Burma Burma: Bringing Mandalay to Mumbai

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 country’s most loved restaurants, talking to the it’s 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, who is in love with Burmese cuisine, tells us while introducing the newest outlet to us. It may sound a little unusual for someone talking so passionately about Burmese food, but not for Ankit, whose mother grew up in Burma and brought authentic Burmese food to the dining table everyday.

The realization that the Indian palate was missing the intense Burmese flavours is what sowed the seed of the enterprise’s first outlet. That Ankit and Chirag Chhajer, the co-owner and Ankit’s childhood friend, both came from culinary backgrounds helped too. And so, after making many trips to Burma, learning authentic recipes, and perfecting culinary practices, Ankit and Chirag opened the doors to Burma Burma’s 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 Burma 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 the franchise has not only opened four new restaurants in four new states, but has also been steadily doing better business than anyone else. “It is surprising that even though we are a vegetarian restaurant and serve no alcohol, 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.”

It is not only the flavours that attract people to Burma Burma; it is also the set up. Each of the 5 restaurants is designed around a different theme and focuses on one craft from the country. The latest outlet in Noida, for example, is centered around Buddhist mandala art in a contemporary setting. The furniture features authentic Burmese teak and rattan and the chandeliers are created with Burmese cane. Lacquer ware, dolls, upholstery, lamps, tins, are all sourced from Burma; murals are created to replicate local designs, and the whole place has an ethnic yet contemporary vibe. “At Burma Burma we bring to our guests an experience, we want them to be transported to Myanmar. And since the country is so diverse we have designed every restaurant to showcase a different aspect of Burma.” Ankit explains the logic behind the thoughtful and aesthetic spaces in all his restaurants, which undoubtedly bring a slice of the country alive.

While the food and the design set the enterprise apart from the rest, 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 not only compensated by the uniqueness of the place but also the innovative menu, about 80% of raw material for which is sourced directly from Burma. The Black Sticky Rice with Buttered Peas and Pickled Vegetables, for example is made with rice and peas sourced from Myanmar; the laphet, or fermented tea paste in Mandalay Laphet Thoke also comes all the way from the country, as do the spices and condiments. The teas meanwhile make up for the absence of alcohol – with every outlet having an elaborate menu of Black, Green, White, and Oolong teas, special infusions, and a beautiful bar to back, no one seems to miss the booze. The menu also includes innovative versions of the Burmese street food of which the Sambusa Soup and Thoke, Lotus Stems and Spring Onion Crisps, and Sweet Corn Fritters and many versions of mock meat remain most popular.

“Our mock meat preparations have been flying off the shelf, especially in Bangalore, which is also turning out to be the biggest revenue generator,” informs Ankit. “The palate in Bangalore is very evolved, people are well travelled and open to experimentation. Our teas are doing very well too,” he adds cheerfully. And what about expansion plans to Chennai and Hyderabad?

“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 beautiful market that will help us remain true to our theme of no meat and no alcohol. An outlet in both the cities by the end of next year is on the cards,” Ankit closes with the promise. We cannot but hope it quickly comes true.

Note: Burma Burma has outlets in Mumbai, Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, and Bangalore.

The spaces created also have very strong Burmese element in decor and design — Burmese teak & cane, rattan, mandala art, Burmese dolls are brought in from the country to lend authenticity to the restaurants.

Another interesting aspect is its vegetarianism — the restaurant serves only vegetarian food and no alcohol and yet is selling out every day.

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