Published in The Myanmar Times on 24 December 2012
When Iain Murray took up the position of executive chef at the Governor’s Residence in Yangon more than two years ago, the Scotsman spent months sampling Myanmar’s diverse cuisine.
“It was completely new to me back then,” said Mr Murray, who previously worked on the ultra-luxurious Royal Scotsman Train and the 21 Club in New York City.
He now heads a team of 21 chefs from Shan, Rakhine, Chin and Kayin states who have refined a wide variety of curries, salads and desserts, all of which are served up at the five-star Governor’s Residence every night from 6pm to 10pm. The buffet-style Burmese Curry Table opened its enormous teak floors and open-air balcony to hotel guests and the public in October.
The dishes simply can’t be faulted, though this is not to say that each mirrors the exact flavours of their origin. Mr Murray told The Myanmar Times that the aim of the experimentation process was to produce curries that are “not overly spicy or bland”.
The duck and pickled tea leaf curry combined with a banana blossom salad — just two of more than a dozen choices — will most certainly leave the fussiest of palates contented. This is no doubt in large part because each curry takes two days to prepare: a meticulous process that begins by grounding the basic ingredients into a paste.
Mr Murray said he finds Myanmar cuisine “very interesting” and said it most closely resembles Indian, while remaining wholly unique.
Vegetarians will enjoy the vast selection of vegetarian curries and salads, the latter of which include ginger salad, potato and vermicelli salad, and green papaya salad. For those better acquainted with the Western version, the almost translucent lentil soup, which is whisked out of a large traditional-style vat, tastes deliciously familiar while being less filling.
Nevertheless, if for some reason Myanmar food does not appeal to a guest in your party, it’s possible to order a dish from the Mandalay Restaurant downstairs, which offers European specialties.
As for those concerned about the impact of the oil for which Myanmar curries are notorious, Mr Murray reassures, “Oil? We just take it off. We only use a little.”
The chef explained that traditionally, the more oil a Myanmar dish contained, the more affluent the family was considered.
“This attitude is changing because people are becoming more health conscious,” he said, before plunging into an enthusiastic overview of Myanmar’s natural produce.
“We are lucky to have organic produce [in Myanmar]. Farmers don’t use pesticides — there’s a purity to the fruits and vegetables here. You can see that because tomatoes, for example, are smaller in size, as a result of being grown naturally.”
In a candlelit setting that overlooks a lush garden and a swimming pool of an unusual shape — and at less than US$50 a person for a buffet meal and a free flow of Dagon beer and green tea — this is an experience worth enjoying any night of the week.