‘Burma Superstar’ makes the exotic cuisine of Myanmar accessible to home cooks

Read this cookbook: “Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes from the Crossroads of Southeast Asia” by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy (Ten Speed Press, $29.99)

 By Wendell Brock

 A few years ago, some New York friends took me to one of their favorite neighborhood restaurants, where I had my first bite of Myanmar’s famous laphet thoke, a salad that derives its mysterious allure from fermented tea leaves.

I was immediately hooked on the distinctive sweet-sour-savory tang and the crunchy pop of fried garlic and yellow split peas, toasted nuts and sesame seeds, all of which transformed ordinary salad greens into something magical and haunting.

When “Burma Superstar” arrived on my desk, I imagined its namesake San Francisco restaurant to be a hip, of-the-moment place with a celebrity chef and, of course, a killer laphet thoke.

In fact, Burma Superstar opened in 1992 as a tiny mom-and-pop. It wasn’t until Bay Area businessman and Burma native Desmond Tan and his wife bought the place in 2000 that it began to sizzle.

Today, there are three Burma Superstar locations, a sister restaurant, and an importing company that has made the famous fermented tea leaves accessible to Americans.

Smartly written and exquisitely photographed by John Lee, “Burma Superstar” showcases the dishes have made the brand famous, plus a few from home cooks in Burma and San Francisco.

It also operates as a primer on the culture and politics of the Asian nation that was isolated from the West for 50 years and is only now transitioning from military rule to democracy.

If you’re headed to Myanmar, “Burma Superstar” will be a delicious and tantalizing introduction. If you want to bring the fragrant curries, salads and little dishes of a nation sandwiched between India and China and bordered by Laos and Thailand to your own kitchen, it’s an essential guide.

As Leahy suggests, before you start chasing exotic ingredients, you might begin with some simple recipes from the front of the book (maybe the Egg and Okra Curry or the five-ingredient Bagan Butterbeans), then move on to more complex dishes, like the classic fish-and-noodle soup, Mohinga.

There are Hibiscus Punch and Burma Coolers to quench your thirst; fried lotus-root chips and samosas to snack on; and a plethora of intriguing stews, stir fries and noodle dishes to fill the belly.

This beautiful book is a joy to read and savor, certain to shine a light on a cuisine that was hidden from the world for so long. And it’s an invitation not only to sip your tea, but also to eat it.

Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).

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