John McLeay’s love affair with Asian food began with the crunch of a fried grasshopper from a Thailand street stall in his early twenties. Ever since, he has travelled the lands of Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, China and Vietnam, learning the secrets of the region’s delicious yet delicate balance of flavours.
In 2007 he brought his knowledge home and established Red Spice Road, one of Melbourne’s premier dining hot spots, which was joined by trendy Burma Lane in 2013. When it comes to navigating the bustling markets and hidden foodie secrets of Burma, there’s no-one better.
John will be leading Intrepid’s Real Food Adventure to Burma in February 2015 – so we thought we’d fire a few questions his way to find out a little more about this enigmatic country’s food secrets.
Can you describe the moment you fell in love with Burmese food?
It wasn’t a specific moment – it kind of just crept up on me. I’ve always had a passion for Southeast Asian food so there was always a little interest in Burma.
I think the turning point was a few years ago when for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival we had an event called Burmese Laneway, which was a Sunday lunch in March on one long table for 200 people.
To write the menu I immersed myself in Burmese cookbooks and really found the food to be really interesting and very different to what I’d been doing – that’s how the love affair commenced!
You’ve since opened a restaurant celebrating Burmese cuisine, Burma Lane, and are soon to launch a Burmese cookbook. How are these Burmese flavours being received by your diners in Melbourne?
We’ve had a lot of positive feedback on what we’re doing at Burma Lane. For many people it’s their first time trying Burmese-inspired food. And as most customers are really educated food wise nowadays we get a lot of interesting comments and questions about what we are doing.
What are the main characteristics of Burmese cuisine, and how does it differ from other cuisines of Southeast Asia?
For me, the main difference is the Indian influences which translates to the amount and type of dry spices used. The Burmese also don’t seem to shy away from the use of oil – their curries, for example, can be quite oily.
What makes Yangon such a special city for food?
Like most Asians the Burmese love to eat and that means a decent range of street food and some funky looking street markets. You get some incredibly cheap quality food especially around Chinatown and 19th Street
Yangon still has such a raw feeling to it that you don’t get in a lot of other Asian cities and that will probably change within the next 10 years.
What’s one of your favourite Burmese dishes?
Mohinga – of course. I had to include this Burmese favourite. It’s such a tasty dish – Lamb slow cooked in yoghurt, tomato, pea and cashew biryani. It’s on the menu at Burma Lane and I love it!
Which dish is a ‘must-eat’ for first-time travellers to Burma and why?
Tea leaf salad, definitely. The Burmese are one of the only people to actually eat tea leaves. They pickle them in bamboo for up to a year and they come in a variety of flavours. It’s a great tasting and very textural salad
What’s the most unusual or challenging food you’ve encountered in Burma?
Pork intestine skewers. I have no idea what the filling was – it basically looked like sliced sausage on a skewer, except you could tell it was intestine. Lets just say it was one of the worst things that I’ve ever eaten
What’s Burma like for those who are partial to a tipple?
It’s great. Myanmar Lager is a great tasting beer – probably just about my favourite anywhere. There’s certain Burmese Rosé – the name escapes me – that I had at Padomer restaurant that really surprised me. It was a quality wine, and I’ve since discovered that Burma have an expanding wine industry with some great wine makers. You can get mojito’s made from local rum at Kosan Bar on 19th St in Yangon – from memory I think they were around 90 cents. As you can probably tell – I don’t mind a drink!
What are you most looking forward to sharing with passengers on your Intrepid Real Food Adventure in Burma?
Not many people know much about Burmese food and how tasty it can be. Learning about and tasting Burmese food right now is like getting in on the ground level of something – as I believe within 5 years Burmese cuisine will be way more popular. To me, this is very exciting to share with people.
I also like to have a bit of fun – so it’s always great to have new people to take around Burma’s restaurants and bars!
Hungry? Find out more about John’s Real Food Adventure in Burma.
Feature image courtesy of Jason Eppink, Flickr