Burma is a tea culture, and it is also a snacking culture. Coffee may be king in Vietnam, but Burma is the middle-ground between South Asia and Southeast Asia: in Yangon, it’s always tea-and-nosh time somewhere.
People drink sweet milky tea reminiscent of India’s iconic masala chai,but they also are partial to clear Chinese teas, sometimes served with sugar. The second most important aspect of Burmese leisure time? The snacks. The snacks are key. (And perhaps a newspaper. Or two).
It was in the spirit of hunting down tea-snacks that we stumbled upon the Golden Star Restaurant, a noodle-tea-snack shop on 50 Street Lower Block, a bit off Maha Bandoola Road.
Like most Burmese noodle-tea-snack shops, it’s a small place with small tables, but unlike most, Golden Star is set under some appealing green trees and is on a relatively quiet side-street—no need to suck in exhaust fumes with your meal.
We sat down, and as at most Burmese snack-shops, various plates of baked goods appeared within seconds. These baked goods usually are somewhat unremarkable, but we noticed immediately that the snacks here looked awfully nice.
The extremely friendly owner, who is named Nu Nu Wai, quickly noticed the foreigners perusing the (English! Shocking!) menu and informed us in English that her daughter studies medicine in Los Angeles, and we’d really like to try the Shan noodles, wouldn’t we? Well, of course. When you put it like that.
Shan noodles are sort of a soup-less, chilled version of the iconic Northern Thai Khao soi: spiced chicken, egg, some pickled vegetables, and curry spices. This is a simple and satisfying dish that seems to be ubiquitous (and often a bit mundane-looking) throughout Burma: at Golden Star, it was a remarkably good and appealing-look light meal, with a rich flavor and a rather unique texture.
Once Nu Nu Wai realized that we were quite gung-ho about the noodles, she immediately began plying us with more baked goods. “I bake everything here! All myself!” she said, as she continued to put multicolored plates of something in front of our noses.
I dutifully sampled a puff pastry stuffed with mutton, which was extravagantly good: a millennium away from the tragic specimens served on long-haul bus lines. And here I thought I was largely immune to the earthly delights of pastry.
Did you know the Burmese have a remarkable hand with flan? Bigger, less appetizing versions of the crackle-crusted Burmese flan above are dished out of big metal bowls on the street in Yangon: these delightful personal-sized versions were eggy, ethereal, and not too sweet, with a bit of crunch on top. You could quite easily sell these as exotic Burmese creme brulee in the dark heart of San Francisco’s hipster warrens for around $14 a pop. Ms Nu Nu Wai may want to contemplate a lucrative franchise.
We were then gifted a special tea-cake, containing red-bean paste and salted duck egg. “A gift for you!” said Ms Nu Nu, and although I was by then uncomfortably full, I was willing to take on the arduous task of finishing the thing. Unsurprisingly: delicious. A buttery, flaky exterior, juxtaposed with rich, creamy red-bean paste and the slightly salty kick of duck egg. Not a Mooncake, as Terry hastened to point out—something regular people who are interested in the welfare of their arteries might eat with tea, instead.
I got up to take photos, which meant the kitchen staff and Ms Nu Nu immediately began having fun posing and indicating what I should be taking photos of. Here she is with some of her baked goods.
The kitchen staff let me wander around and take photos of them, as the girls and boys chided each other, giggling, into posing. Much amusement over the final results when I pulled them up on my viewfinder.
On the way out, Ms Nu Nu inquired if we’d like to sample her lunch. “It is little Burmese fish,” she said: and so it was, a curry made of tiny, halved silverfish, served with rich and a side-dish or two in the typical Burmese fashion. It looked delicious, but as any more food would have likely inspired nightmarish gastric discomfort, we had to decline.
Golden Star Restaurant tucked in among some other noodle and curry stalls, and you’ll miss the place if you’re walking particularly forcefully—never a great idea in Yangon, Land of the Deadly Gaping Sidewalk Hole. Observe the figure above.
If you commit it to memory, you too may be wrapped into the warm embrace of delicious noodles and copious, nigh-on-deadly quantities of home-made Burmese tea cakes.
I am by no means a Yangon authority (though I did avoid plummeting feet-first into any of the aforementioned Gaping Sidewalk Holes), but for me, Golden Star Restaurant and the friendly presence of Ms Nu Nu makes this little joint just about the platonic ideal of tea-and-snack-shops.
May she become famous and featured in the Lonely Planet, or at least one of the more genteel episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s latest. She and her staff deserve it.