Category Archives: Reviews

The Taj is no masterpiece, but still worth a try

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 18 June 2015

The Taj in Yangon
The Taj in Yangon

Once upon a time not so long ago, Yangonites looking to satisfy a craving for authentic Indian cuisine in pleasant surrounds had but one option. And while the Coriander Leaf certainly remains a very good option, the recent opening of four new fine dining Indian restaurants – The Taj, Tadka, Bawarchi and India Kitchen, gives reason to rejoice. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

Like two of the other new Indian kids on the block, The Taj sports a cute Hindi-styled font signboard above its entrance. It caught my eye as I whizzed past Aung San Stadium one afternoon, and has no doubt succeeded in catching the attention of others who are always on the lookout for a great Indian eatery.

Based on the rave reviews we’d heard from friends – among them a Bangladeshi who swore that The Taj’s biryani is the best in town – and the fact that it was a Saturday evening, we made sure to book a table to avoid either being turned away or shunted into a pokey corner.

Although our table was presented no less beautifully than any other, it was nonetheless a back corner in which we were seated, in what was clearly the section designated for couples located towards the rear of the ground floor. Of course there’s nothing at all wrong with such an arrangement, but the gap between the row of four tables was awkwardly negligible. The couple to our right must have shared some of our shyness at being so close because within five minutes they’d switched from speaking in heavily American accented English to Burmese. Things were so tight, in fact, that when the gentleman next to me later got up from his seat to leave the premises with his date, his bottom inadvertently brushed our plate of naan as he strode past. Another downside was that the tables were unusually long (though not wide) so I had to strain my ears to hear my husband over music that echoed from above.

Seating arrangements are a little tight at The Taj, though the presentation overall was lovely.
Seating arrangements are a little tight at The Taj, though the presentation overall was lovely.

I was much more enamoured by the design and layout of the more brightly lit upstairs area (which I discovered during a trip to the lavatory) but was informed that it is reserved for parties of five or more.

The Taj’s staff were attentive, equipped with touch-pads and kitted out in red tunics with a black sash around their waists – they reminded me a little of Santa’s elves as they scampered from diner to diner.

The food arrived promptly and the pakoras (K3,500) and accompanying sauces were an absolute delight, with top marks for presentation. However the palak paneer was simply too rich to finish and the butter chicken (K5,500) was confusing because it deviated so far from the classic dish that I know and love. It contained not chunks but threads of chicken so thin that it took on the texture of grated carrot. The murgh vindaloo (K5,500) was surprisingly devoid of spice, which meant that the tastiest dish of the night was the oh-so-tender mutton rogan josh (K6,500). We took home the mutton biryani (K7,000) as a parcel and whilst my palate isn’t discerning enough to separate the good biryanis from the great, my husband’s certainly can: he ranked it somewhere in between.

The Taj offers regular lunchtime promos such as complimentary Lavazza coffee, while its dine-in weekday vegetarian thalis are reasonably priced at K4,500 and K7,000 for non-vegetarian. Naturally, it’s cheaper to have the food delivered or collected (prices are K3,000 and K5,000 respectively), although a minimum order of 10 boxes is necessary. The Taj also offers an express menu for those who are strapped for time.

Our bill came to almost K50,000 – which seemed a little pricey considering we’d not ordered any alcoholic beverages (the reason being that none are served). Overall however, it was a pleasant dining experience, with the only caveat being the need to ease up on the ghee and consider tweaking parts of the floor plan.

The Taj is open from 11.30am until 10.30pm and is located on B-9, Aung San Stadium, North Stand, Upper Pansodan Road, Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township.

Phone 09972662518 or 09252451353 or email the.taj@miffmyanmar.com

For more information, visit The Taj’s Facebook page 

Footnote: My favourite of the five Indian restaurants is India Kitchen, which I also think is the best value for money (and pssst – beer is available if you sit upstairs, though sometimes you’ll be told that it’s full, which may or may not be true!).

Do you have a different fave Indian restaurant? Please go ahead and leave a comment below 🙂

Finding Africa’s lost soldiers in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 23 April 2015

Troop Inspection, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood
Troop Inspection, Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood

The unforgettable story of two Nigerian soldiers hidden by a Rohingya family for eight months during the Second World War went unknown beyond those involved for more than six decades. Nor was it was only these two soldiers who were forgotten. Despite comprising a million men and inflicting a crushing defeat on the Japanese, the Fourteenth Army dubbed itself the ‘Forgotten Army’ because the Allied campaign elsewhere in the world attracted more attention – both then and now.

It was the foreign correspondent Barnaby Phillips who put right the oversight by documenting the extraordinary tale of human fortitude and kindness in a 2011 documentary for Al Jazeera – the material for which was so rich that he went on to write Another Man’s War, which was published in 2014.

But firstly, why did Africans take part in another man’s war – and why so many? Phillips quotes Burma campaign veteran Captain Carfrae, who said the Nigerians “found themselves in a forbidding country pitted against strangers altogether irrelevant to them, a people they hadn’t known to exist and with whom they could have no conceivable quarrel until we made our enmity theirs…”

During an interview with Mizzima at the Irrawaddy Literature Festival on March 30, Phillips said, “They were fighting a war between a fading empire and the Japanese – neither of whom was the rightful owner of the country in which they were in.”

Author Barnaby Phillips
Author Barnaby Phillips

Initially, African men were conscripted, with missionary schools and prisons emptied out by emirs. The high rate of desertions soon proved the strategy ineffective and was replaced by plentiful British propaganda about Hitler, which Phillips described as “pretty effective.”

For Isaac Fadoyebo and David Kargbo, it was less an ideological decision than a practical one; war was seemingly the best option available to them at the time. Soldiers were promised a shilling a day, which was more than a teacher earned in Nigeria, and they were also enticed by the prospect of learning new skills, such as operating a wireless radio. Isaac was only 16 when he signed up in 1943 to become a medical orderly.

“There was no military band, no cheering – they were just shipped out uncelebrated,” Phillips said.

Isaac arrived in Myanmar a year after Yangon had fallen to the Japanese. Yet the British were determined to continue on with the battle, as Phillips writes, because: “A successful offensive would not only remove the threat of a Japanese advance up the Bengali coast to Calcutta, but could also provide a launch pad for the British to make an eventual attack on the Burmese capital, Rangoon.”

Of the 120,000 Nigerians who enlisted, around a third served in Myanmar, with the majority sent to what was then Arakan State. Isaac and David were among them.

“The Africans were sent to an area where malaria, typhoid, dysentery and the like were rife and the vegetation extremely harsh. The theory was that Africans were good at fighting in jungles – even though they’d spent their lives in the dry savannah,” Phillips wryly remarked during his talk at the literature festival.

Conditions were made tougher still by the fact there was zero ground relief. Supplies were dropped haphazardly from the air – sometimes fatally.

Recruiting in northern Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood.
Recruiting in northern Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Jill Hopwood.

On 2 March 1944, the 14th Army was ambushed by Japanese soldiers on the opposite side of the Kaladan River. Isaac was shot in the leg while his comrades fell down dead around him. As he writhed in pain, a medical officer called Captain Brown returned to tend to the wounded and dying at great personal risk. Just as he was reviving Isaac with a mug of water, the Japanese crossed the river and lead Captain Brown out of sight. His coat was found hanging in a tree a week later, but he was never seen again and is presumed to have been tortured and executed. This was one of Isaac’s most painful recollections when Phillips first spoke to him, 67 years later.

Isaac was bleeding profusely and was certain he was about to die, which was why he was left untouched by the Japanese. He told me that “he wasn’t worth a bullet to finish him off,” Phillips explained.

While Rakhine Buddhists supported the Japanese on the basis of ‘Asia for Asians’ and their complete disdain for British colonial rule, Rohingya Muslims had placed their bets on the British – which unbeknown to them, was a dying empire. It was thus extremely lucky that Isaac fell wounded in a Muslim village. Local villagers began feeding Isaac in a makeshift hut and later brought in another wounded soldier from Sierra Leone, David Kargbo – Isaac thought this was most likely for companionship. However Isaac was in insufferable pain as the maggots ate away at the ghastly, infected wound on his femur. The two soldiers were stranded in Japanese-controlled territory and it took some time for it to sink in that a dry offensive and rescue operation wouldn’t be contemplated by the British until the dry season began many months later.

Isaac and David passed themselves off as Muslims in the hope that it would foster a stronger sense of brotherhood in their desperately precarious situation. They were painfully aware that it would take just one local to turn them into the Japanese. They grew more nervous still when a villager robbed them of their military attire, which they assumed would be presented as evidence as to their whereabouts. Then the parcels of food and herbs from villagers, who were themselves poor villagers, dried up altogether. Twelve days passed before a local man called Shuyiman approached them. He took one look at the sorry state they were in and promised to do all he could to care for them. He first tried to repair their leaking shack and later brought them into his family home. Had the presence of David and Isaac been discovered by the Japanese, Shuyiman and his entire family would have been executed; possibly tortured first. There were several close calls, as Japanese soldiers routinely inspected village homes: with one exception, Shuyiman concealed the level of danger he was in from his two guests – whom by now he considered his friends.

Nigerian names on the War Memorial at the Taukkyan Cemetery outside Yangon. Photo courtesy of Barnaby Philips
Nigerian names on the War Memorial at the Taukkyan Cemetery outside Yangon. Photo courtesy of Barnaby Philips

Nine months later, Isaac and David were rescued by the British and flown to India for treatment before returning home to a heroes’ welcome. However as Phillips wrote, “The West Africans’ campaigns were barely covered by the Allied war correspondents and photographers, for whom they had no glamour. British soldiers in Burma famously dubbed themselves ‘The Forgotten Army’, but what did that make West Africans? John Hamilton wrote with frustration that they were the ‘forgotten flank of the forgotten corps of the ‘Forgotten Army.’”

Both Isaac and David’s families were convinced they were ghosts, as they’d long been listed as missing in action. It was only when Isaac’s family threw dust on him that their fears were allayed – David wasn’t let inside the family home until he lit up a cigarette on the doorstep.

The fact that Isaac was permanently maimed didn’t dispirit him: he set about building his post-war life with determined enthusiasm.

“What I like about his story is that Isaac moved on after the war – he went on to become a successful civil servant and travelled to the UK in the sixties and seventies. He had a car and nice house, and was able to provide his children with opportunities he’d never had. He wasn’t a victim and he didn’t die a bitter man,” Phillips told Mizzima.

However Isaac did carry certain regrets – chiefly the lack of contact with Shuyiman and his family, for whom he felt intense gratitude. One of the last things he did before his death in 2012 was to build a home in his ancestral village in their memory.

Phillips was BBC’s Nigeria correspondent between 1998 and 2001, during which time he had heard whispers about the ‘Burma Boys’, as they were known locally.

“I was intrigued but didn’t do much about it to be honest – I left Nigeria and later, Africa. It ate away at me until the late 2000s, when I realised it would be great material for a book or a documentary,” he said.

Phillips found Isaac’s 60 page memoir in London’s Imperial War Museum and promptly contacted David Killingray, the historian whose hands it had ended up in.

Isaac Fadoyebo. Photo courtesy of Chris Olivotos
Isaac Fadoyebo. Photo courtesy of Chris Olivotos

Killingray told Phillips that the last time he’d spoken to Isaac was a decade ago – both doubted he was still alive. Phillips asked a friend in Nigeria to deliver a letter to the address Isaac was last listed at – and was overjoyed to discover he was alive – and had a phone.

“I called the number and a strong voice came through in fluent English. I explained who I was and he cut me off and said, ‘Mr Phillips, when are you coming?’”

Phillips returned to Nigeria in 2010 to film the documentary and travelled to Myanmar the next year with the faint hope of tracking down Shuyiman’s family to deliver a letter and photographs from Isaac. Once again, Barnaby’s timing had been critical: he arrived in Sittwe before sectarian violence broke out in May 2012, which would have made his mission impossible.

Despite being equipped with the vaguest approximations as to the location of Shuyiman’s village, as Isaac himself was uniformed about where he’d spent those nine months, Phillips succeeded in finding the village. Shuyiman and his wife had passed away several years back, but his children remembered the two African soldiers vividly and recalled how often their parents had spoken about them. They broke down in tears when they saw Isaac’s photo and said that they too had been thinking of him all these years.

Isaac was overjoyed to learn that his letter had been delivered to the family to whom he owed his life. He was finally able to express his emotions when Phillips connected them by phone using a London-based Rohingya translator – though he said the line between Lagos and Rakhine State was expectedly riddled with crackles.

Phillip’s book is also fascinating by way of the surprising parallels he draws between modern day Myanmar and Nigeria, which for decades after the Second World War had been beset by political turmoil and corruption – but for whom much optimism is now held.

The victims of the story, Phillips concludes, is Shuyiman’s family.

“Their lives haven’t changed for the better and they remain a persecuted minority. They continue to live in the same village [whose name Phillips does not disclose] and successive generations live on as poor farmers.”

“Although they didn’t end up in IDP camps, they said they felt imprisoned in their village. When I spoke to them in 2012 they said ‘This is our land we will stay here.’ But by mid-2014, Shuyiman’s grandson was saying that they were going to try to leave – perhaps to Bangladesh, where they are not welcome. That is the sad part of the story,” he said.

‘Another Man’s War’ is available on Amazon and the paperback edition will be released in June.

The documentary Burma Boy won a Golden Eagle award in 2012 and can be viewed on Youtube.

Cakes on Bikes: A review of BB Cake and Coffee in Yangon’s trendy Parami

Top marks for presentation
Top marks for presentation

The opening of BB Cake and Coffee in Parami, a chic and spacious cake, coffee and pastry shop, is yet another indication that Myanmar’s commercial capital is creeping northwards. When BB Cakes opened on the corner or Parami Road and Myint Zu Street about four months ago, its elegant exterior instantly made it a landmark in the local area. This place is practically impossible to miss – especially at night, when it’s lit up by a warm lighting scheme that softens the edges of the white building, which is complemented by a fringe of tall palm trees and shrubbery. The gala opening even made it onto MRTV4.  It’s opposite the high end salon, Stag, on Myint Zu Street, where Yangon’s male celebrities reportedly go for hair-cuts.

Step inside BB Cakes and it feels as though you’ve walked into the spread of an interior design magazine. Within three steps you’ll be greeted by one of the many female waitresses who are dressed so smartly that they resemble air hostesses. The service is prompt and efficient without being overbearing.

Sit back and relax...
Sit back and relax…

Cool temperatures and generously proportioned white couches paired with plump cushions make it easy to spend an entire morning or afternoon here (and there’s wifi too, though these days that almost goes without saying). There’s a lot of natural sunlight due to the expansive use of glass panels, but virtually no glare thanks to the surrounding vegetation and silky white drapes. Smokers can sit on the patio outside in cane chairs that are of course, white. Miniature “trees” in pot plants and watering cans sit atop the white tables and the stacks of books against the walls give it a homely feel, though sadly the books are actually just hollow cardboard boxes with about 12 repeated titles. Admittedly this is a very small point to pick on though.

Iced coffees are served in boot-shaped glass mugs (K3,200) and the strawberry smoothie, while pricey at K3,200, had real pieces of strawberry at the bottom. It also offers Myanmar’s famous avocado smoothie, plus papaya yoghurt and blueberry smoothies, to name but a few.

Luscious looking cakes
Luscious looking cakes

BB Cake and Coffee has eye-boggling window displays of cakes, which are available for home delivery and cost around K28,000 (excluding delivery charges). As implausible as it sounds, there are even cakes displayed on iron framed bicycles. Each bicycle has three oversized cream cakes perched on the place where a seat would go, plus one above that and below.

But while a decadent birthday treat is one thing, BB Cakes is not for health conscious consumers. And brown bread lovers beware: there is nothing for you here but a pack of four brown bread slices that will set you back a surprising K1,800. Plain white bread is sold in slices of 10, for the over-the-top sum of K2,200. Although there are bakers on the premises, there are no baguettes or the like in sight and almost everything is sweet rather than savoury. Granted, it’s acake and coffee shop, but when items such as Fruit Pizza (K1,500) or Flower Sausage (K1,500) make an attempt to fill that gap, it seems that something less ambitious and more comforting and nutritious may have been a better way to go. The bacon croissant was served cold and contained a confusing spread of sliced cucumber and chopped cabbage in a mayonnaise dressing, which gave me a sense that a lot less thought is going into the food than the beautiful interior design. The chicken and bacon sandwiches on display had been deep fried and it was hard to tell if they were made of bread or the ubiquitous puff pastry, with a thin strip of bacon slathered across the top of the latter. Sadly the results were ultimately unappealing.

Outdoor seating is also available
Outdoor seating is also available

As the chef of one Yangon’s best known restaurants once told me, “There’s enough room in the market for all the new cafes and restaurants popping up in Yangon. The problem is that most places get the concept and service right, but fall flat on the food. Or it’s the other way round…”

For the time being at least, BB Cake and Coffee falls into that category.

BB Cake and Coffee is located on No. 48 Parami Road (on the corner of Myint Zu Street) Parami.

Phone: 09 4211 806 70

Please note: This review was published by Mizzima way back in December 2013 – so perhaps take it with a grain of salt (pardon the pun).