A first for the county: Burmese food

Banny Hong wants Orange County to try something different.

As the co-owner of Irrawaddy Taste of Burma, a restaurant that opened three months ago in Stanton, Hong is offering something the area had never had before: Burmese food.

"Some people come in here and ask, 'What's Burma?' " he said of the Southeast Asian nation now known as Myanmar. "They don't even know it's a country.

"We want to educate them about our country," Hong said. "So if they come in here, they not only get to taste the food, they'll also learn about our culture."

Unlike other forms of Asian cuisine, particularly Japanese, Chinese and Thai, Burmese food has yet to take off in the United States, something Hong attributes to the history of trade sanctions against the country, as well as the relatively small and dispersed Burmese immigrant population.

Until Irrawaddy opened, Orange County didn't have a single Burmese restaurant, while the Greater Los Angeles region has only a handful.

"We just want people to come and try," said Fred Phan, Irrawaddy co-owner and Hong's nephew, "even if they don't know what Burmese food is."

For Phan and Hong, food was a big part of growing up in Myanmar.

"Where we lived was surrounded by food vendors," Phan said. "So usually in the morning we would go and eat at the market."

This and watching his mother cook at home sparked Phan's passion for food.

Myanmar — situated near India, China and Thailand — draws upon its neighbors for the flavors and ingredients of its cuisine, including curry, noodles, rice, coconut and tofu.

But Hong is clear that Burmese food isn't about imitation.

"It's our own version of cooking," he said. "It's not completely Indian or Chinese. If we need it, we use their spices. But we don't copy completely."

The most popular Burmese dish is tea leaf salad, which at Irrawaddy is made of Romaine lettuce, fried garlic, fried lentil beans, pumpkin seeds and a dressing made of tea leaves imported from Myanmar. Other versions may incorporate cabbage, peanuts, hot sauce or even corn.

"It's a very traditional dish," Hong said. "For any occasion, we offer tea leaf salad to the guests."

The crunchy, savory salad is served with all the ingredients separated on the plate and then mixed at the customer's table. This preserves the taste and texture of the dish.

"The tea leaf salad, once you mix it, you have to eat it within 10 minutes. Otherwise it gets soft," Phan said.

Tea leaf salad is Phan's and Hong's favorite dish on the menu, and it's hugely popular with customers too, they said.

Other favorites include Southern-style noodles, made of rice noodles and chicken in an onion-based sauce; golden tofu, made of chickpeas instead of soy beans; and samusa, a savory potato-filled pastry much like Indian samosas.

Most of the dishes on Irrawaddy's menu are family recipes or re-creations of the street food they grew up with in Myanmar. The golden tofu salad is one example: Phan still remembers the woman who would push her food cart along a five-mile route each day to sell the dish.

But Hong and Phan weren't always cooking Burmese food. When they first moved to California in 1988, an eatery devoted to their native cuisine was out of the question.

"A Burmese restaurant is very complex," said Phan, explaining that importing traditional spices was prohibited. "And it wasn't very popular at the time."

Instead, Phan opened a Chinese fast-food restaurant, and he and Hong later opened a sushi restaurant.

One important lesson they learned was the importance of adapting to an American palate. Just as Americans created the California sushi roll, Phan and Hong also realized that they needed to tweak traditional Burmese dishes to make them more appetizing to a new audience.

So Phan and Hong dialed down some ingredients, like fish paste, and added more vegetables and vegetarian-friendly options, all while seeking to maintain the authenticity of Burmese cuisine.

Their background in Japanese food provided another lesson — American tastes can change quickly.

"Thirty years ago, sushi wasn't that popular," Phan said. "People didn't want to try it."

But now, of course, sushi restaurants are ubiquitous throughout Southern California. Could the same happen to Burmese food?

Said Phan: "That's what we hope."

Irrawaddy Taste of Burma is at 7076 Katella Ave. in Stanton. The restaurant opens at 11 a.m. every day. For more information, call (714) 252-8565.

caitlin.kandil@latimes.com

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