12 Feb Pizza Shan Style: Unique Organic Restaurants in Kalaw Heritage Town
Picturesque stone cottages with peaked roofs dot pine-clad mountains of Kalaw. The hill station has drawn people from the plains since colonial times, and they are now joined by a new generation looking for a nature-friendly lifestyle. Drawn by the cool climate, stunning surroundings and abundance of fresh produce, Kalaw’s newcomers open ecological cafés and restaurants and set up organic farms and gardens. On a sunny day, we ventured out to six of the town’s new, sustainable hotspots. We start our day the zen way by doing yoga and eating a healthy breakfast at Sprouting Seeds, enjoy a lovely lunch a New Simple Life, do some organic shopping at Kalaw Farm, stop for a tea break at Café Kalaw and finish off the day with pizza at the Red House and a nightcap by the fireplace in our Alpine Hillock chalet. Is there any better way to meet Kalaw’s new eco-entrepreneurs and ask them why they decided to settle in this remote Myanmar heritage town?
1. Red House
For the love of pizza
Over a morning espresso, Khaing Zarni laughs that she only started drinking the strongly caffeinated brew when she met Paolo, her now-husband. Fast forward to today and now she can’t start a morning without a cuppa. The couple opened their restaurant in 2016. Originally from southern Italy, Paolo first came to Myanmar in 2007 to work in agriculture. Here, he met Khaing Zarni, who is originally from Mandalay. After they got married, Paolo took up a job in Mozambique, and the pair travelled to many neighbouring countries — from Tanzania to Kenya — for work.
“I loved living in Mozambique! It’s so colourful and the people are great. But I had to bring my cuisine here. There I was, cooking mohinga in the middle of Mozambique, having people around me try it,” laughs Khaing Zarni. After offering a little bit of Burmese food culture abroad, the duo decided to do the same in Myanmar. “I was looking for a change after working in the agriculture sector and NGO world for many years. I thought to myself, ‘let’s do something different, why not open an Italian restaurant’,” shrugs Paolo.
Every night, you’ll see both Khaing Zarni and Paolo in the restaurant, always on their feet, checking on everyone’s meals. Red House, the building in which the restaurant is housed, was built in 1914 by an Indian family who also erected the building across the road. Under nationalisation, Red House was used by the Socialist government to store cooking oil, rice and other goods. When Paolo and Khaing Zarni took over, it was a huge task to restore the building to its former glory and then some: no quality Italian restaurant is complete without a wood pizza oven! “We love living in Kalaw,” says Paolo. “The mountains and trees remind me of Southern Italy. It feels a little bit like I am at home there. And when we’re walking the dogs, we enjoy seeing the lush green hills and a lot of life and colour on market day.”
For Khaing Zarni pizza has become a way of life. One of her fondest memories is introducing her 98-year-old grandmother to pizza. “We were having a party and all of my cousins were enjoying their pizza. My grandmother asked if she could try a slice, as she’s heard so much about it from her grandchildren. When she took her first bite, she was silent for a moment, and then she turned to me and said ‘this is so good!’ with the biggest grin on her face.”
Red House | 4/111 Min Street | Open daily 11 am-10 pm | +95 9 771 357407 | website
2. Sprouting Seeds
Vegetarian café that doubles as a holistic training centre
If Alice from Alice in Wonderland would open a cafe, it probably would look a little something like Sprouting Seeds. The upcycled U crate couch is the perfect spot to enjoy the sunshine, have a coffee or lay back with a book while you order a freshly baked spicy carrot cake from the lavender-painted counter. Decorated with interestingly shaped pieces of furniture, Sprouting Seeds is not your ordinary café; it is a social enterprise dedicated to supporting youngsters from impoverished backgrounds living in Shan State.
The staff teaches how to grow and prepare healthy and wholesome food as well as upcycling materials to villages, schools and monastic schools under their training school branch Whispering Seeds. Sprouting Seeds’ counter is a perfect example of their upcycling technique: it is made from onion bags and glass, covered in clay and then lime-washed to waterproof it.
The menu is extensive, with vegan and vegetarian goods aplenty. Customer’s favourites include tamarind-coated tofu, guacamole, homemade soup, generously sized hearty sandwiches, and sweet baked goods such as muesli cookies, cinnamon scrolls and homemade ice-cream. It sure is hard to resist a scoop of salted caramel or coconut ice cream, especially when it is served with a peanut butter brownie!
Upstairs, you’ll find a lovely yoga room, so if you need a little extra Zen, roll out your mat and find your inner peace. Daily classes on offer and drop-ins are welcome. Namaste!
Sprouting Seeds | 33 Station Road | Open daily 9 am-7 pm (closed on Mondays) | +95 9 767 472669 | website
3. Kalaw Farm
Paddock to plate, Shan style
This newly-opened farm and restaurant is Kalaw’s first attempt at an organic paddock to plate restaurant. Kalaw Farm’s owners, Ko Ko and Chit Su, bought the land 3 years ago and rolled up their sleeves planting a mixture of cabbages, carrots, mustard greens, strawberries and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. The duo spends the better part of the day working in the field before running over to the restaurant, ready to serve you the freshest produce they harvested in the morning.
Ko Ko and Chit Su constantly laugh and jest at each other’s expense. “We met at a meeting for tourist guides three years ago. I noticed straight away how talkative he was. You couldn’t really ignore him, he was so loud,” says Chit Su with a smile. Ko Ko immediately steps in and assures us that no matter what Chit Su says, she is still the boss.
Ko Ko started work as a trekking guide at a very young age. “In 1996 I started out by following my father and the tourists who wanted to go trekking. My favourite memory of that time was how the areas around Kalaw were so thick and lush with green trees, and the air was so cool and fresh.”
After Ko Ko and Chit Su got married, they wanted to make their shared dream of living a quiet life, content to simply living off the land, come true. However, finding vacant land turned out to be a big challenge. “At first, we wanted to organise cooking classes and to offer tourists the opportunity to watch and learn from farmer’s wives who cook traditional dishes so well. The idea was for us to act as a translator so tourists would be able to ask any questions they might have. But then we were inspired to grow this idea into a restaurant and organic farm,” Ko Ko explains.
The pair is passionate about helping their neighbours by giving them a chance to have a secondary income. “We employ seven local people and practice inclusive tourism. We give the neighbours who need extra income seeds so they can grow their own produce. We also gave a young boy who dropped out of school a job so he can make a living to support himself.”
Setting up an organic farm from scratch has been no easy task. Ko Ko remembers how shocked he was how long things take when you don’t use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. “We only use organic remedies such as garlic spray to keep away pests, so we have to be patient. We are also trialling different season crops to see what grows best in this climate. We are still learning every day.”
“It’s a challenging lifestyle after working as a tour guide. But now, I’ve become a morning person”, says Chit Su. Ko Kok is quick to interrupt. He leans forward and whispers, “ she tells herself she’s a morning person but actually, she lies in bed until sunrise.” And with that, they both erupt into laughter.
Kalaw Farm | Open daily 8 am-5 pm (closed on Wednesdays) | +95 9 45803 3754 | website
4. New Simple Life
Local organic produce served with a French touch
Perched on a small plot of land, just a short walk away from downtown, you’ll find a little sanctuary offering fresh salads, baguettes, freshly squeezed juices, pasta and pizza. Every dish at New Simple Life is homemade from locally sourced ingredients — even the bread and the feta cheese! — and elevated with an elegant French touch. The quiet, picturesque café boasts a verandah with red parasols, a garden full of blooming roses. If you listen closely, you can hear gobbling turkeys in the distance. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in the French countryside!
Ma Sandar, who is originally from Yangon, has lived a colourful life. For years, she worked in Singapore and sent money back to her family so her younger siblings could attend school, and eventually, university. She then went on to study French culinary cooking in Kuala Lumpur at the age of 39. When she returned to Myanmar, Kalaw was her destination of choice. “I love the fresh air and fertile grounds here. I always dreamed of having my own vegetable and herb garden,“ she explains. Sandar rented a small house and started selling baguettes. They quickly became popular and she started experimenting with other dishes, which is how New Simple Life was born. As of today, the café has gained a loyal following of locals and travellers alike.
Sandar is passionate about sharing her love for cooking. Her small café doubles as a training centre for youngsters from the St Francis Xavier orphanage, and she also teaches cooking classes to local school children. She starts her lessons by teaching students where their food comes from and the names of different ingredients. Later on, the youngsters get to don white aprons and bake sweet treats such as chocolate chip cookies. If you’re lucky, there may be some biscuits leftover for you to purchase when you stop by!
New Simple Life | Shwe Oo Min Road | Open daily 9 am-9 pm (closed on Tuesdays) | +95 9 540 3449 | website
5. Café Kalaw
A charming little cottage serving up home-roasted coffee
If you are planning on walking from downtown Kalaw to the Bamboo pagoda, then this little gem of a café is a great pit-stop. Café Kalaw serves a variety of coffee from Shan State. It’s up to you if you like to have your cup of joe cold-pressed, served in a French press or made with a new European coffee machine. Even though it’s perched on one of the steepest hills of Kalaw, the café is worth the walk. The garden is quiet and faces the morning sun, which makes it the perfect spot to read a book or update your travel journal. Take a seat under one of their traditional parasol umbrellas and enjoy the view! Kalaw café usually serves two freshly baked cakes of the day, such as banana cake and carrot cake.
Café Kalaw is owned by a former sailor who recently returned to Myanmar and got inspired by the charming coffee- and teahouses in the Japanese countryside. If you’re searching for a small souvenir to take home, have a look at the tote bags with quirky illustrated designs by Japanese cartoonist Ikumi Wkana. His scenes of harvest time, the rolling fields of Shan countryside and pagodas make for a colourful and unique gift.
Café Kalaw | Hnee Pagoda Road | Open daily 8.30 am – 5pm | +95 9 261 392 989 | website
Wooden chalets in a pristine pine tree forest
Located amidst a pristine pine tree forest is a cluster of lovely wooden chalets built in typical Kalaw mountain style. Inside, a comfy lounge with fireplace catapults you back to colonial times when the British came here to escape the sweltering summer heat. Originally from Yangon, Ohn Mar Cho settled in Kalaw after years of working the hospitality industry for big-brand hotels in Dubai and Nay Pyi Taw. When she got the opportunity to lease these three wooden chalets in the small mountain town she didn’t hesitate.
She now operates Hillock as a bed & breakfast. Here, you are served home-cooked organic food and locally grown Shan coffee. “People come here for the environment, for the fresh air and the mountain feel, so we must protect it as best as we can,” Ohn Mar explains. You won’t find any plastic bottles here! She insists that Kalaw is a very quiet and unique place. “Many responsible travellers come to Kalaw for the culture, heritage and nature. They prefer to stay in small boutique hotels with a personality instead of those anonymous chain hotels.” Ohn Mar loves living in Kalaw. “I love going for long walks with my dogs. My favourite buildings are the railway station and the old Kingswood School. These two places hold so many memories for local people”.
Hillock Villa | Damasatkyar Street | +95 81 50 468 | website
Done eating at these lovely organic restaurants in Kalaw?
Make sure to visit the heritage town’s authentic hotspots and other local favourites!
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Words and photos by Libby Hogan
Libby is a freelance journalist who has documented the changes across Myanmar’s many ethnic states in the past three years, specifically after Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections. Her passion is looking at youth culture and stag leaping to isolated regions to hear untold stories from those who never had access to media or the opportunity to speak freely. Check out her website.
Interviews by Nang Phoo Pyi Mon
Phoo is a Shan girl. A lover of nature. She would not want to live anywhere else but in the Shan mountains. Phoo loves talking to people and people love talking to her. As a language graduate, she has a deep interest in psychology, culture and religions, in her country and far beyond.
Watch this video to learn more about Kalaw as Myanmar’s most eco-friendly destination.