By Anneli Rufus
The salad is opulent.
It arrives with its components clearly visible in distinct heaps; then a server mixes them tableside: raw onions, fried onions, slivered cabbage, whole chickpeas, sliced cucumbers, fried garlic, chickpea powder, peanuts, samosas—yes, those plump, fried vegetable-stuffed pillows—snipped into pointy bits. Each spoonful is a mind-bending crunchy, chewy, flavor-texture monsoon that makes you wonder whether you're whirling inside a Rudyard Kipling poem or paradise.
In a boring world where salad means bottled ranch on iceberg wedges, this would be bizarre. In the East Bay, where kale is king, it's conceivable. But in Burma, aka Myanmar, it's ubiquitous.
Other Burmese salads—eaten in homes, restaurants, and countless street stalls—are equally motley and labor-intensive: multifarious ingredients, some cooked and some raw, chopped and/or mashed and/or left whole, then painstakingly merged and mingled micron by micron, typically by hand.
It's only natural that salads would be popular in a humid, sun-soaked Southeast Asian country whose average summer temperature surpasses 90 degrees and whose winter temperatures hover well over 70. And it's only natural that mixery-and-matchery would characterize the salads and other dishes of an ancient land currently inhabited by more than 100 ethnic groups, sandwiched between three of the world's culinary powerhouses—China, Thailand, and India—and formerly colonized by Great Britain and occupied by Japan. It's only natural that Burma—embattled Burma, whose very name is a matter of political dispute—would engender a cuisine in which fusion isn't a bug but a feature.
The most famous Burmese-food ambassador is tea-leaf salad, laphet thoke, whose signal component is fermented green tea leaves. Its rarity, exotic regionality, and exquisite oily-juicy-salty-sourness poise laphet thoke perfectly as an East Bay Name-Drop Dish, the type whose name one drawls with faux surprise to friends across the aisle at Berkeley Bowl: What? You've never tried laphet thoke?
Laphet thoke owes its EBNDD status mainly to Burma Superstar, whose wildly popular Oakland and Alameda outposts serve a sumptuous version of this dish.
But so does Rangoon Super Stars, where last September ex-Burma Superstar chef U Win Aye set up shop in a Berkeley space with a long dossier of short-lived previous occupants including Zax Tavern, Maritime East, and Origen. Given Rangoon-born Aye's prodigious talents, and given Burma's potential as the next big culinary thing—witness paratha-like palata and tender banana-stem cores—2826 Telegraph Ave.'s "curse" might be broken at long last.
Just walking through the door makes you feel welcome. Big windows let lots of light bathe the accessible, sink-into-it elegance of romantic little tables and comfy plush booths flanked by marble countertops, images of Bodhisattvas and elephants, and floor-to-ceiling potted plants. A plate of crisp, snow-white shrimp chips arrives quickly at your table as Burmese pop tunes fill the air. Serenity flows from walls painted the soothing browns and greens of—well, tea.
Which brings us back to laphet thoke. Aye's includes fried garlic, beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, lettuce, tomato, tea leaves and (optionally) shrimp. But his unforgettable samosa salad, red-rice salad, tangy ginger salad, and whole-shooting-match "rainbow salad"—comprising fresh vegetables, fried garlic, seasonal seaweed, and four types of noodles, topped (as if all that was not enough) with spicy rice—are major contenders.
Salads are staples in Burma, but its national dish—a breakfast must-have—is a soup: Aye's version of mohinga is catfish-purée chowder emboldened with powdered fried rice and piled high with rice noodles, onion, garlic, fish flesh, lemongrass, fried peas, and a hard-boiled egg. As filling as that sounds, it's relatively light fare compared with lentil-studded samosa soup or ohnoh kawt swe, Burma's deputy national dish. This is a lustrous coconut-cream bisque rendered marigold-bright with Asian tamarind and European paprika and so loaded with wheatflour noodles and your choice of meat or melt-in-the-mouth house-made tofu as to straddle that gloriously baffling border between pasta, stew, and soup.
While soups and salads might be mere formalities elsewhere, at Rangoon Super Stars, as in Burma itself, they could be—and often are—the main attraction. But save some room: You'll thank yourself as artfully crafted, generously portioned, sunnily colored and fascinatingly flavored Burmese classics as well as inspired innovations arrive. If Burmese food is primordially fusion food, in the Berkeley kitchen of a master chef, it spins off into occasional flights of fusion fancy, weaving together not just East and East but East, East and West.
"People who are new to Burmese food tend to think it has a lot of fish sauce, as Thai food does," says Rangoon Super Stars' manager Tun Lin. "But it doesn't. We have a lot of cultural mixture in Burma. And every region has its own way of making even the most famous and basic dishes."
Classics include a range of stir-fried noodles, biryani rice, and curries—more garlicky and less complex than their Indian counterparts—as well as marinated kebat dishes, flavored with masala, tamarind, paprika, chilies, cilantro, and fresh mint. Coconut rice, another classic, serves as a gently tropical irresistible foil for all this self-assured, seductive spiciness. Eating Aye's mango-pickly pork curry, tomatoey village-style bone-on catfish, sassy Rangoon string beans, or hard-boiled-egg-and-okra curry for the first time is like meeting an exciting, elusive, and faintly familiar stranger.
As for those bold ventures beyond the Burmese ordinary: For those unfamiliar with traditional Burmese cuisine, Aye's sweet walnut shrimp, white-wine-pea-leaf stir-fry and lemongrass-sauced salmon aren't so much audacious as just more amazing new treats.
One exceptional fusion dish here is minted-jalapeño tofu, chicken, or pork. In Western mouths and minds, mint and jalapeño aren't obvious pals. The cartoon version of this concept would show green leaves making a namaste gesture toward peppers wearing sombreros and cowboy boots. But in this dish, as in great friendships, each element empowers the other: The peppers stimulate the taste buds, making them hyperaware of the mint; the mint's subtle numbing quality graciously tames the pepper's fire.
An added plus, for the carefree: This dish contains entire sautéed garlic cloves, meant to be popped into the mouth whole and chewed up zestily.
Another added plus is that this dish and many others here can be made vegetarian; a few can be made vegan. One standout meatless dish is pumpkin-tofu stew, whose huge slabs of fork-tender local pumpkin cradle golden-fried bean curd cubes in a thick, gingery brick-red sauce that tastes somewhat like love.
You'll be given flatware here, but that isn't traditional.
"When I was growing up in Burma," Lin recalls, "food was always eaten with the bare hands. That's changing these days, along with the arrival of ice cream and everything else."
You won't still have room, but if you did, you'd finish up with sweet milk tea, fruit-framed coconut sticky rice, or coconut pudding. It's the sweetest portion of a tender, poignant culinary postcard to a troubled land which we might come to know first and/or only through its food.
2826 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley,
Lunch daily 11:30am–2:30pm
Dinner daily 5–10:30pm
Beer and wine.
Accepts credit cards.
Mixing and matching (top to bottom): Samosa salad, ohnoh kawt swe, pumpkin tofu, and mint jalapeño tofu. Photos by Kris Lawson.