Back in the early 2000s, in a country where single-cuisine restaurants were a rare sight, Ankit Gupta dared to dream of bringing his childhood’s culinary delights to the fore. An array of Pan-Asian, Continental, and Mediterranean cuisines were dominating our taste buds; understandably Gupta was apprehensive about introducing vegetarian Burmese cuisine to the masses. 2014 saw Gupta and co-founder Chirag Chhajer take a leap of faith and sow the seeds of what is now a thriving franchise – Burma Burma.
A portion of refreshing tea leaf salad, a bowl of soul-satisfying authentic khowsuey, a plate of delectable Burmese falafel – the flavours of Burma Burma have touched many hearts and satiated many cravings. But amidst the gastronomical pleasures lies a story of passion, perseverance, and most of all, a mother’s love.
Urmila, Gupta’s mother, spent the first 22 years of her life in Pyay, Burma. Originally from India, her grandfather migrated to Burma to trade in pulses during the British occupation of Burma and India. The1970s political turbulence forced many Indian and non-Burmese migrants to leave, including Urmila’s family who migrated back to India. Four years later, fate intervened in the form of a chance meeting with a hotelier, who would later become her husband. Little did she know that this was the beginning of the makings of the most popular Burmese chains in India.
Gupta grew up in India, but Burmese culture was never foreign to him. His relatives often wore lungis at home, and his mother’s cooking exposed him to the richness of Burmese cuisine. Even story time usually meant his mother painting pictures of her childhood in Burma for Gupta — walking to school with friends, sharing laughter and packets of tangy candied fruit, memories made on the dinner table over plates of khowsuey and thoke.
He recalls a separate refrigerator at home filled with unique and tasty Burmese ingredients such as pickled candy, pickled plum, tea leaf paste, sweet and sour spice mix, and sunflower seeds. It was a norm for his mother to serve tea leaf salad or raw mango salad every other day and khowsuey at least once a month.
“To date, I adore the tea-leaf paste. My nephew and nieces have been devouring this family favourite since the age of 3!” says Gupta. It’s interesting to note that in Burma, about 80% of the tea is consumed as food, not as a drink. The tea is fermented, giving it a unique flavour and offering versatility in the kitchen. “Personally, I love mixing the tea leaf paste with rice, onion and chilli crisps, and a dollop of ghee,” he adds.
Growing up in Mumbai, Gupta noticed dishes served at home were rarely spotted on restaurant menus. “It was almost like it was a secret experience my family enjoyed,” he says. His mother made sure of a steady supply of Burmese ingredients where relatives and acquaintances travelling from Burma were handed an extensive list of groceries to shop for. When relatives would visit, Gupta would help his mother assort dishes – furthering his interest in Burmese food. As an adult, influenced by his father’s profession, Gupta fine-tuned his passion by studying hotel management and being affiliated with The Taj for three years. With his passion for Burmese food brewing parallelly, Gupta finally asked his mother, “Can I take your food and set up a restaurant?” A cuisine so close to her heart, so personal to her identity, shared with the general public at large – Urmila was naturally nervous, but she was equally excited!
She did place one condition – they would serve the dish in the most authentic, Burmese fashion possible. Gupta wholeheartedly agreed and his first order of business was to make a trip to Burma.
While in Burma, expanding his knowledge about cuisine and people, Gupta began to understand his mother even better. He saw humility, simplicity, purity and generous hospitality in the people of Burma, just as he saw in his mother. It was not just the food, but this culture and philosophy that he wanted to reflect in his restaurant. “We have a philosophy in the company – guests first, everything else second. This is inspired by my mother’s philosophy of serving guests to the best of her ability.”
All these years later, Gupta has no doubts about the reason he has been able to start and sustain his brand – “Burma Burma purely exists because of my mother. She is the strongest and only connection that the brand has to Burma.”
Right from inception, his mother would translate her Burmese recipes for the chefs to understand. Gupta would then add the same dish to the menu, word for word, with no deviation. Even today, nothing is tweaked, his mother makes sure that everything is as authentic as possible. This mother-son agreement works like magic and is evident in the taste of the food they serve.
Taking back from the relationship Gupta shares with his mother, he suggests ditching the idea of taking your mother for a movie on Mother’s Day, instead, creating a real moment together. “For me, the ideal way to celebrate Mother’s Day is to cook something together. There are so many layers to that experience: the teamwork, the process, the solidarity, and the shared joy of eating together. Even the arguing and yelling can be part of the fun. When you finally sit down to eat, it’s all worth it.”
At the heart of it, Burma Burma is a labour of love. And that love is reflected in the delectable thingyan, the classic samosa soup, the tayat thi thoke, and across their delicious menu. As you’re welcomed in with open arms, and savour each bite of food, remember the story of a mother and son’s love, passion, and dedication that made it all possible.