In this episode my guest is May Kyi Noo - food entrepreneur from Manchester, England. She recently launched her business, Rice Over Everything, selling chilli oil jars online.
May talks about her love of Burmese food, her story of moving to the UK as a teenager, finding the North 'boring!' compared to the South, and finally going on to start her online chilli oil brand.
The first part of the conversation is in English.
ဒုတိယအပိုင်းမှာ မြန်မာလို ပြောပါတယ်။
➤ Can you tell me where exactly you are right now?
I am from Manchester. I've been here for over six years now and I live in Whalley Range which is near Chorlton.
➤ Nice! Can you tell me, what is it that you do in Manchester? Tell me about your business.
Yeah my business is called Rice Over Everything. I started an Instagram account with that name. During lockdown -- the first lockdown last year -- I started making chili oil.
All these chili oils that you can get from chinese supermarket - they weren't spicy enough for me. So I thought, I'm just gonna [do it myself]. I started looking on YouTube and trying to see which one would be better, what ingredient would be better for me personally and I just started making them. And I started jarring them.
And I gave out to a few close family and friends and they asked for more and more so I thought okay! They were just like, you know, ‘I want to pay for your jar,’ and so yeah, that's how I started.
➤ Wow! I'm looking at your website right now. The pictures are beautiful, like really amazing quality images.
Yeah I'm so lucky. I have a professional photographer friend, that's from Manchester. So they're brother and sister. Sister does videography and he does food and photography for all these restaurants in Manchester and they did it all for free.
➤ And the logo is so nice.
Yeah so I got all the compliments for the logo and branding. I have to thank my designer. He's called Sithu Soe - he's Burmese as well. Very talented.
Back then I was quite lucky because he was made redundant and then he was looking for a job. You know we've been talking about it but he was always busy so we never really got around to it and then during lockdown I reached out to him, ‘Look, you know I want a Burmese touch and I want to use a Burmese designer,’ so he had a bit more time because he was made redundant, let go because of Covid. So yeah, I gave him a few ideas.
The logo is my son actually, that's the half face of my son. So he just picked out the photo from Instagram that my son was like having a bowl of rice and he just showed me the photo and asked, ‘Do you want to work around that?’ and so that's how it started.
➤ Why was it important for you to start this entrepreneurship journey instead of being a regular employee? Because I understand you had a good job, right?
Yes, I had a very good job. My company was really good as well. It’s just lockdown made me realise how -- I was just surviving. I wasn’t really living. I didn’t really enjoy what I was doing. It was just a job for me.
Now it’s like my passion. You know, this is what I love doing. I think you really need to enjoy what you do otherwise it just takes over your life. For example, when I’m making chilli oil, I can choose my own time. I can listen to music. I can just enjoy it. I love making it. It’s actually very therapeutic for me.
➤ So you don’t miss the corporate world?
Oh my god, that’s another thing. I hate corporate. This made me realise how much I hate it. It was an I.T consultancy, it was very much a man’s world. I just didn’t want to be part of corporate. And I don’t really want to earn so much anymore. I just wanna enjoy life.
➤ Am I correct in saying that the chili jars are the permanent thing that Rice Over Everything has to offer but then, you also have a few other different things you're experimenting with?
Yeah, that's correct.
➤ And what is your hope, let's say for the next one or two years? What do you want Rice Over Everything to become?
I just want to promote my Burmese food really because we don't really have --
We have one person who does like a small Burmese cafe in Manchester but I just want to do authentic Burmese food. You know restaurant is a bit far up there,you know, I don't know whether that will happen.
I just want to enjoy it for the time being you know, have a small independent. I want to do supper club pop-ups and stick to my jars, maybe produce more products under Rice Over Everything -- maybe like balachaung or you know something else.
➤ How easy or difficult is it to find ingredients for Burmese food in Manchester or even in the UK?
Well, we do have Chinese supermarkets and a lot of Asian supermarkets but I get my laphet -- for example laphet, you can't get it from there so there are a few Burmese Facebook pages that sell all these ingredients that you need. So I buy laphet in kilos.
➤ Okay and where do they ship from?
➤ Okay so they import.
Yeah they import it from Burma but it's not happening at the moment you know with the coup.
➤ So does that mean there's a laphet shortage around the world?
Maybe! I asked Chef Zaw from Lahpet which is a Burmese restaurant in London. I spoke to him, he's thinking about getting it imported from somewhere else. I'll have to double check with him. I stopped doing laphet bowls so I have no idea at the moment.
And then there's another company -- they’re not Burmese -- called The Lost Tea Company, they do dried Burmese tea for drinking and also for the salad as well, pickle salad.
➤ So generally, it's easy to find other ingredients?
Yes for example like dry shrimps, easy but expensive.
➤ Okay and what is the reaction of English people to Burmese food, in your experience?
The first reaction is, this is the first time they tried it, you know and what I usually get is they all said this is a combination of Indian and Chinese.
It's very similar, for example you know the nangyi thote is like udon, chicken curry noodle salad. You know obviously udon is very oriental and that's mixed with curry which is more indian and then we use chickpea powder, again that's some texture that they never tried.
They absolutely loved it. And it’s the first time they've tried it you know, they've never tried Burmese food. And I've got a few customers that's been to Burma so they're like, ‘Oh my god I miss this. I've haven't had it for a long time.’ So they ask for recipes.
➤ Okay what age did you move to the UK from Burma?
➤ And do you remember your first experiences in England?
Oh yes because I was from Yangon - it's the capital city, everything was happening and I had loads and loads of friends and you know every weekend, us Burmese people are loving fun fairs and events, you know.
And from that to having to move to St Helens to live with my aunt Chit Chit. I keep saying this to my aunt, ‘Every time I wake up in the morning to go to school, I can see a horse eating an apple! From my back garden.’ I was like, ‘What’s my life become?’
➤ Were you happy? Were you excited about being in a new place or did you miss the excitement and the action?
I hated it. I was so young and I had loads of action back home you know. Even though I was 13, we all had like tea parties and everything was going on back home and I had loads and loads of friends, so I cried like almost every day.
➤ And probably back then there was no connection. You can't speak to them, there's no internet.
Yeah, so I used to call them on the regular phone. And I used to write to them, you know. I remember going to the post office every week so I could write to them you know. It's so funny thinking about it now. Makes me feel so old.
➤ Yeah I completely understand. How was the Burmese community at that time? Did you hang around a lot of Burmese or did you did you immediately get integrated into English surroundings?
Well I did have English surroundings more but all the Burmese that I knew back then was my aunt's friends you know. And my aunt’s Burmese friends are like even older than her.
I remember like have like going to their house, just to talk to like my GP (doctor), my family's GP. Yeah I was hanging out with them and their kids were older than me as well. It was very difficult until I moved to London. I didn't enjoy St Helens at all but I had a lot of good times in London.
Listen to the full conversation on the podcast.