Ellie Dyer and Charles Fox test out Myanmar’s cuisine at Irrawadi, while surrounded by a gallery of art in Phnom Penh.
The mighty Irrawaddi River cuts through the vast expanses of modern-day Myanmar. Flowing south from the high peaks of the north, it divides the country in two before meeting the sea at the Bay of Bengal.
As a life-blood for many, it’s only fitting that the best known restaurant to serve Myanmar’s cuisine in Phnom Penh is named after this vast waterway, with a page of the eatery’s menu packed with fascinating details of its 1,350-mile-long flow.
Paintings in the modest, high-ceilinged restaurant gave a further insight into life in the country formerly known as Burma. Colourful landscapes and striking portraits – including an image of 69-year-old democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi – hung on the walls, while a friendly waitress had cooling swirls of thanaka paste, a traditional cosmetic made from ground bark, decorating her cheeks.
Myanmar’s cuisine reflects its myriad of cultural influences (the country boasts more than 135 different ethnic groups), with Indian-influenced rotis and curries eaten alongside traditional salads, including a national favourite called laphet thoke, made with fermented tea leaves.
Irrawaddi’s version ($2) is served in a pretty red and black dish, with crunchy peanuts and fresh tomatoes acting as an excellent contrast to the distinctive sour green leaves. Decorated with bright chillis, the tangy dish kicked off our lunchtime feast in style.
With Irrawaddi also known around town for its value for money, we plumped for the chicken biriyani set ($4). A lidded pot containing a generous portion of rice, topped with chunks of chicken breast in a dense curry sauce, soon came forth. The grains were moist and succulent, and went well with the set’s side dish of a simple, clear vegetable soup.
Knowing the country’s penchant for rich, oil-laden curries, we also opted for the mutton and potato version ($4). The serving, though a tad on the small side, was delicious. Slow-cooked chunks of meat melted in the mouth, while the gentle spicing created an indulgent, warming dish that would be perfect for a cold night in Myanmar’s hills.
A rounded roti flatbread ($1) proved an excellent medium to soak up the sauce. Separate dishes of crunchy vegetables, a salty cabbage and cucumber salad and a complementary portion of pineapple were there to freshen the palate.
For a sweet touch, I sipped on a cup of spiced milk tea ($1) while contemplating Irrawaddi’s themed decorations, which also included a selection of embellished silk parasols. With the impressive depth of flavour of its dishes, I couldn’t help but think that this hole-in-the-wall eatery is doing a fascinating culture proud.
24 Street 334, Phnom Penh
Tel: 012 979 510
Open: 10am to 2pm and 5pm to 10pm Tuesday to Friday, and from 10am to 10pm on weekends