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Lahpet: The new face of Burmese food

Lahpet: The new face of Burmese food

by Pete Dreyer 17 October 2017

Burmese food is starting to emerge in London, but what is it exactly? Pete Dreyer caught up with Dan Anton and Zaw Mahesh from trailblazing restaurant Lahpet to get the low-down on this little-known Asian cuisine.

‘I think Burmese food is more earthy and rounded than neighbouring countries,’ says Lahpet co-founder Dan Anton, as he attempts to distil thousands of years of Burmese food culture into a few sentences. As a journalist you get used to asking people to squeeze complex ideas into small packages, but Dan is doing an admirable job – this clearly isn’t the first time he has been asked to explain Burmese food. ‘There's less stir-frying and flash-frying and more slow cooking and big pots of stews. Burmese food doesn’t have the pungent spice of Indian, or the sharp contrast and spicy kick of Thai. It’s softer and more rounded.’

I’m meeting with Dan and head chef Zaw Mahesh in their restaurant, under the railway arches at London Fields. My decision to walk there has been met with a sudden downpour – this is London in late summer, after all – but Lahpet is a welcome oasis of calm, bright and verdant amid the gurgling drains and industrial shutters.

Dan and Zaw renovated the space themselves before opening the restaurant in January 2017
They originally turned the site down, thinking it was too much work to get it up and running

My family arrived in the UK on 23 September 1953, after a three week journey from Myanmar – once known as Burma – that took them across India, through the Suez Canal, across the Mediterranean, around the Bay of Biscay and eventually into the port of Tilbury in Essex. Those sorts of journeys don’t mean much when you’re young, but they become very humbling when you’re old enough to know the pain and confusion of four hours on a Megabus. I was born and raised in the UK, but have always felt a connection to the place that my family came from, and like Dan, bemoaned the lack of Burmese food in Britain.

‘My Dad and I always complained about there being no Burmese food here,’ says Dan, ‘and I always thought it would be a good idea to open up a Burmese restaurant. Eventually I got off my arse and made a business plan, but realised pretty quickly that we needed a Burmese chef.’ Chefs are hard enough to find as it is in London, and Burmese chefs even more so. Dan’s fruitless search led him all over the capital, until his girlfriend mentioned an Indian takeaway in Herne Hill that served a few Burmese dishes. That takeaway was The Cooks’ House, beloved to south Londoners, and it belonged to one Zaw Mahesh.

After building a reputation at Maltby St Market, the pair are determined to bring Burmese food into a new era
Zaw insists on doing everything in-house at Lahpet, including fermenting his own tea leaves and making his own tofu from scratch

‘I was studying full-time and running the takeaway as well,’ says Zaw. ‘It was tough! The business was primarily Indian food, but I gradually added Burmese dishes to the menu and they became really popular. I realised pretty quickly that Burmese food could be huge in London.’

Dan and Zaw began working together and immediately struck up a following at Maltby St Market, where they dished out heaped boxes of lahpet thohk – the fermented tea leaf salad that gave the restaurant its name – and Shan pork noodles to eager foodies. The latter is a noodle dish with ground pork and mustard greens that has a recognisable southeast Asian vibe, but lahpet thohk is something else entirely. The first time I ate lahpet thohk, I asked Dan if it had Parmesan in it. It doesn't, obviously, but I wasn't the first person to ask. That umami comes from the fermented tea leaves, but other flavours play off it. Juicy heirloom tomatoes, earthy peanuts, sun-dried shrimp and a satisfying crunch of cabbage and dried beans. There’s fish sauce and lime and sesame, and more besides. I’ve attempted to explain it a dozen times to different people, and each time concluded that it’s beyond the realms of my grasp of the English language – you just have to try it for yourself. ‘Nobody eats lahpet in the rest of the world,’ says Zaw. ‘It's a totally unique Burmese thing.’ Zaw, who was born and raised in Mogok in the north of Myanmar, where huge quantities of tea leaves are grown, is an expert on such things.

Lahpet's signature lahpet thohk tea leaf salad is a unique, beautiful symphony of umami flavours...
...whilst the ohn-no kauk swé coconut noodles with chicken have a more familiar Southeast Asian vibe

For years, there’s been very little understanding of Myanmar’s culinary heritage, and almost no sign of it in the UK, even in London – unquestionably one of the most diverse food cities in the world. As recently as 2012, American novelist and filmmaker Robert H Lieberman called Myanmar ‘the second-most isolated country in the world after North Korea,’ and with good reason. As its southeast Asian neighbours progressed, Myanmar languished under the rule of a military regime that locked it away from the world. Only very recently has the country returned to the international fold, allowing us more insight into its unique food scene.

That’s not to say that there was no Burmese food in the capital before. Mandalay on Edgware Road served up Burmese home cooking for many years, and continues to do so in a new premises in Kilburn. Freya Coote’s super supper club Yee Cho remains ever-popular in Homerton, as are the roving Rangoon Sisters who hold their own supper clubs around London too. These are all brilliant places to discover true, authentic Burmese home cooking, but Lahpet’s mission is different – Dan and Zaw want to blaze a trail for modern Burmese food, and bring it into the twenty-first century.

Ngar thanpya paung – bream with pickled ginger, lime and greens
Wet monyin chin – pork and mustard green curry with ginger, star anise and peanuts

‘We are playing around with flavours and being quite creative,’ says Zaw. ‘The dishes on our menu are completely authentic, it’s just the way we present them that's contemporary, and the combinations. For example, lamb and lahpet? No-one eats that in Myanmar. But they eat lamb, and they eat lahpet, so if they work really well together, why not serve them together?’

‘It’s about produce too,’ adds Dan. ‘Our hake masala with lemongrass rosti is a pretty contemporary dish, but even if we wanted to go as typically Burmese as possible, we’re not going to import frozen Asian fish. We're much better off using really good quality local fish, but some people might complain that our fish curry doesn't have catfish in it, and that means it’s not authentic. It's little things like that where we can play around with elements to improve the dishes.’

Those little things are all over the menu, but Lahpet’s food remains well and truly bedded in authenticity. Mohinga for example – the chowder-esque noodle soup that is Myanmar’s national dish – is served in hundreds of different variations, but Lahpet’s version comes directly from Zaw’s mother-in-law. The split pea tofu – made in-house by Zaw for salads and fritters and soups – originates from Zaw’s old neighbour in Mogok. These are dishes absolutely rooted in Burmese home cooking, but growing into an exciting new era.

Mohinga – fish chowder with lemongrass, rice vermicelli, split pea fritter, fishcake and egg
Team Lahpet are determined to bring their modern Burmese cuisine to more people, with plans for a central London location in the mix, as well as dreams of a restaurant back in Myanmar

Changing perceptions isn’t the only battle Lahpet have had on their hands since opening. Cooking proper Burmese food means importing proper Burmese produce, and that throws up its own set of challenges. ‘Basically, Myanmar is a sanctioned country for wired money transfers,’ says Dan. ‘British banks won't touch Burmese bank accounts because there's no banking infrastructure in Myanmar.'

'Freight is expensive as well,' adds Zaw, 'so we end up paying about double the cost of the produce just to get it here.’

Change is still incredibly slow in Myanmar, but it is happening. Visitors who fly into Yangon will find a brand new airport terminal, and a mobile phone signal, ‘albeit a bloody expensive one,’ laughs Dan. There’s been an influx of new restaurants, too, and Myanmar’s younger generations have embraced a new wave of international food that their parents never had access to. ‘There’s a KFC in Yangon now,’ says Dan. ‘That’s the epitome of globalisation really, isn’t it?’ The evolution of Burmese food culture is happening, whether people like it or not, and Lahpet is at the forefront internationally. A new site in London is still top of the agenda for Dan and Zaw, but both would love to return to the country where their journeys began. ‘It’s still in the back of our minds,’ says Zaw. ‘At the moment we’re just talking about the next step, but why not Lahpet in Yangon? We’re thinking big.’

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Lahpet: The new face of Burmese food


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