Indian, Thai, and Chinese cuisine are all widespread and well known, but a cuisine that incorporates qualities from all three, Burmese food, isn’t nearly as popular in Oregon.
Corvallis’s restaurant scene, though, just got a promising introduction to the cuisine in Nai Nai’s Burmese Snack Shack.
Dishes from Burma — now known as Myanmar, a southeast Asian country to the west of Thailand — are comparable to neighboring countries’, with an emphasis on balancing a variety of textures and the use of fresh herbs and spices.
Nai Nai’s, tucked away in Common Fields Corvallis Food Truck Pod on Southwest Third Street, opened in early June. Owner Will de Glanville has made it his mission to recreate his grandmother’s dishes and share his love for Burmese food.
Mary de Glanville, Will’s nai nai, would visit her grandson during the summer and whip up meals and snacks, all by memory. She taught Will how to cook as he got older. Her wedding photo from the 1940s is used as the food cart’s logo.
“A lot of it is recreating that smell and that taste,” de Glanville said. “Occasionally, I smell something and it just brings me back to being a kid.”
Burmese food consists primarily of rice, noodle, salad, fish and curry dishes. Laphet thoke, or pickled tea leaf salad, is found exclusively in Myanmar. No other cuisine incorporates eating tea leaves.
It’s common for dishes to incorporate contrasting textures, like okra that’s both hard and soft and different types of relishes.
Many dishes are cooked with fish paste, including the national dish mohinga, a rice noodle dish with fish-based broth. Curry is also a popular dish, but milder in flavor than its Indian counterpart.
Nai Nai’s offers soups; curries; athoke, or salad; and samosas, the savory triangular-filled pastries. The dishes de Glanville serves are his favorites among his nai nai’s recipes, but he especially recommends the pork curry with chili shrimp relish.
De Glanville has entertained the idea of opening a Burmese food cart in Portland for 15 years, but was only able to start working on it a year ago. He said seeing other Burmese businesses kept him motivated, and it was “luck” when he was offered a spot at the Corvallis food pod.
Corvallis may be an unexpected place to get Burmese food, but it’s one of the first in Oregon to have it outside of the Portland metro area.
Until recently, a food cart like de Glanville’s likely wouldn’t have survived in Corvallis. The efforts of the Portland Burmese community, though, helped cultivate the cuisine’s popularity enough to flourish elsewhere.
Kalvin and Poe Myint opened the food cart The Taste of Rangoon in Portland in 2004. The couple ran it for about six months before they sold it, putting their dream of running a Burmese restaurant on hold.
In 2019, technological advancements drew the couple back into the food scene with a new venture: a ghost kitchen, a commissary kitchen that delivers food ordered through third-party delivery apps. Customers embraced the virtual kitchen, so they were able to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Top Burmese, which now has four locations across the Portland metro area.
“Other Southeast Asian restaurants created inspiration and laid the pathway for us,” Kalvin said. “I think every time you open something, you create inspiration for others to follow.”
Another influential Burmese food business is Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine in Portland, a catering company run by Mya Sandy Myint, who goes by Sandy. She is Kalvin’s sister, but the two siblings’ businesses are unaffiliated. Off and on since 2006, she’s been serving Burmese cuisine and helping Burmese people in the city.
When not cooking, Sandy serves as an interpreter for people who have just arrived from Myanmar, connecting them to needed resources. She also volunteers in a Burmese community garden, teaching folks how to cultivate vegetables from their homeland and cook their cuisine.
Both Portland businesses have helped establish Burmese food in Oregon, but it is only now coming into fruition outside of the area.
De Glanville hopes to move Nai Nai’s into a brick-and-mortar space, either as a small cafe or a tropical themed bar with colorful mixed drinks.
“Cooking together in the kitchen is how my family communicates,” de Glanville said. “Burmese food means family.”
–Max Decker, Lincoln High School
–Kalia Yee, Salem-Keizer Early College High School
This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to oregonlive.com/hsji.