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Karen cuisine: Yangon’s next ethnic food trend?

Although being a major ethnic group of Myanmar, Karen cuisine does not get the respect it deserves while other ethnic food has been in the limelight. Naw Tayar is probably the only restaurant that specialises in Karen cuisine in Yangon.

Since Karen people are scattered throughout the country, the recipes can be varied with each region. But the signature of the cuisine is its little to no use of cooking oil. As a person growing up eating curries, the Karen cookery makes me reconsider the use of oils.

Although the restaurant is not new, it relocated from Insein to the current location just three weeks ago. The room is not very spacious but neat and clean. The owner couple is of Karen descent. The husband cooks while the wife chats with the customers. Both of them are friendly and savvy of Karen cuisine.

Inside, you can find the daily use equipment of Karen people, like shoulder baskets for fruits and vegetables to be collected in and a machete which is used as a weapon and kitchen utensil. The ceiling is decorated with blue, red and white ribbons, the colours of the Karen flag.

The menu highlights traditional plates with a little fusion dishes. You can also try exotic meat like boar, wild cat, and so on depending on seasonal availability. But we try to keep the experience simple. That being said, we are still ordering a frog curry (Ks 5,000).

The curry is cooked without oil. The meat is mixed with chili and herbs. The major ingredient here is Acacia concinna leaves which give the curry sharp sour taste. The frog is fat and succulent. Imagine chicken but a lot more tender. The mistress says customers – locals and expats – often ask for frog meat, so they keep it on the menu. More conventional options like chicken and seafood are also available.

A Karen feast will not be complete without Talapaw, a thick broth with veggie and meat. The soup is made of rice powder and a lot of greens including basil, pumpkin, bamboo shoots, etc. You can have it with meat or vegan, original or spicy. If you love hot food, try the spicy. They use fresh chili and lime to tingle your taste buds. One bowl is enough for three people. The broth is Ks 2,000 and we have it with mussels (+ Ks 1,000). You can have meat and seafood add-ons at the same price.

“On tops of the valley of Karen State, we eat all the vegetables we discover. Most of the time we don’t have cooking oil, so we boil them. Talapaw is a symbol of unity. Each villager has to contribute a small portion of the broth which can feed the whole village,” explains the chef.

Another dish that caught our eyes is Bachelor’s Salad. The quirky name has a history, according to the couple.

In the post-independence era, Karen State was overrun with rebels and bandits. The single men had to patrol their village at night. When they were hungry, they made chicken salad. Since the bachelor’s salad is passed down to generations to this day. The salad has shredded chicken, dried chili, coriander and is seasoned with lime juice. It is easy to make and good to eat. The chicken salad will cost Ks 2,000 and pork belly Ks 2,500.

They also sell Karen whisky at Ks 5,000 per litre. Since we were there during the office hour, we did not try it. Word has it that ethnic spirits are easy to drink and can make you feel like dancing in three shots.  So, give it a shot!

Overall, the food at Naw Tayar is fresh, flavourful and free of MSG. They also offer a wide range of vegetarian options since Karen people eat veggie as their main diet. The couple says they are looking forward to opening their restaurants in provinces. It is only a matter of time for Karen cuisine to have its day in the sun. 

Address: No. 35, Aye Street, Ahlone Township, Yangon
Tel: 09 792 243412
Hours: 10pm – 10pm

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