The Burmese Curry Place is a bit of a Canberra institution. It always has a line out the door at lunchtime and is easily one of my favourite feeds.
I’ve been coming here for years and thought it was finally time to sit down with the owners and find out how Mi-Mee and Nai (pictured above, left to right) came to run a Canberra culinary juggernaut.
Mi-Mee and Nai had a tough life in Burma (Myanmar). As members of the Mon people, an ethnic minority in Burma, they grew up during a brutal ethnic civil war. The Mon people’s cultural and linguistic freedom had been oppressed for decades.
Nai fought in his people’s armed resistance against the government forces. He has the wounds to show for it, and is missing a finger.
Seeking a peaceful life, Mi-Mee and Nai moved out here in 2001. They started out selling Asian herbs and vegies at the EPIC farmers markets. This helped them get on their feet, before a close friend taught Nai English and assisted with opening the restaurant in 2009.
Business was quiet for about a week, before exploding in popularity. Nowadays, depending on the weather, they serve a few hundred people every day.
Despite its success in Canberra, Burmese food is not a highly familiar cuisine in Australia – certainly not to the extent of Chinese or Thai food. So what is it, and what sets it apart from other South-East Asian cuisines?
The first rule of Burmese food is that it is traditionally very spicy.
“In Burma,” Nai says, “we cook to burn.”
But to make the food accessible for an Australian palate, Nai and Mi-Mee toned down their family recipes.
“We wanted more people to be able to eat, and people to be able to eat more,” Nai says.
For those of us who do like a bit of spice, you can add either dried or oiled chillies to your meal.
Other than spice, Burmese curries usually contain ginger, garlic, onion, tamarind and a bit of masala, but not as much masala as Indian curries. Nai likens it to Indonesian or Malaysian, but with influences from Burma’s western neighbours Bangladesh and India.
It is this tasty concoction that has hooked many a Canberran, and given Nai and Mi-Mee the success it needs to springboard into the Sydney market.
Plans to open an identical eatery in Martin Place are underway, and while not yet confirmed, it shows just how popular the home-style cooking is.
It won’t be long before we can all enjoy a 2 & 4, or whichever combination you take, on the harbourside.