Mark LaMaire, Eva Sohl and Blake Smithson run the Burmese food pop-up Lahpet (www.facebook.com/lahpet), which will take over weekday lunch service at Mid-City Filipino restaurant Milkfish in January. LaMaire and girlfriend Sohl learned about the cuisine while working for their nonprofit, One World Family International Peace Organization, which supports refugees from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in Thailand. LaMaire spoke to Gambit about Burmese food.
How did you learn about Burmese food?
LaMaire: The cuisine we're serving grew out of nonprofit work Eva and I have been involved in for about six years. We currently support 45 children who go to school in Thailand ... many of (their families) had to flee Myanmar because of the civil war. A lot of these recipes are things we picked up from people we worked with or street vendors over there. We learned about it in Mae Sot in Thailand; it's a border town. There are lots of refugees there. We got hip to Burmese food doing that.
There are only a handful of (Burmese restaurants) in the U.S., but it's blowing up in San Francisco. There's a Burmese population in Houston and a couple of Burmese food markets. We've been doing it for a year now. We started in January (2015) and have done about 20 (pop-up events).
This started with us cooking it in our home and we realized we could bring it out. My partner Blake Smithson has a lot of restaurant experience. He's opened four or five restaurants, so he's been responsible for making it work in larger batches, restaurant style. We bring the authentic recipes and cuisine knowledge.
What is the cuisine like?
Myanmar is bordered by Thailand to the east, China to the north and India to the west. There are elements of all those cuisines, but there are a lot of unique elements. They're really into fried nuts. Pickled tea leaves are one of the unique ingredients; you don't find that anywhere else. They're the only culture that eats tea leaves. They have a sourness to them — very complex flavors. It's a vegetarian-friendly cuisine because they're so into nuts and vegetables. The cuisine is not as spicy as Thai cuisine, but it's often spicy.
One of the dishes we do is Shan tofu. It's a homemade tofu made out of chickpeas instead of tofu. They eat that a lot in the Shan state in the north. We do a lot of salads. The style we do is called a thoke, which means "by hand." They say that to bring out the flavors, you have to mix it by hand.
Salads and handmade curries are our main push. A lot of the curries we do are influenced by Thai and Cambodian styles. We mash up the paste with a mortar and pestle. They say that's how you have to do it to get the flavor out.
A lot of the Burmese curries are oily. As far as I am concerned, that's not my favorite part of their cuisine. We try to do things that are a little more healthy and accessible to people who like Thai curries, and we try to do things that aren't done elsewhere. I also like northern Thai food. We've picked up recipes there too.
How diverse is Burmese cuisine?
There are over 100 different ethnic groups in the country, and they all do things a little differently and have unique things. We do a dish called Shan noodles, from the Shan region. We do it with wide rice noodles. There, the person selling it would make their own noodles. It's got a Bolognese-like sauce, with either ground chicken or pork in tomato sauce.
The national dish of Burma is a soup called mohinga. It's a fish chowder served over noodles. There are an unlimited number of varieties. The one we serve is Irrawaddy Delta style. We use chickpeas to thicken it. For us, it's almost like a gravy. But in some areas, it would be a clear broth with fish chunks.