Wrangling Rangoon: Burmese Food in Yunnan


Guandu Old Town

Guandu Old Town

Riding from my flat in central Kunming to Ah Bo’s Burmese Cuisine on my electric scooter, I could easily imagine that I was really riding an off-road motorcycle on a rocky, muddy path through the Burmese jungle. For Ah Bo’s restaurant, lovely as it is, is on the southern outskirts of Kunming, in an area that — how can I say it diplomatically? — is not yet as developed as the city center.

The roads become wide, dirty passageways, overrun with giant, roaring construction trucks. Drivers, scooter riders, motorcycle riders, and bicyclists, while not exactly courteous and orderly in the city center, become suicidal and homicidal rogues, intent on causing as much chaos and danger as possible. And while the mannerisms and social etiquette of people in Kunming has improved dramatically over the years, the citizens of the southern outskirts are not even one generation removed from farming the land collectively, so they can be a bit rough around the edges.

The southern outskirts of Kunming are a rough and tumble place. That's not a doll hanging off of that scooter. It's a real baby.

The southern outskirts of Kunming are a rough and tumble place. That’s not a doll hanging off of that moving scooter. It’s a real baby!

Nevertheless, Ah Bo has set up shop in Guandu Old Town. As the name indicates, it is an old fishing village, and by old, I mean it was there in the 8th Century, known then as Wodong. And while much of the town has been renovated and beautified by the Yunnan government (and very well-done), there are still some temples there that have survived since the early Middle Ages. And the renovated buildings themselves are ancient. It is just that they had become rather dilapidated, and required some care.

The food street of Guandu Old Town.

The food street of Guandu Old Town.

Overall, Guandu Old Town is quite interesting and beautiful. Restored to its Medieval state, it is a traditional Chinese town of narrow stone streets and hutongs (as they would be called in Beijing) flanked by old, three-story houses, with town squares centered around Buddhist temples and martial arts studios still run by monks. These days, Wodong is not so much a functioning fishing village, as a tourist attraction, but that does not mean that it is all glitz and deception. It has some very interesting products for sale from local craftsmen and artisans, as well as a fabulous selection of food and restaurants, touting everything from street rice cakes, to upscale garden restaurants that make their own beer. And so the trek through the…churlish…surroundings of Guandu Old Town is definitely worth the food.

I cannot read Burmese, but I think that sign says something welcoming.

I cannot read Burmese, but I think that sign says something welcoming.

I chose Ah Bo’s Burmese Cuisine because of the novelty of it. After all, outside of Burma (now properly called Myanmar), where would a Westerner ever get to try the cuisine? While I do plan to visit Myanmar soon enough, I have heard that Ah Bo’s food is pretty authentic, so it is certainly a good way to get an idea of how the Burmese eat. So I convinced my dining partner to hop on the back of my gargantuan electric scooter, and we braved our way through the urban jungle, finally reaching civilization in the form of Ah Bo.

Ah Bo's is in an old home.

Ah Bo’s is in an old home.

The restaurant is located in an old home on Local Flavors Street, as it is called. This food street boasts Sichuan cuisine, local dumplings, fried rice stalls, donkey meat restaurants, and a couple of upscale garden restaurants that serve Yunnan cuisine. While I have enjoyed food from the other restaurants before, I must say that Ah Bo has the monopoly on unique and interesting.

The upstairs dining room.

The upstairs dining room.

Seating is on wooden benches and at wooden tables, all painted green. The exterior is decorated with colorful flags, and there is a stall outside that sells delicious banana pancakes and fresh juice to pedestrians. It is an open restaurant, so the entire feel is that of being outdoors in a tropical setting.

Because the first floor was full, we went upstairs where there is a large dining room with open windows on all sides. Like almost all restaurants in China, there is no sense of Western formality, but rather a loud, lively atmosphere of enjoyment and pleasure. And Ah Bo’s seems to be run by a family — not nearly enough people to actually staff the restaurant. Thus, there is always extreme chaos in the open kitchen, and on the floor, which actually makes it fun, and more authentic.

Twenty dishes. Simple.

Twenty dishes. Simple.

A nice selection of freshly-pressed juices.

A nice selection of freshly-pressed juices.

The lovely, full-color menu is very simple, with twenty dishes on one side, and a choice of fresh juices on the other. I must mention these juices, because they are part of what makes Ah Bo’s famous. On one side of the restaurant is a sort of tropical stand, if I can call it that, on which are piles of fresh fruit. When you order a juice, someone actually presses it out of the fruit right then and there. You can choose fresh mango juice, coconut juice, or any number of others, and they are all delicious. I chose fresh lime juice, because I thought it would be intensely refreshing to compliment the atmosphere and the cuisine. Indeed, it was sweet, tart, cool, and refreshing, quite a treat on a balmy Kunming evening.

Freshly-pressed lime juice on a balmy Kunming evening: the closest you can get to Burma this side of the border.

Freshly-pressed lime juice on a balmy Kunming evening: the closest you can get to Burma this side of the border.

The food menu includes two fish dishes, boiled crabs when in season, fried dumplings, several chicken and pork dishes, a bean and peanut dish, and even a couple of rice noodle dishes that are served with tripe. While it all looked intriguing, we decided to order five dishes: a meatball soup; lemon chicken; a cold shredded pork dish; a bean and peanut dish; and the fried dumplings with dipping sauce. They were all really great, and definitely something different.

Meatball soup with mint, with a fiery red dipping sauce.

Meatball soup with mint, with a fiery red dipping sauce.

When I say meatball soup, I mean balls of something that was once a cow. I am not sure what part of the cow they came from, but it was definitely flesh and not organs. The meatballs were savory and spicy, in the sense of being well-seasoned, not hot like chilis. The broth was rich and beefy, and fresh green onions and mint swam with the meatballs. While the green onions were expected, and added a sharp pungency, the mint was a lovely surprise. It added a crisp cool flavor that offset the warmth of the beef. And the lack of heat in the meatballs was (over) compensated for by the bowl of bright red fire that came with the soup. While the dipping sauce was really good and flavorful, it was definitely heavy on the fresh, red chilis! And, as I would learn, Burmese food is very, very spicy. In fact, Southeast Asian food is, in my opinion, the spiciest in the world, hands down.

The way to eat this soup is to pluck the meatballs out with chopsticks, dip them in the red sauce, then put the whole meatball in your mouth and enjoy/burn. I also picked out leaves of mint and ate them with the meatballs. The broth is then to be drunk at the end, as is the case with most Asian soups. I would have enjoyed this soup with just the meatballs, broth, and herbs, but the fiery sauce definitely added a wonderful new realm of flavor and heat.

Fried delight: pork and green onion dumplings.

Fried delight: pork and green onion dumplings.

The next dish was the fried dumplings. They were an egg-based dough, similar to wonton dough, filled with minced pork, green onions, and a myriad of spices that I could not completely identify. They were served with a vinegar-based dipping sauce with julienned ginger and onions. The flavor was simple and Asian. The pork was warm and meaty, and the onions and ginger were sharp and slightly sweet. The vinegar added enough tartness to offset the rich, fried dough. And they really were fried perfectly. They were fried enough to be crispy, but not over-fried in the slightest bit. I could probably eat three plates of these by myself, and next time I might sneak off alone and do just that.

Peanuts? Beans? Something else? Not sure, but really good!

Peanuts? Beans? Something else? Not sure, but really good!

Next was the bean dish. To me, this was easily the most surprising (in a good way) dish of the night. While the other dishes were very good, I sort of had an idea already how they might taste. But this dish caught me completely off guard. I am still not sure that I can identify everything in this dish. But I do know that it at least had peanuts, red beans, shredded cabbage, some sort of fermented bean paste, red chili peppers, and garlic. It was stir-fried, so the peanuts and beans were crisp. The overall mouthfeel was both crunchy and moist. But the flavor was really different.

The reason I believe that this dish had some sort of fermented bean paste in it, is that it was very strong with a warm, salty, sharp, sour, and umami flavor, similar to the flavor you get from Japanese bean curd. In other words, there was the distinct taste of bacterial fermentation, that warm, bitter but pleasant flavor that you find in some cheeses. And in this dish, that sharp sourness combined with a very warm richness, and the crunchiness of the stir-fried beans, to create a real masterpiece. While I really enjoy the fresh, cool, spicy flavors of much Southeast Asian food, I was very delighted to stumble upon these sorts of flavors as well.

Lemon (lime) chicken.

Lemon (lime) chicken.

Next was the lemon chicken. When Asians say lemon, they often mean lime, as there are not two separate words, and this was no exception. This lemon chicken had a similar flavor profile to the lemon fish that I have written about as one of my favorite dishes ever. It is also similar to the Dai lemon chicken that I have written about. This Burmese dish featured black chicken meat and skin; fresh lime juice; garlic; cilantro; purple onions; red chili peppers; and tomatoes. The tomatoes were a surprise, as they are not common in the Dai version. Like most Asian chicken dishes, the meat and skin were on the bone, in order to add flavor to the dish. The flavors were crisp, cool, acidic, tart, and spicy, in addition to the meaty freshness of the chicken I am not sure whether I like the Burmese version or the Dai version better. The tomatoes added a fruity acidity and some warmth, which was very nice.

Shredded pork and cool, spicy Southeast Asian flavors.

Shredded pork and cool, spicy Southeast Asian flavors.

The last dish had some of the same ingredients as the lemon chicken, but with shredded pork. Even though the two dishes shared some ingredients, the pork dish was definitely heavier on the garlic and lime juice, and the cilantro. Also, there were no tomatoes in this dish. The pork itself looked and tasted like it had been barbecued: it was firm but not tough or dry at all, and it had a warm, salty, smoky flavor. I think that the combination of the smoky, saltiness of the pork, and the crisp, cool, sharp, pungent, acidity of the rest of the dish, was the perfect balance of flavors. And when I say this dish was hot, I mean really, really hot! It was replete with bits of fresh, red chili peppers, and my mouth burned for half an hour after I finished it. Oh, but it hurt so good.

Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- complements spicy Burmese food like a cold, local beer.

Nothing — and I mean nothing — complements spicy Burmese food like a cold, local beer.

Eating at Ah Bo’s Burmese Cuisine was a very special experience for me. I love any culinary adventure, and when the food ends up being this flavorful and exotic, it really makes it a great evening. Everything combined to really create a Burmese experience for me. The open kitchen and open restaurant allowed the warm breeze to float in and caress me, as it blew the multicolored flags and banners in a gentle wave, as if they were beckoning me inside. The pungent, sharp smells from the kitchen and the sweet smells from the fresh fruit juices caused me to imagine that I was in Rangoon.

The signs, in the Burmese script, added an extra environmental element, and the bright green, wooden benches generated a casual, tropical feeling. Sipping the cool, sweet and tart lime juice, feeling the burn of the chili peppers, the warmth of the bean curd and the pork, and washing it all down with a crisp pilsner beer, really made me want to visit Myanmar, and to experience the beautiful, casual love of life there.

Looking through the ancient window at the trees waving in the balmy breeze, I could almost believe I was in Rangoon.

Looking through the ancient window at the trees waving in the balmy breeze, I could almost believe I was in Rangoon.