Samosa in a soup, tea leaves in a salad, and rose in a cheesecake — the combinations take you by surprise first, and then, as you open up to them one tiny spoon at a time, they engulf you in their flavours, textures, and of course taste. No, I am not judging a spin-off on MasterChef, but am sitting in the latest outpost of Burma Burma, one of the country’s most loved restaurants, talking to its founder and co-owner.
“Burmese food had never been a part of the culinary offerings in India. Other than khao-suey, there is hardly any Burmese dish that you see on the menus,” Ankit Gupta, founder and co-owner of Burma Burma, tells us. It may sound unusual, someone talking so passionately about Burmese food, but not for Ankit, whose mother grew up in Myanmar and brought authentic Burmese food to the table every day.
The realisation that the Indian palate was missing intense Burmese flavours is what sowed the seed of the enterprise. That Ankit and Chirag Chhajer, the co-owner and Ankit’s childhood friend, both came from culinary backgrounds helped too. After making many trips to Myanmar, learning recipes, and perfecting culinary practices, Ankit and Chirag opened their first outlet in Mumbai in 2014.
“It helped that we had a family restaurant. Also, since I had worked at the Taj Mahal, Mumbai, and had opened two restaurants there, I knew what to expect,” recalls Ankit, while talking about how the concept of the restaurant and tea-room came about. “We wanted to do something other than only food. Since Myanmar is primarily a tea-drinking nation, we decided to add a tea-room to the restaurant as well.” The idea seems to have worked, for in the past four years, they have opened four new restaurants in four States. “We do at least 25% more business than the competition on a regular basis. We are full on weekdays and weekends, and our guests come back week after week. This just proves that Burmese flavours are made for the Indian palate.”
Too hot to handle
The most striking part about Burma Burma is the no non-vegetarian and no-alcohol policy. “There are two reasons why we do not offer non-vegetarian food,” says Ankit, “One, that the non-vegetarian flavours of Burmese cuisine are so intense that even the most hardcore meat eater in India would not relish it, and two, because if you cook meat in your kitchen, then you can never assure being 100% vegetarian for your vegetarian guests — you may have separate ranges and pots, but how long can you segregate glassware or cutlery?”
The lack of meat is compensated by the innovative menu, about 80% of raw materials for which is sourced from Myanmar. The black sticky rice with buttered peas and pickled vegetables is made with rice and peas sourced from Myanmar; the laphet, or fermented tea paste laphet thoke, also comes all the way from the country, as do spices and condiments. The teas make up for the absence of alcohol — with every outlet having an elaborate menu of black, green, white, and oolong, and special infusions. The menu also includes innovative versions of Burmese street food, of which the sambusa soup and thoke, lotus stem and spring onion crisps, sweet corn fritters and many versions of mock meat remain most popular.
“Our mock meat preparations have been flying off the shelf, especially in Bengaluru, which is also turning out to be the biggest revenue generator,” informs Ankit. “The palate in Bengaluru is very evolved, people are well-travelled and open to experimentation.”
It is not only the flavours that attract people to Burma Burma; it is also the set-up. Each of the five restaurants is designed around a different theme and focusses on one craft from the country. The latest in Noida is centred around Buddhist mandala art. The furniture features authentic Burmese teak and rattan and the chandeliers are created with Burmese cane. Lacquer ware, dolls, upholstery, lamps, are all sourced from Burma; murals replicate local designs.
And what about expansion plans? “We are looking at both Chennai and Hyderabad very closely. These are the places where people are open to new things, rentals are reasonable, and policies support us. While Hyderabad is where we see a lot of corporate activity, Chennai is a market that will help us remain true to our theme of no meat and no alcohol. An outlet in each by the end of next year is on the cards,” Ankit closes with the promise.
Burma Burma has outlets in Mumbai, Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, and Bengaluru.