‘What is authenticity? For me, it was what my mum cooked, back in the 70s.’
Nila opened her Burmese kitchen 6 years ago after years of what-ifs and dormant plans. She grew up in London, relocating from then-Burma when she was 5; moved to Manchester to study Geography at university, and worked in the civil service before packing it in to commit to fulfilling a niggling dream: to bless us all with her bomb food.
‘I did it. I just thought, you know what – I’ve got to do it now, or never.’
I shudder to think where we’d be if she hadn’t. Nila trained in various cooking classes and did a Cordon Bleu course in London, but the food you’d be lucky enough to put into your face at Nila’s Burmese Kitchen is what she used to eat at home growing up.
We sit in the super-inviting, super-colourful cafe to try the menu, which is available from 12-3pm, Monday to Friday. A country bordered by India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand, you can expect Burmese food to be a glorious marriage of all of these cultures. And you’d be right, friends: the pork tamarind curry which you can also find in northern Thailand is so, so tender, tangy and flavoursome. This is a favourite of her regulars, and it’s easy to see why.
Curry number 2 is pure comfort and familiarity; a chicken and potato curry with lemongrass and cardamom, this is a variation of the Bangladeshi aloo murghi (which everyone including my own non-Bangladeshi mother claims they have the perfect recipe for).
Lastly, a delicious and hearty curry containing yellow split-pea, cauliflower, and potato vegan option, one of the few items on the menu that doesn’t contain fish sauce.
For me though, the biggest shoutout goes to Nila’s zingy, light and stupidly-moreish laphet thohk salad made with fermented tea leaves, fresh tomatoes and chilli, and nuts. This is hard to come by in the UK so if you have a chance to try it, do!
As we eat without pausing to inhale, Nila tells me about her childhood growing up in the 70s in London:
‘There were six of us and my parents. I remember eating cornflakes for the first time thinking ‘what is this? Cold milk?!’ this was gross because we don’t really drink milk in Burma and it had gone all soggy.’
She gestures at the ohno kaukswe [literally translated as coconut noodles] in front of us, which I’ve been trying and failing not to stare at as we talk. It’s a thing of beauty: chicken coconut noodle soup, thickened with toasted chickpea flour and garnished with boiled egg, fresh coriander, crispy onions and chilli. ‘There were a lot of ingredients you couldn’t get, you know, we kind of forget what it was like in the 70s. The food phenomenon here wasn’t as diverse…so my mum used to make noodle dishes with spaghetti’.
While substituting noodles for spaghetti might sound like sacrilege in today’s age of super-convenience, it certainly tastes like nostalgia to Nila as she goes on to say it’s a variation she replicates at home on the regular. The subject of authenticity comes up again, and Nila ex plains that in a country with over 135 different confirmed ethnicities, ‘you’ve got the same ingredients, the same dish, but each dish can be so different from family to family.’
‘All Burmese people – it’s not just me – are hugely passionate about food. They love cooking their food, even if they’re not ‘in’ it, you know, they don’t work in that profession. So there are some amazing Burmese home cooks.’
Nila’s is situated on Third Avenue in Trafford Park, on a random-ass New York-style grid of streets which used to be a Ford factory car park. With covid and WFH rendering the surrounding business parks near-barren (and being next to a Gregg’s), the footfall just isn’t there.
A really exciting solution to the absence of her loyal return customers – at least while we navigate new working lives – may be in the form of intimate supperclubs and cooking classes (a thousand times yes). Her amazing curries are also condensed into pastes and her chilli-garlic dipping sauce is bottled and available for people to order, supporting this hidden gem during this bastard pandemic.
Watch this space – we’ll see you on 3rd Avenue.