Ma’s manner is muted as she serves us plates of her traditional Burmese food, so we’re all floored when she confesses to being both an international food smuggler and Muni driver. With a little prodding, she reenacts how she challenges the bribe-seeking Burmese officials when she returns to the US with suitcases full of specialty peanuts and legumes. “I show them my American passport and ask to speak to their supervisor and they leave me alone,” she laughs, “I’m not smuggling jade, it’s just chickpeas!”
Ma is used to serving her native cuisine to wide-eyed newcomers, in fact she was doing it long before people started lining up to join the Burma Superstar craze. After working there for years, she delights in getting to know her “Feastly Friends” over intimate meals. Ma learned about Feastly through a facebook friend, giving her the perfect opportunity to find a community to nourish. She lives with just her husband, so cooking for her “Feastly Family,” as she calls it, has allowed her to take on the larger-scale, labor-intensive dishes that she loves. Now, after months of practice, she efficiently spoons some homemade flan into glass cups and smiles encouragingly, “take pictures!” when she catches me stealthily trying to snap some photos.
I try to imagine our skilled chef managing masses of Muni riders on the muni buses, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the experience of watching her painstakingly hand-toss a tea leaf salad in the hushed dining room. She comes alive explaining how she prefers fresh hearty cabbage to lettuce, giving her dish its signature crunch. When she finally joins her guests at the table, she talks about her facebook account, the virtues of homemade soup stock, and grumpy commuters. I’m in awe of all of the new things I’ve just encountered: tea leaves and dried shrimp, chickpea-smuggling Muni driver turned chef. Talk about unlikely pairings.See Burmese Meals by Chef Ma in San Francisco