Xi’an-style noodles, regional Vietnamese bun bo hue soup, the Ethiopian raw beef dish called kitfo: there’s no denying that Seattle has an array of cuisines from around the world that could serve as Epcot Center for the modern gourmand, but it’s missing a few really spectacular ones.
There’s nowhere around here to crunch through the sour funk of a Burmese tea leaf salad, scoop soft fufu through Ghanaian beef stew spicy enough to strip paint, nor cool the similar heat of Sri Lankan food with the fluffy, bowl-shaped pancake called a hopper.
“There’s no good Mexican food in Seattle,” complains every new transplant—a refrain I’ve tuned out until they have assured me they’ve eaten breakfast at Señor Moose
, barbacoa at La Conasupo
, a torta from El Quetzal
, and roasted chicken at El Paisano
Perhaps it’s true that we don’t have the particular region you’re looking for (often Tex-Mex or Cali-Mex, I’ve found), but there is good Mexican food. Until places can make tortillas from fresh masa to order, we’ll never have great Mexican food, but that’s another story. There’s at least quite a good version. But there is nothing close to the scraped coconut and chili with Maldive fish called pol sambol from Sri Lanka.
“Go north, to Vancouver,” is the general advice food-lovers give to those looking for high-quality dim sum, but it could go for Sri Lankan food as well. In Vancouver, House of Dosas
serves the kind of Sri Lankan crab curry that puts the world-famous Singaporean version in the shade, along side the kotthu, a fried rice-esque dish, made with curry spices and chopped roti bread in place of the rice. Vancouver sports a few other Sri Lankan restaurants, but, alas, the closest Seattle comes is the excellent South Indian food at Chili’s
on the Ave.
Vancouver is also home to some of North America’s finest Burmese food. The cuisine is, like the country, at a crossroads of Indian, Thai, and Chinese inspirations. But there are a few things which are Burmese and Burmese alone—most significantly the tea leaf salad that so many Seattleites wish they could find here. Fermented tea leaves are complex and sour, refreshing when mixed with a variety of tiny, crunchy fried bits: garlic, soy beans, sesame seeds, and peanuts. Cabbage and tomatoes can be served as a base for this. San Francisco is another not-too-far-away spot to score some excellent Burmese cuisine, but unfortunately, Seattle remains barren of the delicacy. Luckily, I can make my own from the packaged tea leaves available at Asian Planet Grocery
Those options, though, are closer than the nearest Ghanaian food, which requires a trip to Los Angeles or Chicago. For a short period, Seattle had Ghanaian cuisine—in the form of made-from-a-mix stews and starches served out of the kitchen of what later in the evening became a dance club. The slow-cooked meats, the expertly spiced tomato-pepper sauces, the palmnut soups that burn long and hard, leaving your lips buzzing for hours after you tear into the cool banku (fermented, paste-like starch) to ease the pain: nope, not here.
It’s been years since I last felt that burn of Ghanian okra stew; it stings that I can’t find the cuisine around here, settling for Senegalese or the less similar but also delicious Kenyan food at Safari Njema
restaurant in Columbia City. Seattle often surprises me with culinary treasures such as the Lebanese food at Cafe Munir
, the Cambodian food at Queens Deli
, and the Polish food at Dom Polski
, but there are still a few cuisines I dream of being able to find with in an hour of my house. As I continue to treasure the great cuisines we have—and fight those that complain about the Mexican food—I’ll keep dreaming of fermented tea leaves, spicy stew, and the unique curries of Sri Lanka.