring Ginger Salad young ginger roots, fresh veg., mixed with sesame seeds, toasted bean, twist lemon, peanuts & crisp onions on top. Pickled Green Tea Leaf Salad marinated green tea leaves mixed with sesame seeds, toasted garlic, tomato, lettuce, cabbage, peanuts & lemon twist
I also love the Shan tofu which is all at once dense and creamy. It’s FRIED CUSTARD. Also a must.
From the menu: Shan Tofu Kyaw fried yellow bean curd served with sweet chili tamarind sauce
The national dish of Burma is Mohinga, a curried fish stew often served with rice noodles and an egg.
From the menu: Festival Noodles Fish Soup (Mohinga) thin rice noodles with minced fish, lemon gras, boiled eggs, lemon & coriander in a delicious fish broth
The coconut chicken noodle soup was delicious. Sturdy egg noodles are simmered in a milkshake-like broth. Fried scallions are served on the side. Which I ate by the handful.
From the menu: Coconut Chicken Noodles Soup fresh egg noodles in creamy coconut milk broth with spiced chicken, lemon & crispy onions. hard boiled eggs
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