Ma Thu, who manages a pan mee shop in Bangsar, has worked in Malaysia for eight years.
Ma Thu, who manages a pan mee shop in Bangsar, has worked in Malaysia for eight years.

It’s 9am. Ma Thu, 32, and her husband Ko Cho, 41, have just arrived at Sun Huat Kee, a coffee shop in Bangsar. Together they begin setting up shop – setting chairs and tables, airing the upstairs stall and preparing the shop’s signature dish: pan mee.

The pan mee here is delicious, tender and pleasantly chewy, rolled and hand-cut fresh every day. But the recipe is not their own. Ma Thu and Ko Cho learned how to make pan mee from the owner of Sun Huat Kee, who employs the couple as managers. This setup isn’t surprising in the Klang Valley: especially when you find out that Ma Thu and Ko Cho are Burmese.

Burmese immigrants are making our meals and taking over our kitchens, from the humble kopitiam stall to higher end restaurants, working as waiters, line cooks and even chefs. According to Ma Thu, most Burmese who work in KL prefer to work in the F&B line as they find cooking easier than cleaning or construction work. In the immediate area of Bangsar alone, the Burmese community is 200 members strong.

Mohinga: the national dish of Myanmar.

Mat Thu and Ko Cho have been working in Malaysia for almost a decade. Their family lives in walking distance from the restaurant, in a two-storey terrace house shared with about a dozen other Burmese immigrants. Their young daughter was born here three years ago and joins them at the restaurant daily, endearing her chatty self to the patrons when not playing with a tablet in her crib. Their elder daughter is now 11 years old and goes to school in KL. It’s a good life, they tell me.

“KL is okay. Everything is okay. My boss trust me,” says Ma Thu. She’s only ever had one boss in the eight years she’s worked in Malaysia. Ko Cho was working as a bartender for five years, and once his contract with his previous employer ended, he joined his wife to make pan mee. Ma Thu goes on to explain that she had wanted to come to KL because her husband was already here, and that other countries “use money a lot.”

That said, Ma Thu only plans to stay in KL for at least another three years, as she wants to send her daughter to school in Myanmar. “Now here expensive. Last time 50 ringgit everything can buy. Now cannot. If money got balance, baby (daughter) can stay here. But no balance, she has to go back. My papa mama can take care of her.”

in --.
Lashio May, a Burmese café in Lebuh Ampang.

Just last month was the Burmese water festival of Thingyan, and coincidentally there is a padauk tree within view of the pan mee stall. The tree’s yellow flowers blossom only once a year during the water festival, a sweet reminder of home. Unlike Ko Cho, who has been back to Myanmar as recently as early this year, Ma Thu hasn’t been back in eight years. Why not? “Waste a lot of money,” she says matter-of-factly.

I ask what food Ma Thu’s family looks forward to on their days off. “KFC!” she answers, her eyes lighting up. Maybe we’re not so different after all. Despite this, she agrees to take me on a tour of the places in KL where I can find Burmese food, cooked for and by people who yearn for a taste of their homeland.

Burmese biryani at Zay Yar.

Lebuh Ampang, a few steps from what used to be known as Chinatown, is immigrant central. Malaysians look slightly lost among the throngs of Burmese, Nepalese, Filipinos, Indonesians, and countless other ethnicities. 90% of the shop signs are not just in other languages, but other scripts altogether.

Ma Thu and I are making our way to her favourite shop, Lashio May, to have Shan noodles. We’ve already been up and down the block a couple of times as she can’t seem to find the restaurant. Even though the couple only has two days off a month, she only really goes to Kotaraya for Burmese food every other month when they want to send money back home.

The shop turns out to be located just above a 7-11: at first, Ma Thu can’t find it because the sign is in English, not Burmese. On the second floor (above a Nepalese restaurant), we find Lashio May: a basic but bright restaurant where the menus are either in Burmese or Chinese.

It smells both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, a hint of sourness in the air not unlike a Thai restaurant, but with a heavy earthy tinge to it. We sit and Ma Thu orders, explaining the menu to me.

Shan noodles arrive first, a specialty of the Shan region where Ma Thu is from. These are rice noodles, garnished with a tomato-based sauce that’s mixed with minced chicken and a heady hint of sesame. There is bone soup on the side, fried pork skin crackers and a tangy smelling vegetable pickle made from sawi. Ma Thu demonstrates how to mix it all up.

Shan noodles
Shan noodles.

My taste buds perk up at first taste. It’s clean, sour and fresh, like a sweet marriage of Thai and Vietnamese flavours. The pickle itself is so delicious, I find myself piling on more and more in every bite, until Ma Thu tells me that I can buy it to go. She has also ordered Ma La fish, a fried fish drenched in Ma La hot sauce that tastes strikingly similar to peppers found in Sichuan Chinese cuisine. Over at Lashio May, they mix it with a touch of curry powder for an even stronger kick of satisfying spice.

We then make our way to a Burmese grocer, where Ma Thu buys ngapi (a fermented fish or shrimp paste similar to our belacan), and mixed fried nuts, her favourite hometown snack. Above this grocer’s, there is another restaurant – more like a canteen where young Burmese men come for lunch. Burmese karaoke videos play on the TV, providing a saccharine pop soundtrack to our meal.

In the canteen, they have a multitude of meaty dishes to eat with rice, chap fan style. But we’re here for the mohinga, Myanmar’s most popular dish. It’s essentially a fish stew that tastes a lot like mamak sup kambing. It’s a hearty concoction, with smooth rice noodles, crunchy pieces of gourd and crispy batter not unlike chopped up kueh rojak. It’s by far the best thing I’ve put in my mouth this week, and I’ll definitely be returning for more.

Pastry Tower
A pile of flaky pastries at Zay Yar.

Finally, we stop by Zay Yar in Bangunan Cahaya Suria to get some Burmese-style biryani, called danbauk. It’s extremely flavourful and a lot greasier than regular biryani, with the signature tanginess that I’m beginning to associate with Burmese cuisine. The chicken hidden underneath the mountain of rice is fork-tender, beautifully falling apart at the slightest touch. At less than RM10 for a plate, it’s a darn steal. Zay Yar also has a selection of pastries, like extra-crispy flaky pancakes topped with milky glaze, and dense yet comforting corn bread.

As we head back home, I see how happy Ma Thu is as she goes over her takeaway and grocery purchases. “The mohinga just now, ok only. Next off day, I cook mohinga, I call you,” she says, grinning. I can’t help but wonder: will anything cooked or eaten in a country so far from home ever taste good enough? While the dishes were delicious to me, perhaps they were only a shadow of the food that Ma Thu remembers eating eight years ago. In any case, I can’t wait to try her homemade mohinga.

Follow the food trail:

Lashio May (above 7-11), 2nd floor, 2, Jalan Hang Lekiu, 50050 Kuala Lumpur

Burmese canteen (above PSG Enterprise), 2nd floor, 11, Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin, 50050 Kuala Lumpur

Zay Yar, First floor, Bangunan Cahaya Suria, Jalan Tun Perak, 50050 Kuala Lumpur