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A taste of Myanmar

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Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon: Irrawaddi restaurant conjures the tastes of Myanmar for its Phnom Penh customers. Photo by: RICHARD SHAW

Irrawaddi restaurant serves up cheap and tasty eats for Myanmar expats and culinary adventurers alike

SOMEHOW no matter how enormously inflated the salaries of journalists become, one always finds that funds run short by the end of the month.

Necessity hails a period of culinary discovery and suddenly the extent of Phnom Penh’s split economy manifests itself: the scores of cheap Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, or street stalls parked in front of expensive sandwich bars that sell glorified ham and cheese toasties for five or six bucks.

Once the search for the best $1.00 bowls of pho, dumplings or pork and rice with soup is exhausted, it’s time to set your sights on new options.

I decided to head down to Phnom Penh’s Irrawaddi restaurant, which boasts a $2.00 set menu with soup, a main and rice, which I baulked at and instead blew all of $3.50 on a whole variety of dishes shared with friends.

The experience of eating at the Irrawaddi is a little bit like going to eat at the Hari Krishna place just near your university campus, except there’s no option to wash dishes if you have absolutely no money, its not vegetarian and there are no bald people preaching enlightenment or chanting.

The food is wholesome with simple flavours and everyone is pretty relaxed. Curries and stews filled with mutton, beef and pork for around $3.00 or $4.00 each come in somewhat small portions so be sure not to under-order. Most are fairly mild but the pork mango curry is deliciously sour for people so inclined.

Biryani and other dishes you’ll recognise as Indian derivatives are abundant and there is plenty of vegetarian food. Roti and other tit bits such as ya kyaw (split peas with onions and spices pounded into a tasty snack) are a nice compliment to your meal. The list of fish and seafood dishes is extensive.

Everyone gets served a sour radish soup which I enjoyed but some of my companions found a touch rustic.

The staff is incredibly relaxed and friendly, perhaps a bit too much so if you come in a large group but perfect for smaller entourages.

They contribute to one of the nicest things about the Irrawaddi: a quiet, relaxing atmosphere in a building adorned by signs of Myanmar culture such as the paintings of water buffaloes, tranquil village scenes, mountains and one notable Myanmar citizen that adorn the walls.

The Irrawaddi appears to extend beyond the bounds of a mere restaurant, acting as a small social hub for Phnom Penh’s Myanmar community.

A bizarre array of necklaces, medicines and packaged cooking ingredients such as peas and spices from Myanmar are on sale as well as the restaurant food.

There is even a unique type of Myanmar face cream called Thanakha, which adorns the faces of many of the staff, for sale – made from a branch that is ground into a fine paste.

At night, Irrawaddi often becomes a relaxed gathering point for people from Myanmar or those who lived there to quietly discuss the country’s wonders and woes. But it is also equipped for karaoke if a few too many $1.00 Myanmar beers are consumed.

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