Guests in homes across Myanmar may find themselves being served particularly oily dishes—a warm gesture also implying the host has wealth. But, according to restaurateur Sonny Aung Khin, this is a disservice to the country’s food. 

“It’s the wrong concept,” he says, reclining on a chair on the lawn of Padonmar, his Myanmar food establishment in Dagon Township. “I want to change that and introduce healthy food to visitors, with less oil and especially Myanmar cuisine without MSG.” 

Sonny is a veteran of the country’s food scene, having been in the business for 26 years. Born in Yangon, he began his career in the airline industry and worked for BOAC—a previous incarnation of British Airways—in the 1960s, steadily acquiring the contacts that would prove invaluable in the next decade when he launched a travel agency in Bangkok.

Along with tickets, he would give curious foreigners “a taste of Burma” in his Bangkok restaurant Mandalay – then one of the only Myanmar diners in the city – before they ventured across the border.

He returned in 1994 to Yangon, where he ran a restaurant on Inya Road for seven years before moving to Padonmar (meaning lotus flower), which he has also ran for seven years. A driving force behind his ethos is promoting the “real healthy Burmese food.”

Over a lunch of chicken curry, grilled eggplant salad, rice and lentil soup (a Padonmar set option for 6,000 kyats), he mulls his mission.

“Every healthy person has a passion for food,” he says. “For me, I want to introduce Myanmar food to the visitors, the foreigners, so that they can taste the real food.”

Some 400 tour companies schedule stops at Padonmar, he explains, ensuring a stream of customers throughout the day. Often it is the first stop on the trip, meaning guests have their first taste of authentic Myanmar food at Padonmar – just like at his old restaurant in Bangkok.

The restaurant has a memorable interior of elaborate wall paintings and photographs of Sonny with an eclectic mix of famous guests, including Cliff Richard and John McCain.

Upstairs the four private rooms each with space for nine, 14, 30 and 35 people are lined with reproductions of Bagan pagoda murals along with more bucolic scenes of Myanmar.

The Padonmar Room looks over a cul-de-sac of trees and a lantern-dappled garden whose seating for 80 people will become useful again as the dry season approaches. The building itself is nearly a century old, says Sonny. Embodying the style of late 19th century British architecture, the carved eaves of the structure nod to a traditional Myanmar design.

Padonmar hosted the inaugural Monsoon Myanmar Traditional Food Festival in late August, comprising 12 food stalls that fed more than 100 guests. The event was organized by Myanmar Ethnic Restaurateurs Group (MERG), an entity founded by Sonny about three years ago in order to endorse small to medium sized ethnic food diners.

“So far our membership is about 20 plus,” says Sonny, adding that more are expected to join. “They are all based in Yangon and are most of the major ethnicities – Rakhine, Kachin, Shan. All of these are quite similar [in food] but have their unique style.

“Like the Kachin food in northern Burma – since they do not have many rivers they eat more meat, and hot chili. Very hot. Maybe it’s the weather. Since Rakhine is a coastal area they use a lot of seafood. Karen food is not so popular like the Kachin or Shan food. They also use a lot of meat and fish.”

One of Padonmar’s 120 staff serves Sonny his dessert: grilled banana, honey and watermelon, a signifier of the restaurant’s simple, good fare. His favorite dish to serve visitors is Hilsa fish of Myanmar’s delta region, steamed for hours until you can eat the bones. “It melts in your mouth,” he says.

At peak times the restaurant caters for up to 400 customers, but amid the bustle, Sonny never forgets to taste the food everyday. “I don’t know how to cook but I know how to taste,” he add. “I taste it randomly. There is an original taste: not too oily, not too salty.”

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