An unexpected taste of Sri Lanka in Yangon

Invite me to a dinner party and it won’t be long before I’m boring the ears off anyone who will listen about the wonders of Sri Lankan food. Needless to say, I don’t get invited to dinner parties very often.
Given my fondness for the stuff, I don’t need to tell you how delighted I was to discover a restaurant serving Sri Lankan food in Yangon – even if that restaurant is the Retro Bar at Hotel 63. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the place exactly – aside perhaps from the shiny curtains and the uncomfortably loud pop-music – it’s just not the kind of place you’d expect to find what is probably the city’s only Sri Lankan menu. The restaurant itself, located in an obscure corner of Botahtaung, resembles a sports bar in the midst of an identity crisis: Alongside a screen showing the football, a dart board and a series of neon beer advertisements are rows of coloured parasols, a piano and a collection of traditional paraphernalia. Still, it was going to take more than a few quirks to keep me from my coconut sambol, so off I went with Nay Thway in tow.
Retro Bar’s “secret” Sri Lankan menu is available by reservation only, but as long as you’re willing to wait, you’ll be served without a reservation. Oddly, for a place in the middle of pretty much nowhere, the restaurant is open 24 hours, so if you’re craving devilled chicken at 2am, this is the number to have on speed dial. There’s also an extensive – and extraordinarily good-value – drinks menu to keep you occupied while you wait for your food, including a selection of local cocktails for only K1000. The 63 Special, made with fresh watermelon juice, was an absolute steal, and the mojito wasn’t half bad either. Other cocktails start at only K2500, though if you have any sense at all you’ll stick with the real Sri Lankan Arrack. The Ceylonese variety of this distilled drink is made from coconut palm and has a mellow, distinctive taste unlike those of Southeast Asian countries. But you don’t need me to tell you that – at only K900 a shot you can try it for yourself.

Our food arrived in a flurry of colourful dishes: A vibrant coconut sambol (K2000), chicken curry (K2500), dhal (K1500), eggplant (wambatu) moju (K2500) and pennywort (gotukola) sambol (K1500), all easily enough for two people. Did we need the extra devilled chicken (K3500)? Probably not, but everything was such good value it seemed only right to try it all. You can literally sample the entire menu for K20,000.

It was love at first taste, of course. The rich, sour-sweet chutney of the eggplant moju fired up the taste buds, tempered by the melodious coconut sambol, which, though it wasn’t prepared with fresh desiccated coconut, wasn’t far off those I’ve had in Sri Lanka. The chicken curry had a compelling punch and depth, though it was a little salty for my taste. I preferred the fiery devilled chicken – a modern Sri Lankan dish usually eaten as a snack with beer – which was loaded with vegetables and had a satisfying spicy kick.

The star of the evening was the dhal, seasoned to perfection with Sri Lankan spices and coconut milk, every bite of which was like a miracle come true. I never knew a bowl of soggy lentils could do so much for me. In fact, forget Tinder: Next time I’m in need of a good night out I’m ordering an enormous bowl of this stuff – and a shovel.

Sri Lankan curries are notoriously spicy – which is perhaps one of the reasons Indian is more popular with namby-pamby Westerners – but are often served with a variety of more mellow dishes. You’d be a fool not to order the pennywort sambol, a traditional salad of ground pennyworth leaves and coconut, which offers a refreshing accompaniment to all the heat.

I was disappointed not to find any of the fabulous Ceyonese fruit curries on the menu – in Sri Lanka I lost my mind over curries of pineapple, mango and jackfruit – but with many of the basic ingredients available here in Myanmar (many of the flavours will be familiar to local diners), some of Retro Bar’s traditional dishes aren’t far off the real thing. Of course, a hotel bar in the hidden depths of Botahtaung may be a far cry from tropical Sri Lanka, but a few more glasses of Arrack and you’ll soon forget about that.

Retro Bar
Hotel 63, corner of Merchant Street and 63rd Street, Botahtaung Township, Yangon
Perfect for… casual dinner with friends, cheap eats, something different
Star rating: ★★★★

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