Irrawaddy, Phnom Penh’s lone Burmese restaurant, is a feast for the senses that locals may not be familiar with.
Cambodia and Myanmar have little in common in terms of culture and cuisine – making Burmese food a rare find in Phnom Penh.
The Irrawaddy river, one of the largest in Myanmar, meanders through the nation’s rice bowl like a snake cutting through the lush landscape – eventually feeding into the Bay of Bengal.
The river has a great influence on nearly every aspect of Burmese culture, making it the obvious choice when it came to naming her restaurant, explains owner Cho Cho Myaing.
The restaurant serves up delectable, homemade Burmese cuisine that guests would otherwise have to leave the country to taste.
Cho Cho says she noticed that her favourite flavours were not available in Cambodia, so she left her career as a finance officer behind to venture into the restaurant industry.
The gamble paid off, with Irrawaddi Myanmar Gallery Restaurant serving up authentic Burmese dishes since 2007 to the delight of diners, becoming a stalwart of the capital’s Boeung Keng Kang 1 district.
Cho Cho, who has lived as an ex-patriot in numerous countries including Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, says she was inspired to open a restaurant serving the cuisine after noticing that her childhood dishes were not widely known outside of her native land.
“Regardless of where I go, I see many Thai and Chinese restaurants, but there are no restaurants from Myanmar,” says Cho Cho, who has called Cambodia home for the past 22 years.
“I decided to stay back in Cambodia because I’d noticed that there were no Myanmar restaurants here either,” Cho Cho explained to The Post, before adding that she had “zero experience” in the industry before starting her eatery.
Despite her lack of experience, Irrawaddy is well known in Phnom Penh’s foodie circuit – partly because it’s the only place exclusively serving food from Myanmar – but largely because of Cho Cho’s dedication as well.
“For me the place is a good platform to introduce not only the food to different people from different countries but the culture too, especially to local Cambodians,” says Cho Cho in the comfort of her restaurant’s 16-table dining room before guests flood in.
In the past 12 years since, Cho Cho has noticed that her patrons are fond of food throughout the menu, ranging from salads, curries, and noodles – some of which she makes herself.
Cho Cho is often in the kitchen, assisting chefs and modifying flavours to suit her palate and those of ex-pats, who frequent her restaurant in great numbers.
It’s a necessity as most people are not as familiar with the flavours as she is, but the balancing act lies in serving something that is authentically Burmese but also enjoyable to people from all corners of the world.
“Burmese food is a little spicy, salty and oily, but I try to reduce a little bit of everything to make dishes very mild so that it’s enjoyable for everyone,” she adds.
“The most popular dish is tea leaf salad, or Lahpet Thoke, as it’s called in Myanmar,” explains Cho Cho.
Diners (particularly Cambodians) also prefer the “mohinga”, a rice noodle dish with fish gravy similar to Khmer noodles.
A part of Irrawaddy’s charm is the modest pricing on its menu – with dishes costing $4 at most.
“That’s the way that I can ensure my customers keep coming back,” she explains.
“Local Cambodian people, visit, but not too many. Only a few sometimes, one or two tables per day. Not every day either. I think Cambodian people, especially in this area, Boeng Keng Kang, the diners prefer luxury.”
Her food is delicious, but Cambodians who associate luxury with Western food would not describe it as such, says Cho Cho.
“I don’t think they like my very simple food because they think Asian food is quite similar to each other. They want to taste the very different flavours,” she says.
Dishes are served in simple yet beautiful rustic bowls in an exquisitely airy atmosphere meant to evoke memories of her childhood growing up in Burma.
“I’ve no plan for expanding or anything. I only want to maintain the quality of food and share very simple dishes from Myanmar with the world,” says Cho Cho.
Irrawaddi Myanmar Gallery Restaurant is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 10am to 2pm for lunch and 5pm to 10pm for dinner.
It is located at No24, Steet 334 in Boeung Keng Kong 1. Reservations can be made by calling 099 614 641.