When you hear “a lunch at a fine dining restaurant in a five-star hotel”, you might think about Wagyu beef, Norwegian salmon, foie gras, etc. But Chef Htun Htun disagrees that a dish needs premium items to be luxurious. He created a menu that is deeply rooted in the Burmese culinary tradition yet appealing to foreign palates.
The venue is Le Cellier, a top-notch dining experience in Novotel Yangon Max. The date is 30 April, a few weeks after the introduction of his new lunch menu. Equipped with 15 years of international kitchen experience and knowledge, Htun has mastered French-style cooking and is not a stranger to world-class ingredients and cooking methods. But today is about celebrating local delicacies particularly anyer, or central Myanmar, cuisine.
The lunch begins with a couple of Couple Snacks with quail egg and seafood. It is a beloved street food as well as a muse to tingle the senses. Over the snack, the chef recalls his formative years in a rural part of Myanmar.
Born and raised in a village in Pakokku, near Bagan, Htun never forgets his humble beginning. “I used to accompany my father on his fishing trips. We usually caught prawns and would pick some eggplants freshly from the field and return home. Then, we’d grill them over the charcoal stove, remove the prawn shells, peel the eggplants and make a salad. It’s one of my favourite dishes from childhood,” Htun reminisces fondly.
Grilled prawn and eggplant salad is commonplace all over the country but its gourmet potential is usually overlooked. When it is brought to the table, the dish looks unrecognisable on the ceramic plate at first glance. So posh and fancy-looking. But at the first bite, it releases the familiar tastes and smells – the smokiness, the juiciness, the tenderness – all is there!
When the undersigned confesses about this experience, the chef explains: “It’s important not to miss the authenticity of a dish when you elevate it. Yes, we use these fine plates and utensils in accordance with the establishment but the main message is intact. The eggplant was slowly and carefully smoked to retain the juice or it would be too dry. The prawns were sourced from our rivers, not lobsters from distant seas. The puree here is a mixture of tomato, onion and coriander we used in the salad. We make it look presentable but the taste is unchanged. That’s why you still felt the familiarity although it looked different.”
After the appetising salad, cometh the tomato rice, an anyer breakfast: “Farmers like my dad get up very early. They’d fill up their stomachs with the leftover rice and tomato curry. We grew many tomatoes and made a curry out of them. It’s a staple in every house. And, my mom prepared this meal for him every morning and this is an honour to this memory. Of course, we use freshly cooked rice here, not the leftovers (laughter).”
The rice is soft and creamy thanks to the slight addition of butter. It is paired with fried sea bass which is crispy on the outside and tender inside. The tanginess of tomato confit eases the rich texture of rice and fish. Just one suggestion: more rice please since it was so good.
When asked about the role of confidence in modifying traditional meals, Htun replies: “If someone asks me to elevate, say, Shan Noodle, I’d need a lot to contemplate. Shan Noodle is deeply rooted in the culture of Shan people. So, to modify such a dish with a long history, I need to know about it more than my customers do. Without a deep understanding of each ingredient and how they complement each other, any attempt to modify it would be futile. As I mentioned before, it’s important to keep the authenticity of the food – its taste and flavour profiles. Confidence comes from understanding. I’m confident in elevating anyer cuisine because I grew up with them.”
After a long talk, it became clear that Htun is not only a good chef but a storyteller. Each dish has a tale that resonates with the lifestyle of rural residents. This is best reflected in beef curry, one of the main courses.
According to Htun, villages do not have formal markets. The residents can buy meat such as beef or pork only when someone butchers the animal and sells it. Choosing the best cut is not an option, either. Customers would buy in weight so they get meat as well as tendons and fats. They would all be put into a clay pot and cooked for hours.
This concept is used in his beef curry. Every part of a cow is cooked to perfection. Even the tendons are nice to chew. The beef is locally sourced. The curry tastes milder than usual since it is meant to be paired with potato terrine. The terrines are good but a typical Burmese person might long for rice. Soft bread makes a great pair, too! The whole meal is quite filling and could easily feed two people.
The final meal is chicken curry. Sounds so simple? Wait for the twist.
“So, we usually cook both chicken and gravy in the same pot. But I want to present the gravy in paste form separately. The paste contains most of the ingredients a normal gravy does. The only two additions are lemongrass and coconut juice. I avoided coconut milk because people with high blood pressure don’t like it. Coconut juice gives the same sweet aroma and is a safer option.”
The grilled chicken breast is tender enough but the thigh would be preferred. The paste is a scene stealer. The coconut flavour with the trace of lemongrass is a reminder of coconut chicken curry. But it is less cloying. After you have finished the chicken, do try the paste with a loaf of warm bread.
A meal without dessert is incomplete. The chef understands this and serves a cup of shaved ice mixed with lemon juice, mint and a sprinkle of sugar – a refreshing summer treat.
The lunch is a reminder that locally sourced products can be appealing in the right direction and the chef agrees: “A dish doesn’t become elevated just by adding the most premium ingredients to it. It will just be expensive. Our rivers and land have a lot to offer. One of my key messages is to look within and be proud of local cuisine. If the customers learn this fact and find joy in the simplicity of traditional food, my duty as a chef is fulfilled.”
Chef Htun Htun’s lunch menu can be enjoyed at US$15 net for two courses and $20 net for three, from 11:30 am – 2:30 pm daily. The chef welcomes all sorts of feedback. Photos are provided by Le Cellier.
Le Cellier, 14th Floor, Novotel Yangon Max, 459, Pyay Road, Kamayut Township, Yangon
09 4440 8888 2