Kitchen Sessions Burma at Mama San with Chef Will Meyrick

"White men can't cook?" said chef Will Meyrick grinning from ear to ear upon I conveyed him my comments during the conversation after the dinner. It's a stereotyping he perhaps encountered quite often during his 12 years of cooking various Asian dishes. But let's be frank, among my years of encounter with International chefs, or foreign eateries in Indonesia that dare to serves Indonesian dishes, most of the time the characteristic of the food is almost always the same: pale, and seriously undertoned.

Imagine my surprise when at the "Kitchen Sessions: Burma" at Mama San Bali, I encountered Chef Will Meyrick's take on Asian cooking that's so flavourful, rich, and sometimes even wild. It's like Chef Will Meyrick has gain the understanding of true spirit of Asian cooking.

"Kitchen Sessions: Burma" is one of the Kitchen Sessions dinner series that Chef Will Meyrick hosts in his venue, Mama San in Kerobokan, Bali. It's a private dining sessions where the chef invites foodies, food writers, bloggers, and other good food lovers to share the experience of the culinary journey from his recent excursion trip around Asian countries.

The Invitation


It happened somewhere between the line of invitation for food blogger dinners hosted by various restaurants in Jakarta, that I cannot attend due to the distance. This one from Raechel Temily of Sarong Group was a bit surprising for it's going to happen in Bali, where I reside at the moment. Raechel was inviting me to this event called "Kitchen Sessions: Burma" in which Chef Will Meyrick, the brain behind the highly successful Sarong and Mama San, will be hosting a private dinner for foodies!

Happily I confirmed my interest to attend the Kitchen Sessions: Burma at Mama San, and signed up for their 20th June session. There is another session on 27th June but I think the sooner the better.

Mama San itself has received quite wide media coverage both from inside and outside Indonesia. It is praised as a fanciful dining with quality of Sarong its fine dining sister venue, but with the affordability and the more casual atmosphere to cater a greater audience.

Burmese cooking is fairly unheard in Indonesia, or even in the greater Asian culinary scenes, however they possesses a unique combination of cooking style from its neighbouring countries, combined with Burma's own signature ingredients, like the Lahpet, or pickled tea leaves, and Ngapi, the Burmese style Terasi/Belacan. Though geographically lies close to Thailand, surprisingly Burmese adopt a quite different character hence making it more indigenous.

Chef Will Meyrick itself has a long history of experience, both in the two venues he commands, and on past venues he involved with abroad. For the past twelve years however, he has put his whole interest into cooking Asian dishes.

The Event


I was a bit disoriented into thinking that Mama San sits close by Warisan, while it's not. After going up and down the Kerobokan street that connects Kuta to Eastern Denpasar, finally I gave up and calling the venue. On second run after getting the clue I was still missing it and went straight to Oberoi street. On the third run, I finally realized that the venue is much more closer than I thought: after the Sunset Road ends, turn left, then stop! Mama San is on your left, right across the Kimia Farma drug store, but was a bit recessed from the street and the sign is hard to spot driving alone in the dark.

There's a valet parking for cars, and plenty of room for motorcycles. Right from the beginning you can hear the music beats loudly from the upper floor of this two stories building: the ground floor is for dining, while the upper floor is where the bar is.

The stairs to the upper floor sits right beside the entrance of a heavy wooden door. The ground floor looked like what other magazines has described, lively and warm, with a touch of exoticism from the huge Mama San painting on the wall. I went straight up to find Raechel and other guests for the dinner. Upon reaching the upper floor, it was dimly lighted, and suddenly I felt that tonight there will be less food shots I would take home.

I then sat with other guests and we exchanges stories, Raechel gave a heads up on the menu that will be served, along with the reason why Kitchen Sessions dinner exist in the first place. As explained in his blog, among Chef Will Meyrick's favourite pass time is travelling around Asian countries looking for cooking inspiration. After a trip, chef will then apply the knowledge he just gained, into creating his own version of the dishes encountered during the trip, and Kitchen Sessions is the vessel to share this taste journey with fellow epicurean and good food enthusiasts.

Patrick Murray from L Hotels & Resorts shared his insight on what makes Mama San his favourite place to hang out, he believe that it's the combination of the atmosphere, the good cooking, the people involved in the quality service, and the guests that altogether makes Mama San pleasing. And I was about to experience what Patrick mean.

As it is geared to experience sharing event, the menus presented during this event are catered more towards the adventurous nature of the guests, therefore not all of the menus presented during Kitchen Sessions will be available on Mama San's regular menus, so this will be quite a unique experience.

The Taste Journey


Upon our arrival, the guests are offered drinks from the bar. Matthew Radalj welcomed any request, but he also offered us his recommendation, complete with description and bits of historical background of the drink, fascinating! As for myself I got interested in Matthew's recommendation of Mama San's Signature Mojito and ordered one, sans the rum. It was an intense play between lime juice and crushed mints, with just moderate level of sweetness, making it ideal for a long drink, even for the virgin version.

Moved to the dining table, I was seated beside Rian Farisa from Gastronomy Afficionado, across Maka from BaliThisWeek. It turns out to be a good setting, as all the three of us were the busiest ones with camera among the guests, taking photos of the food. Both Rian and me shares the same dietary rules of no pork as well.

While this is the first time I meet Rian, my introduction with Rian goes a while back upon the development of Indonesian Food Blog List on Epicurina.com, where I listed his food blog as one of the selection. Little I know that we have a much closer connection, as we both shares the same hometown: Bandung! Suddenly we felt like neighbours instead of just fellow food bloggers.

Matthew offered to continue my drink with his virgin version of Lemon Basil Mojito, a drink based on lemongrass syrup with heaping bunches of lemon basil. Taking out the Demerara rum, it's still a nice and flavourful drink. I was amazed to taste how intense it was, but still on a level of pleasurable.

Adam Baxter attend our table that night, watchful and making sure that every details of the dinner service carried out perfectly and the guests got the attention deserved. His warm yet serious spirit (and especially his appearance) makes me wondering if it was Danny Blue from the TV Series "Hustle" who runs the dinner, and scouts the room to see if Stacie Monroe was there as well.

Chef Will visits our table every once in a while to explain about the dish currently served: what it's made of, where it originally from, and what kind of influence it has. He then returned to his battle station behind the counter, preparing our next dish while we enjoy his creations. Here they are in actual order:

Kachooris with mint chutney tamarind and yoghurt is a filled pastry closely resembling Indonesian Pastel, just that the filling is rather sweet with a hint of sourness. Light yet refreshing. The accompanying kimchee itself is a delicious treat which lasted several dishes after the kachooris itself was long gone.

Snapper mohinga soup with chilli coriander noodles and roasted rice is Chef Will Meyrick's take on the Burmese national dish he loved during his trip. Originally created using Burmese local fish, he discovered that snapper retains the necessary characteristic of the dish perfectly, and is widely available in Bali. It's a kind of noodle soup with thicker fluid, curry-ish flavour, chunk of fish, presenting all the familiar Asian taste but in a new kind of combination. It remind me of Laksa from Bogor, only with a strong fish-sauce aroma, and lime juice, refreshing. Surely it was among the highlight of the dinner that night.

Shan-style pork wrapped in banana leaf with black rice cakes green tomato and chilli relish was the next dish, and for those who don't eat pork chef Will Meyrick presented us with Steamed duck shitaki buns with sweet chilli sauce. Flavourful, rather sweet, reminding me of the street version of bakpau daging ubiquitous in Jakarta and Bandung, only finer. However seeing that we're just in round one of the dinner, I restrict myself to eating just one bun. As with the black rice cakes, Rian and me was surprise to find out that both the look and taste closely resembles Ranginang from our hometown. However it was never eaten as a dish, or considered a main food, almost always as a snack.

Soft shell crab and penny worth leaf salad with sesame seed peanuts and fresh lime born from chef's curiosity over the use of penny worth in Burmese dishes, and came out with his own version of salad using this ingredient. Locally known as Pegagan, or Antanan in Sundanese, the subtle and a tad bitter penny worth fits perfectly between the savoury bites of the crispy fried soft shell crab. Back home the only way to enjoy Antanan is to eat it raw, dipped into the sauce made with sweet soy ketchup, lime juice, and sliced chillies, so it's quite inspiring upon finding that it can be mixed in a salad as well, especially since what Chef Will created that night has closely resembles Sundanese salad: Karedok.

Grilled chicken wing salad with pickled tea leaves tomato crush garlic and chilli, is another highlight of the dinner that night, which introduces the guests to the wonderful taste of lahpet, the Burmese pickled tea leaves. Usually involving months of preparation, this Burmese delicacy was made in-house at Mama San in about two weeks. Lahpet taste closely resembles the pickled Jalapeno, only without the hotness, and it's followed by a strong bitter-tea after taste. Of all my years living in a family with heritage of planting and cultivating tea plantation, this kind of treatment to tea leaves is very surprising, enlightening, not to mention enjoyable. The Grilled chicken wing itself presented as satay in butterfly style, though Raechel explained as just a to company the salad as the main dish, it was quite delicious and left Rian and me eagerly devoured them until the last skewer. Beside of the Mohinga soup, this one is definitely my favourite dish of the dinner.

Inle lake crispy fish with coriander fried shallots garam masala, is Burmese carp served with the sweet caramelize fried shallots, and seasoned with garam masala to attain the subtle but wonderful fried fish. The fish itself tasted mellow, just like common fresh water fishes, only that it tasted so fresh, without the muddy aroma usually existed in local grown carps. While Adam was really helpful with deboning the fish, and cut them into a shareable pieces, the fish itself was quite large, and most of us have already reached the full capacity hence making it the least favoured dish of the dinner.

Duck curry with black pepper turmeric chilli and yoghurt was an easy to like dish, it presents the all-familiar creamy curry taste, only this time it was infused by the mild sourness of yoghurt, together creates a wonderful harmony. Eaten with either the warm and buttery Roti canai, or the Nasi Goreng like Pilaf rice it tasted good both ways.

Pork rib and green mango curry with chilli ginger green peppercorns and garam masala is the final dish of the night, another one of chef's take on Burmese version of the same dish, but just like the other pork based dish, this one I have to pass as well.

The Dessert plate was the sweet closure of the dinner that night, presenting beautifully presented treats each tasted fabulous. As a caramel lover, I quickly develop my liking into the Thai ice tea pudding; it taste like a cross between a caramel pudding and creme brulee, with a strong flavour of the milky and bitterly Thai ice tea. Other chef's creation of mungbean cake, black rice porridge, and what closely resembles kolak labu, are all amazing but most of us have already pushed themselves to reach that final round of the dinner.

Nevertheless, I found myself saying yes to Matt's offer of Passion Fruit Daiquiri to replenish my drink: a shaved ice flavoured with passion fruit and lime. While the original version uses Bacardi rum, it's a pure sensation of fanciful shaved ice for me.

The Talk After


We close the dinner with comparing our notes of the dishes presented that night, and further shares the story related with good food with other guests. Chef Will Meyrick then joined us for a conversation, giving us insight on what the reasons behind the Kitchen Sessions are, his passion with Asian cooking, the need to share his passion with people who appreciates good food, and to form a gathering of foodies who shares the same passion.

Chef Will expressed his interest in encouraging entrepreneurship side of restaurant career to Indonesian restaurant workers, seeing that it's already a common thing for restaurant workers abroad, to start in a low level position, but works their way up into owning a restaurant themselves, and he stands as a living example.

Chef Will also shares a similar passion with William Wongso on the importance of us to take a serious effort to keep the culinary culture of Indonesia alive, and passable to the later generation. Chef Will was quite concerned with how during his encounters with many Indonesian chefs, he found out that they are more accustomed to cooking international dishes instead of their national dishes, and how the secret of national dishes are still lies in the hands of "ibu-ibu" as he referred to the traditional housewives who cook the dishes daily, hence prefers to exercise and learn cooking secret with them during his journey across Indonesia.

The conversation continued with Chef Palm Amatawet, Chef Will's partner in crime for over ten years, who shared the less known fact of Mama San, like how the premise has more local guests than foreigners during lunch hours, how the guests find the second floor comfortable to hold a spontaneous party, how he loves his hometown Koh Samui and how in a way it shares many common characteristic with Bali.

The Aftermath


It was all a familiar taste, but presented in a well-defined manner, and in a whole new combination and mixing. I saluted Chef Will on his guts to put such intense flavour into his dishes, the thing that I used to believe as a big taboo for foreign chefs, and to foreigners as well. The popularity of Mama San, has proven otherwise: famous among both foreigners and locals, Mama San (and Sarong respectively) has done a good job in taking the street food into the next level, making it accessible to those who curious about the food, but don't have what it takes to really going out there and find the food adventure right on the street level (i.e.: health related issue, comfort related, or even time related).

Chef Will also shared a good information that he's currently on the final stage of opening a new restaurant in Jakarta, serving Asian dishes in the line of tradition with both Sarong and Mama San: Street food redefined, refined, using the best ingredients and served in a more pleasing environment.

On a social level, it's so nice to meet fellow good food lovers, who speaks the same language, shares the same level of interest in good food, exchanging food adventure stories. Added with the chance to experience the art that Chef Will's created: priceless, and inspiring.

While the dishes served that dinner are mainly influenced by Asian countries outside Indonesia, however judging on its intensity, and Chef Will's reinterpretation style, I'm curious on what Chef Will going to be presenting on his next Kitchen Sessions, when he will present his creation based on well known Indonesian dishes. (byms)

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