Serving up traditional Burmese cuisine at affordable prices, Irrawaddi Myanmar Gallery Restaurant has been catering to the capital since way before the BKK1 boom. Words by Erin Hale; photography by Eric Català.
For the past decade, Irrawaddi Myanmar Gallery Restaurant, commonly known as Irrawaddi, has been Phnom Penh’s favourite Burmese eatery. While BKK1 has grown up around Irrawaddi, which was once the lone restaurant on its stretch of Street 334, the restaurant has kept the aura of an older Phnom Penh.
Its decor retains all the classic charm of a Southeast Asian establishment: high sloping roof, slow turning ceiling fans, large open windows and simple black and white decor. The prices and menu has also been kept intact: a family-style four course dinner with two drinks can go for under $15, which is a difficult feat these days.
The affordability of Irrawaddi, however, is an important feature for owner Cho Cho Myaing, who wants to keep prices low enough to cater to the Burmese community. “Since the beginning the price [has been the same], that’s why I don’t want to change it,” she says.
Named after the longest river in Myanmar, Irrawaddi offers an impressive range of national dishes with influences from China and India, and Thailand more recently.
The best place to start is the iconic fermented/pickled tea-leaf salad ($2). The tea leaves taste slightly sour with the consistency of steamed spinach and are nicely complemented by crunchy seeds and nuts, with a squeeze of lime juice and vegetables thrown in.
“If you go to Burma, everywhere you go people will serve you this,” Myaing says. She imports pickled tea leafs and crunchy extras from Myanmar, although most other ingredients are locally sourced.
Another Myanmar specialty is the hilsa fish stew ($4). This herring-like fish is popular in Northeast Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine, and is imported as it can only be found in the Bay of Bengal.
Myaing has toned down some of the salt and spice, but Irrawaddi’s spicy shrimp ($3.50) is not for the faint hearted. The grilled prawns have a surprising kick to them, which if too intense can be toned down with coconut rice ($2), a slightly richer take on steamed rice.
An avocado shake, blended with sweet milk ($2) or yoghurt and fruit ($2) can also go a long way in cutting down excess spice. Angkor beer is on the menu ($1) although Myaing encourages patrons to bring their own wine or beer and does not charge a corkage fee.
With salads and vegetable dishes for $2 to $2.50, vegetarians and vegans are well catered for. The baked eggplant salad with spring onions ($2.50) comes highly recommended, with a smoky aftertaste reminiscent of Middle Eastern baba ghanoush, although the consistency is slightly different.
Meat-lovers will find some specialty items less common elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as beef and mutton served curry-style with either potatoes ($4) or split peas ($4).
So for a hearty meal that won’t hurt the bank balance, Irrawaddi is the place to go.