Sunday, 16 January 2011
Location: Edgware Road
By Boeing: 4299 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.4 miles
Edgware Road, that melting pot of cultures running from Regents Park to St John's Wood is lined head to toe with ethnic delicacies. With a decidedly Middle East flavour I will be returning several times in the course of this journey. But in amongst the Iraqi kebab shops, Lebanese bakeries and Syrian haberdashers nestles 'Mandalay', London's sole Burmese restaurant. While its Middle Eastern rivals struggled for custom this unassuming, understated culinary curio was bustling with diners on a wet, windy winter night. I hadn't considered it necessary to book on a January weekday and as I walked through the door I rolled my eyes about how foolish I had been. But restaurants always have one spare table rudely obstructing a thoroughfare and we were glad to accept it.
The spartan, canteen style interior was charming in a kitsch, understated way. There was no mood lighting, co-ordinated colour scheme or comfy chairs in a pre-prandial anteroom. Mandalay falls into that elusive category of the 'hidden gem'. By implication, therefore, if it were to be too flashy and flamboyant it would lose its word of mouth charm.
But being a culinary embassy Mandalay's walls were festooned with maps, paintings and votive objects with a distinctly national flavour. A portly, cherubic owner, assuming ambassadorial airs, greeted us handsomely and proudly explained the origins of his cuisine and the distinctive nature of Burma's national characteristics and culture by pointing with purpose towards a map of Burma on a far wall, talking us through its provinces and how cultural osmosis with neighbours India, China and Thailand has shaped the nation. The country has a long coastline where, unsurprisingly, fish predominates in the diet while inland cities favour chicken and lamb.
The more pedantic amongst you may give me an admonishing rap on the knuckles for not using the nation's official name of Myanmar. Burma is, afterall, the country's colonial name bestowed on it by the British after they annexed the country and incorporated it into their Indian empire. But once you learnt and located a country on a dusty school atlas it is unsettling to have to use another. There are Septuagenarians in Herefordshire who still refer to the long since emancipated dominions of Rhodesia and the Gold Coast. I'm neither seventy nor from that most verdant of western counties but i remember my spitfire piloting grandfather talking of Burma and for me, at least, Burma it will remain.
Burma is in many ways a bridge between worlds: To the north and west lies India and the subcontinent, while stretching away to the south the exotic Far East. Its location, low profile and relative poverty have meant it has absorbed communities and culture from its neighbours. Its traditions are ancient and its own but its margins of modernity are largely borrowed. This trend is clearly reflected in the cuisine. On a Burmese menu Indian sourced Naan Bread appears alongside Malay style noodle soups and Chinese influenced stir fries. The national dish, a thick coconut soup with either river fish or chicken, is similar to the Malaysian staple of Laksa, while fish curries, fritters in tamarind and ginger infused, wok -tossed dishes complete the tastes on offer. This far east, rice, rather than potato, is the staple accompaniment.
The choice of 'Manderlay' for the name of restaurant tells a story. For this city was the focal point of British colonialism in the country, where stout, starched officers of the realm were stationed to keep order and uphold decency in a far-flung outpost of empire. Rather than celebrate independence and nationalism this name evokes the colonial era and emphasises the links between the two countries.
With former residents including Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell, Manderlay became a city synonymous with adventure and the exotic. 'The Road to Manderlay' evoked the romantic spirit and spiritual freedom that Victorians saw as the very antithesis of the corseted conformity of late 19th century England. This feeling was reinforced in the public consciousness when Daphne Du Murier chose to set her Cornish Romance 'Rebecca' in a house that shared its name. The most famous and evocative opening line in literature surely remains 'Last night i dreamt I went to Manderley again.'
It is sad that such a romantic place is now beset with violence, infighting and bitter reprisal. A simple, spiritual land where the monastery is the fulcrum of existence and meditation is part of everyday ritual is ruled by a cruel and uncompromising military junta. So corrupt, inefficient and narrow-minded is this ruling elite that Burma has remained a wild, rural wilderness while its neighbours have modernised and industrialised. In the paddy fields that cover much of the country rice is still cultivated using ox-drawn carts. This may appear like an untouched paradise to tourists seeking the true undeveloped, unsullied east but in truth it merely attests to the fact that this verdant, blessed country is on its knees not to a beneficent Buddha but to the garrulous greed of generals.
But our host continued to show his humanity. He proudly explained that a proportion of the restaurant proceeds are sent to homeless children in his homeland who have become orphans in the violence that has blighted the country. The emotion and compassion in his eyes was a moving reminder that you cannot break the spirit of a people in which spirituality has suffused through a millennia of generations. My meal tasted even better on reflection.