Packed shelves layered with instant noodle packets, chili sauce cans, homemade shrimp salad sealed in plastic-wrapped leaves, dehydrated tea leaves, fish sauce and countless other brightly wrapped condiments, seasonings and snack foods cover 96 square feet.
At the back of the Jackson Heights mall that houses the popular Tibetan restaurant Lhasa Fast Food sits New York City’s only known source of Myanmar dried goods.
Thidar Kyaw works in a dream pantry. She opened Little Myanmar Mini Mart in March. She had solely Myanmar immigrants in mind, and is surprised by the troves of Americans visiting her shop. Many have vacationed in Myanmar, also known as Burma; others are simply curious about her culture and cuisine.
On the floor, velour flip-flops are sold for the upcoming beach season. Inches from the ceiling, framed Myanmar artwork hangs in a crowded gallery. In the glass display case balancing the register sits Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor, a colorful cookbook an American customer gifted Thidar Kyaw so she can show shoppers how to cook with the ingredients she sells.
Kyaw opened because, she said, “I like Myanmar food and always I want Myanmar food.” She knew her fellow expats also craved the tea leaf salad and preserved fruit candies of their homeland.
Since Kyaw moved to Elmhurst three years ago, her sister, Sandar Kyaw, who still lives in their hometown, Yangon, has been Kyaw’s sole provider of dried and nonperishable treats from home. She ships everything from dried fish to Tupperware containers full of snack mix to satiate Kyaw’s cravings.
Sandar mails parcels to Kyaw every few weeks, fulfilling customers’ specific imported product requests. “They’ll request tea leaf salad brands, noodles—and I’ll write it down and tell my sister,” Kyaw said. She’ll also stay late at the store on evenings when customers call ahead or can’t make it out of work early enough.
She leaves work at night and still feels safe; it’s part of why Kyaw loves Queens. “[It’s] very nice, beautiful and peaceful for me,” she said.
Just a few months ago, Kyaw was a T-shirt store employee near Herald Square, where she spent long hours standing on an injured ankle. Eventually she realized working for others was not her dream. A meeting with the mall’s landlord secured her a tiny space to jump into entrepreneurship.
Though she’d like a window and street access, commercial real estate is prohibitively expensive for her brand-new business. Still, she is content with the level of success she’s achieved in these early months. She is supported by her neighbors, both Burmese and not.
Finding Burmese cuisine in Queens is rare. With the exception of Sunset Park’s Burma Noodle Bar and Burmese Bites, which pops up at the Queens International Night Market, delicacies from Myanmar are nearly impossible for expats to find. Kyaw fantasizes about opening her own restaurant, but “this is not easy,” she said. She scans the shelves of multicolored stock in the 12-by-8-foot space, tidies the rainbow of cellophane packages with her glimmering gold fingernails and waits for another customer to pass by, purchase a package of tea leaves and jot down Kyaw’s tea leaf salad recipe.
Little Myanmar Mini Mart
37-50 74th St., Jackson Heights