Feast on exotic Burmese cuisine alongside familiar Indian favorites at Jasmine Market

By Richard Foss (richard@richardfoss.com)

Soe Lwin serves a puffed puri bread and a bowl  of potato curry Photo by Richard Foss

Soe Lwin serves a puffed puri bread and a bowl of potato curry
Photo by Richard Foss

I was bemused when I noticed the sign for Jasmine Market on Sepulveda near Washington, because except for flowers
used to flavor tea, the jasmine plant has no culinary uses. On my first visit I thought I might find a selection of teas, perhaps with fragrant ornamental shrubs nearby.

There are teas at Jasmine Market, but the main attraction here is the café where Mr. Soe Lwin and his family serve two cuisines of South Asia. Lwin is from Burma, his wife Khin is from India, and there are items from both cultures on the menu here.

Burmese cuisine uses chilies more moderately than neighboring Thailand and India. Sauces made with dried shrimp and
fish are used as a base along with ginger, and while the dishes are fragrant they aren’t particularly hot.

The Indian selections on this menu are mostly the kebabs, curries and biryanis we’re familiar with, so cautious diners might order a few things you know and explore the rest.

Even better, plan the meal with your server — she’s fluent and does a fine job of describing everything. She gave us valuable tips; we went on Tuesday but were able to get some dishes listed as served only on weekends.

Two of those were eggrolls and samosas, both slightly different from those I’ve had elsewhere.

The eggrolls were filled with finely chopped chicken and vegetables in a delicate curry sauce, and they were superb. The stuffing was almost fluffy and had just a breath of fragrant spice, and even though they arrived at the table almost too hot to touch, we devoured them.

The samosa turnovers were made from folded wonton skins, a regional variation from the garbanzo flour dough standard in much of India. Chicken, beef and potato are offered, and I intend to come back to find out if the meat versions are as good as the potato.

We also tried a Burmese noodle salad, which included shredded cabbage and onion with wheat noodles in a sauce that featured dried shrimp muskiness, tamarind sour fruitiness and a touch of chili heat. This is a fantastic balance of flavors, and we ran out of salad before we ran out of hunger for it.

Along with the aforementioned appetizers we chose chicken biryani, haleem, lamb goash curry, chicken curry, and a dish called aaloo puri that was described only as “potatoes with homemade mild spices.”

I knew that puri is a kind of deep-fried bread native to South India, so I expected a stuffed bread. But what arrived was a lovely mild potato curry alongside a hollow sphere of bread. Puri is marvelously flaky when it arrives at the table,
and the tradition is to tear off pieces to dip in curry; it is a very popular breakfast dish, but whatever time you eat it, it’s delightful. Don’t get this to go, because it is best straight from the fryer.

On the other hand, the lamb goash curry — made with tomato, onion and green pepper in a yogurt-based sauce — would survive the trip home in style. We could catch hints of coriander, cumin and fenugreek in the mix, but no one spice predominated.

The lamb goash curry was mildly hot, but the haleem, a dish of meat cooked with lentils, raised the temperature a bit. Haleem can be slow cooked to a pasty consistency, but this was more like a thick stew. And though the portion looked small, it was very rich and filling.

We had expected the haleem to be the spiciest dish on the table, but the chicken curry edged it out. It still wasn’t hot by the standards of most Thai or Indian places, but there was a pleasurable heat that was almost enough to raise a sweat. We had ordered some raita, the cucumber and yogurt salad that cools off Indian meals, and it was gratefully received by the more delicate palates at our table.

The curry came with fresh naan bread, rice and some vegetables, adding to the variety at the table. We also had the lamb biryani made with both white and saffron rice to fill any cracks in our hunger, and we had lots of food left to go home.

On another trip I tried a Burmese Mohningar — a rice noodle soup with fish, egg and pieces of banana stalk. This had bold and exotic flavors that were hard to pinpoint but were based on a slightly funky, musky fish sauce. That’s more appealing than it sounds, but trust me, the chili heat and vegetable sweetness paired with intense seafood flavor is amazing and different.

For drinks, you can choose from tea or canned soft drinks both familiar and exotic. Ginger ale was a good companion to
the food, but I also liked a lychee drink that mixed sweet and tart flavors.

The bill for an extravagant meal for four was $59, and it felt like a feast even though eaten from paper plates with plastic forks. Jasmine Market is a treasure for those who enjoy exotic food on a modest budget, and whether you explore Burmese food or get Indian favorites you’ll dine very well.

Jasmine Market is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.