In an alley leading from the bowels of Kuala Lumpur's Petaling Street wet market you'll find well-established stalls offering stellar examples of curry mee, yong taufu, chee cheong fun, and Burmese stir-fried sour vegetable.
Yes, you read right - there's a wee haven of Burmese delights smack dab in the middle of Chinatown. Here, newcomer-to-KL Yeechaw, her husband, and her brother serve Burmese dishes that dazzle with their bright, fresh flavors.
Yeechaw and her family are Mon (one of Burma's four main ethnological groups) from Mawlamyaing (Moulmein), a coastal town in southeastern Burma, the long, narrow piece of the country that snakes down the western edge of the Andaman Sea. Though the Mon have their own cuisine (examples of which, by the way, can be sampled on Koh Kret, a small, car-free island reachable by boat from Bangkok), Yeechaw mostly cooks up dishes familiar to all Burmese.
Though we enjoyed the delicious food and laid-back, welcoming ambience at Shan Restaurant behind Kota Raya shopping center, Yeechaw's food lies on a whole other level. It's said that the best Burmese food is found in private homes (which is probably why travelers to the country complain so about the fare), and that is what you'll find here: rustic home cooking, the type your mom might prepare ... if she were Burmese.
Yeechaw offers a range of ready-made curries and veggy dishes. We started with chin baung jaw (above), sour vegetable (chin baung ywet) stir-fried ('jaw') with tomatoes and chilies, among other ingredients. This delicious version is saucier than the one at Shan restaurant, but still very sour and fishy, with a hefty chile kick.
Gazuhn ywet jaw (stir-fried water spinach, aka morning glory) would appear to be a rather pedestrian dish. But it bears minimal traces of oil, retains plenty of crunch and vegetal flavor, and has the teeniest nibs of cooked egg clinging to it. This dish is so 'green' tasting and and delicate that it's really more of a salad than a stir-fry.
Drumsticks, the elongated, green-striped, and slightly ridged pods of a tree (Moringa oleifera) native to the Indian Subcontinent, are a common sight on the tables of Indian produce sellers at Malaysian markets. Here, pieces are fried with slices of fatty pork belly, chilies and other spices, and a hint of tomato. The skin of the vegetable, which has a pleasant, concentrated-summer-squash sort of flavor, is tough enough to be inedible. Squeeze the soft flesh out by running a piece between your teeth. Depite the extra labor required to eat this dish - called dundaluhn jaw (stir-fried dundaluhn thee, drumstick vegetable) - it was one of our favorites.
Ngar oo hin, fish eggs in a mild Indian-ish curry sauce, ('ngar oo' = fish eggs, 'hin' = a sauced dish), is more meaty and less fishy than one might expect. Once cooked, the eggs have a sausage-like firmness. Hiding amongst the chunks of ginger and garlic that populate the sauce are the tiniest dried fish I've ever encountered. The occasional 'pop' of one between the teeth releases a lovely hint of the sea.
Yeechaw will prepare her khauk swe thohk (noodle salad) as spicy - or not - as you like. For this dish, cool thick mee are tossed with a sauce of chile in oil, sesame, garlic and ginger, slivered lemongrass, and other spices. Thin strips of fried tofu, cucumber, cabbage slivers, and red shallot rings add crunch. This heat-beating dish is served with a bowl of light, shrimpy broth (opening photo).
Losa is her comforting take on Malaysian laksa, in which thin rice noodles crowd a bowl of a rich, cloudy fish broth. Slivered cabbage, long beans, firm tofu, peanuts, and coriander are meant to be stirred under at the last minute so they stay crunchy. An especially nice touch here are the silky, softened onion quarters that have taken on a delectable sweetness after long cooking in the broth.
No meal here would be complete without a plate of ulam (vegetables), to dip into Yeechaw's balachaung (belacan) jaw, aka ngapi
jaw yay jo ('ngapi' = Burmese shrimp paste). Dominated (in a good way) by a raw, primal fishiness, this balachaung is closer in spirit to a northern Thai naam prik (literally 'chili water' - a dip for veggies) made with bplaa raa, or to a doctored bowl of Thai or Malaysian budu, than to a Malaysian sambal belacan. Chunky with garlic and incredibly hot minced chilies, it will appeal only to the most hardcore of diners.
Those who decide to indulge will want to ask that their plate of ulam include a few pieces of danyin thee, known in Malaysia as jering, and in Indonesia as jengkol. The pods of the tree Archidendron jiringa, found throughout Peninsular Malaysia, and in parts of Indonesia, Thailand and - I now know - Burma, are soft and greenish when young, firmer and encased in a hard, reddish-brown 'shell' when ripe. Blanched to reduce their unmistakeable (and, to some, offensive) odor, they taste a bit like chestnuts. A seasonal treat in Burma, they are happily available year-round in KL.
Yeechaw no doubt has many more tricks up her sleeve than we were able to sample on this one visit; she continued to prepare dishes for her display as we ate, and it was only upon spying the noodle salad in front of a Burmese at the neighboring table that we became aware of its existence. Language is no problem here - a primary school teacher in her native Burma, Yeechaw speaks good English.
Three months after renting the stall, she says business is 'OK'. Most of her customers are Burmese or foreign tourists who stumble upon it whilst wandering Chinatown. Anyone intrigued by the possibility of sampling Burmese dishes unaltered to local tastes should head on down to Petaling Street soonest.
Thanks to EatingAsia reader and Burma native meemalee for her help with getting the dish names right in romanization.
Myanmar Mon Food stall, alley off of food court inside Petaling Street market, Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur. About 11am-830pm.
Update, August 2007: This stall has closed! In fact, all of the Burmese vendors manning the row of stalls here are gone. No word on relocation. A true loss to Burmese food fans in KL.