Whilst everyone in Tokyo knows that Shin Okubo is the home of all things Korean it is not such common knowledge that just one station along the Yamanote line there is a community of Burmese restaurants and bars. Takadanobaba (also on the Tozai and Seibu Shinjuku lines) possesses a quite surprising number of places serving up delicacies from Myanmar.
Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar shares borders with India, Bangladesh, Laos, China and Thailand. Malaysia is not so far away so it’s no wonder that its cuisine is influenced by elements of all these countries. Generally speaking Burmese food is not as spicy as Thai food and not as dry as Indian food. A lot of these restaurants couldn’t be easier to find assuming you’ve arrived by train.
We decided to sample what these places had to offer starting with the cluster of places alongside the tracks just one minutes walk from the Waseda exit. Nong Inlay (2-19-7 Takadanobaba) specialises in food coming out of the civil war ravaged Shan state of which there is a map on the wall showing its proximity to Thailand, Laos and China with the latter heavily influencing its taste and style. When we went it was a mix of Burmese people and Japanese businessmen who were taking up some of the 10-12 seats on each side of the place for it has two rooms. The restaurant gets its name from a lake in the Shan state. There is a large menu (with pictures alongside the Japanese and Burmese words) with a variety of Shan-style meat and vegetable dishes. Specialities include pei pot kyaw (sour bean condiment) and hmo chawk kyaw (fried mushrooms).
On the other side of the tracks running parallel is Sakae-dori where there’s a couple more ethnic restaurants. Swe Myanmar (3-5-7 Takadanobaba) is located at the end of the street on the right hand side. The walls are lined with pictures of the 80+ authentic home-style Burmese dishes on offer to the 21 customers which the place holds. This restaurant has the cheapest food on offer with nine lunch sets ranging from 500 yen and the most expensive dish is still under 1000 yen! Furthermore, we were even given a service bonus of mochi.
With an estimated 20,000 Myanmar internationals living in the vicinity, a lot of these places cater for the local community and this one has a monthly magazine and two weekly Myanmar-language publications printed in Japan.
The similarly named ShweO (3-2-13, 4F Takadanobaba) is just across the road from there and among the tangled tapestry of visible pipes, wall rugs, ubiquitous spices and sparse flowers, are 50 dishes on offer which are all displayed in poster form on the wall. The decor may be basic but its a large spacious place with a very professional looking menu folder (not always the way at some of these places!) ShweO is famed for its many salads, noodle dishes, rices and curries containing huge chunks of chewy beef. Specialities include hand-made tofu, dry noodles, local shrimp and fish curry. There’s also a wide array of alcohol, including 500 yen beer, to help wash the dishes down. Lunch sets range from 550-900 yen and include a pot of tea. Don’t be put off by the owner wearing headphones whilst she serves you! She is friendly and speaks a bit of English.
Perhaps the most sophisticated and modern looking restaurant is Ruby (3-18-11, 1F Takadanobaba) which has some delicious chicken and potato dishes from the southern part of the country which is where the owner and her husband are from. The place is at its most busy at weekends when there’s a great Sunday buffet service including tabehodai rice, salad, soup, vegetables, tea and shwe yin aye which is a popular and refreshing dessert of agar jelly, tapioca and sago in coconut milk.
There are a couple of Myanmar restaurants on the main road that runs through Takadanobaba. As you’re walking away from the station the first place you come to is Minglaba (2-14-8, 3F Takadanobaba) on the left. This place seems to attract families, offers standard Burmese food at lunch and at night. The owner is a very friendly smiling lady who recommended a few dishes which are characteristic of the country. Lape-toh is a salad made of fermented tea leaves, garlic, lettuce, nuts, sesame seeds, dried fish and other ingredients. Perhaps the most famous dish is mohinga which is a highly savoury stew with a fermented fish gravy the consistency of pea soup, and containing chicken, vegetables and fine wheat-flour noodles. Tofu-joh are fried squares of yellow-lentil tofu served with a hot and sweet dipping sauce.
Whilst you’re waiting for your orders you might wanna try your hand at learning the Burmese alphabet which makes hiragana and katakana seem a doodle. They also have a few packets of imported noodles and spices for sale at the checkout should you be inspired to go home and make your own ethnic dish.
Just over the road is Mali Kha (1-25-9, 3F Takadanobaba) and this one serves up an extensive menu of Kachin food from the country’s most northern state which borders China and India. There is the customary map of the country and state as well as posters of marine and freshwater fishes of Myanmar should you wish to brush up on your knowledge of the country. Possessing a dozen seats on one side and room for plenty more on the other side this oriental kitchen sells home-style dishes like fish steamed in banana leaves, tripe stew and chicken and bean curry.
Almost all of these restaurants have picture menu’s in Japanese and Burmese but no English. Hatch-style service is usually the style and TV’s, used for karaoke at night, are evident everywhere. Expect photos of national landmark Shwedagon Pagoda to don the walls in the majority of these places along with the requisite portrait of political activist Aung San Suu Kyi, practically a national law. They all sell the country’s self-titled national beer ‘Myanmar’ for around 600 yen a can.
After 50 years of nightmare, Myanmar is starting to open up to tourism more and more but if you want to have an introduction to its tastes and smells then you could try Burmese restaurants in Ebisu, Sugamo, Zoushiki, Waseda and Minami Otsuka but for the broader choice you will need to make your way to ‘Little Myanmar’ in Takadanobaba.