Lahpet, 58 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6JW (020 3883 5629). Small plates £6-£8, large plates £12.50-£16.50, ice-creams and sorbets £3 a scoop, wines from £22
In the days following my dinner at Lahpet on London’s Bethnal Green Road, I could often be found fridge-hanging, teaspoon in hand. I was waiting for the moment when, unwatched, I could take a crafty scoop from one of the white, resealable bags of balachaung that I had smuggled home with me, so I could eat it neat. Balachaung is one of the more ubiquitous condiments from the country I will refer to as Burma (as that’s the name Lahpet uses). Trust me. You need balachaung in your life.
It’s a toasty mix of caramelised dried shrimps, shrimp paste, crispy fried garlic and shallots, with a gentle hit from fragrant roasted chillies. It is slightly sticky and full of deep, dark notes. It’s intensely savoury, but also sweet and rich and goes very well on rice – its traditional use. It’s also good on noodles. And with roasted courgettes. And barbecued pork. And as a sprinkled topping for a fried egg, and across cheese on toast and… well, you get the idea. There are members of the current Cabinet who might be moderately palatable if buried under sufficient balachaung. Not very many, I grant you, but a few.
I am not ashamed to say I knew little of Burmese food before I ate at Lahpet. I don’t need to be ashamed. My job isn’t to know everything. My job is to find myself a guide to what I don’t know. In this case it’s MiMi Aye, who was born in Margate to a family from Burma. They instilled in her a love for the country where they all began, through language, ritual and, of course, food. Last year she published Mandalay, a gorgeous book full of narrative and recipes, with an unignorable cover in the brightest of yellows and the deepest of crimsons. It schooled me lightly in a culinary Burma, a country whose food is influenced by its proximity to China, India and Thailand, but which is much more than simply an amalgam of that. For example, the repertoire includes a profoundly developed interest in fritters. Apparently, the Burmese love deep-fried stuff. This is something we can all get behind.
The menu at Lahpet, a light and airy space clad in lots of blond wood to soften the Shoreditch concrete and steel, starts with a selection of three fritters for £8. They arrive in jolly paper cones, as if it’s a day at the seaside, alongside a bright, sour tamarind dipping sauce. There are gnarly, rugged ones made with kidney beans and the slap of ginger, and others made from a split-pea purée. These flank the revelation: rectangular, golden sticks of deep-fried shan tofu, made from gram flour, with a reassuring outer crunch giving way to a molten centre. Where have these been all my life?
Texture is key. Lahpet thoke is a traditional salad made with pickled tea leaves, but there is so very much more going on here than the humble word “salad” suggests. It’s a salad with a lengthy CV and killer references. Alongside the tea leaves and shredded cabbage there’s the crunch of peanuts and of those crisp-fried broad beans we are familiar with from Spanish delis. There are dried shrimps and sesame seeds and a little chilli, for while a certain amount of heat is part of the story, it’s not there to bash you about the head. There’s a sweet-sour dressing with the high waft of garlic oil. It’s a heap of good things that needs to be excavated in search of ever deeper textural joy.
Sweet and savoury are not competing ideas, to be kept away from each other. Here, they are part of the same adventure. Pieces of pork, braised until they are only just keeping it together, come in a thick, almost black curry sauce full of caramel tones, mustard greens and brooding intent. It’s the edible equivalent of one of those bravura movie performances that everyone agrees is a shoo-in for a best acting Oscar, by dint of intensity alone.
By comparison, the Burmese classic mohinga, a catfish and lemongrass chowder, is almost light and carefree. But it’s still a belter. A thick, pungent broth made with lemongrass, ginger, garlic and fish stock (and much else) bobs with pieces of sliced fish cake, rice noodles and slabs of soft-boiled egg (and much else). Bronzed and bubbled split-pea fritters, which fracture pleasingly beneath the teeth, are half-submerged, but seem never to lose their echoing crunch. Again, it’s a dish that demands your attention. Both of these are £12.50.
The most showy plate of food, at £16.50, is the bream. The fillets have been taken off each side of the fish, crisp-fried and dressed with a mess of shallots, tomato and garlic. A few greens are there for healthy ballast. The remaining skeleton has then been deep fried and now perches, whole and tail up, on the plate. We are invited to break off pieces and eat them, too. We need little encouragement. Eventually, I move on to seeking out the nuggets of pearly white flesh around the head. All this, plus a bowl of that balachaung on the side, for added punch and kick.
We drink a rather lovely rhubarb and lemon thyme spritz and a less successful whisky-based cocktail called a Smokey Monkey, made with bitter orange, mango and red chilli jam. It’s the latter which I remember, and not in a good way. It’s like stubbing your toe; the discomfort comes in late. Still, there’s a fine beer list, including a Burmese lager, and a short selection of wines.
Lahpet, the Burmese word for tea, started as a food truck in Maltby Street by London’s Tower Bridge in 2017 and then became a pop-up before landing here in 2018. It’s a project by Dan Anton, who has Burmese heritage, and head chef Zaw Mahesh, who was born in Burma and came to the UK more than a decade ago to train as a chef.
The curving, wood-clad bar in the centre has enabled them to separate out the tables for social distancing, and they have a sizeable terrace space. On a warm evening that terrace is buzzing with younger London, keeping their distance from each other, but apparently delighted to be here, as was I. By the door they sell copies of MiMi Aye’s book should you want to know more, plus 200g bags of the balachaung. I take two, which is almost an Imperial pound’s worth. It is all gone within a week, and I mourn its passing.
Chef Kevin Tickle, who headed up the kitchen at Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume for many years before winning his own Michelin star at The Forest Side near Grasmere, has announced his next venture. He and his wife Nicola have taken over The Crown Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn, within the Lake District village of High Newton. It will reopen in late autumn after a major refurbishment, with six bedrooms, a small-plates offering in the pub and a restaurant with the sort of tasting menu for which Tickle is renowned.
Chef and broadcaster Andi Oliver and restaurant veteran and TV presenter Fred Sirieix, who first worked together on a recent episode of BBC TV’s Remarkable Places To Eat in Marrakesh, have just launched a pop-up. One Love will run for a month at the Clapton Country Club in east London, and will offer a menu of Caribbean-influenced dishes with French touches. Expect the likes of orange and ginger sticky wings, saucisson with gherkin relish, and Andi’s curry goat made with dark chocolate (which she wouldn’t stop going on about on BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet). Claptoncountryclub.co.uk.
Sanjeev Kapoor, one of India’s best-known TV chefs, has just opened his first restaurant in the UK. Yellow Chilli is located inside the Wembley Central shopping centre, north-west London, and offers a range of small and large plates from across India including spinach koftas stuffed with cottage cheese and lamb shanks in a Kashmiri gravy (theyellowchilli.co.uk).