Meeting the duo behind Didsbury’s newest café, deli and foodie workshop space
“We don’t say 'how are you?' in Malaysia,” Yes Lah co-founder Yen Tham tells me, as we sit at a handsomely dressed table in the newly opened cafe deli. Instead, we say, “Have you eaten?”
It’s a sentiment that sums up the hospitality and warmth that hits you upon walking into the little green-fronted Didsbury cafe.
One woman said, it feels like I’ve just had dinner in your house
Yes Lah is a cafe on Barlow Moor Road in Didsbury serving Filipino and Malaysian breakfast and lunch, as well as cakes and coffee. The space, which also stocks a curated selection of snacks, drinks and groceries, will be home to workshops, cooking classes and supper clubs too.
Is it a space that can do pretty much everything? Yes Lah.
Kickstarters and decorating businesses
Yes Lah is the result of two street food paths crossing on Oxford Road. Zosima Fullwell (street food alias: Mama Z) and Yen Tham (street food alias: Woks Cluckin) originally met whilst cooking at a 2008 residency at Hatch. The two quickly hit it off and have since forged a family-like friendship in food, collaborating on supper clubs and foodie events across the city.
The two always talked about plans for a permanent location and the dream was partly realised in May 2022 with the launch of a Kickstarter. They managed to reach their £15k crowdfunding goal on May 29 (the final total rising to £16,251) which went towards securing their current spot, after a space in Stockport fell through.
With the Kickstarter money consumed by insurance and a shutter, the renovation of the space - a former doggy daycare with a questionable colour palette left dormant for five months - was down to Zos and Yen, with a little help from an essential fountain of knowledge.
“We just watched YouTube. Loads of YouTube. Videos about how to cement a floor or render a wall.” Zos says.
“We tried to do as much of it ourselves because we were on a tight budget. I come in now and I think aw, I rendered that wall. It’s a really good feeling to have done it all ourselves. We always joke, should we set up another business?”
The result is a modest, comfortable and noticeably personal space. Seating at the front of the room, with the kitchen, groceries and counter at the back. The feel of a neighbourhood cafe with flourishes of home. Beautiful tablecloths from Malaysia, the Kickstarter’s wall of fame hung pride of place in the middle of a wall, squat tables and stools dotted around the room.
“One woman said, it feels like I’ve just had dinner in your house,” Zos says. “I remember going home and thinking that is exactly what I want people to feel like.”
Coconut jam, colourful cakes and a place for new flavours
The food and drink at Yes Lah are an ode to home and heritage. The Philippines for Zos and Malaysia for Yen. The name Yes Lah comes from the colloquial use of "lah" in Malaysia and Singapore. The term can be endearing, dismissive or exclamatory. Zos and Yen use it a lot. Can you eat, drink and shop here? Yes lah.
A typical morning or afternoon eating at Yes Lah might begin with Malaysian kopi (coffee). Bitter and punchy, with the indulgent sweetness of condensed milk (minimal dairy production in Malaysia means condensed milk is a key ingredient) at the bottom. Be sure to give it a stir. The coffee is served in cups and saucers that Yen brought back from Malaysia herself. In Malaysia, parents and grandparents will pour a little coffee into the matching saucer to cool it, with the saucer given to children to drink from.
Colour is prominent at Yes Lah. It’s almost as if they’ve purposely painted the walls white to let the colours inside pop. Vibrant purple lattes are the result of ube, a yam akin to sweet potato but sweeter and creamier. Equally resplendent green lattes and cakes on the counter are the results of using pandan, a plant often referred to as Asian vanilla, which channels coconutty flavour with mesmerising effects.
As a duo, Zos and Yen work in perfect harmony. Yen leans towards the sweets and bakery side of things whilst Zos is more taken up with the savoury. Both are passionate about the use of Asian flavours and both want to make sure female makers are at the core of Yes Lah. Local doughnut maker DGHNT (Sulin Baldwin) contributes to the counter’s bouquet of colours and the duo are looking forward to collaborating with her going forward on uniquely pan Asian flavour combinations.
Kaya toast with soft coddled eggs meanwhile is a must. Buttered, toasted white bread smothered in Kaya, a sweet coconut jam that Yen makes in-house (also available by the jar to take home). A sprinkle of white pepper and drizzle of soy sauce on the eggs and then a big triumphant dip of the toast. It’s difficult to think of a more striking combination of umami, salty and sweet.
Street food journeys and appreciation over appropriation
“We’re from a street food background, so we’re used to working with limited menus.” Zos says, adding that part of the ethos at Yes Lah is to do a few things, well. “We couldn’t always do the nice dishes because we’ve still got to sell stuff.”
Zos’s stories of the street food grind are laced with humour. From transporting 20kg of chicken thigh around in a backpack due to not having a car (“imagine the look on someone’s face if they had nicked my bag”) to the begrudged necessity of having to sell chips. Both Zos and Yen have earned their stripes. Yes Lah is a result of hard work paying off.
“You still have to be able to sell and make money. I didn’t want to do chips but it’s the people who’re selling chips at these street food events who are making the money.” She says.
“It’s nice to just be in my own space now and do the things I want to. You know, serve it the way I want it, on a plate, no chips.”
An aesthetically composed plate of Nasi Lemak is evidence of this. Perfectly poised mounds of rice, cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves, with Yes Lah homemade sambal (a deep red chilli paste), a boiled egg, peanuts, crispy anchovies and a choice of chicken or vegetable kari.
As is current rice bowl, Filipino Tocilog. A popular all-day Filipino brunch dish, sweet cured meat marinated in soy, garlic, sugar and Annatto (an orange-red condiment derived from the achiote tree). Served with a little tomato and cucumber salad, rice and an egg.
Like many of the dishes, it arrives neatly plated but is at its best when mixed together for maximum taste combinations. Kimchi bowls made from locally-sourced ingredients follow this rule too. Vegetarian and vegan options are available.
In light of recent controversies surrounding cultural appropriation at The Ivy Asia and criticisms levelled at Gordon Ramsey’s Lucky Cat, I’m curious as to what Zos and Yen make of issues surrounding appreciation and appropriation in food.
“It’s hard. I would never put authentic. It’s one of my biggest bugbears.” Zos says, adding that a lot of menus that use the term are not. She also understands people’s frustrations when chefs on TV are lauded for using supposedly "exotic" ingredients when said ingredients have been used for years in their places of origin.
Zos cites the Elizabeth Haigh Makan cookbook debacle as another example of how not to do it.
“If people gave a bit more credit then there wouldn’t be such a bad relationship [surrounding cultural appropriation], especially when people are profiting. I think when people are butchering things as well. Putting sriracha on everything and saying it’s pan-Asian or merging all these diverse countries under one bracket. It can be frustrating.” Zos says.
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. It’s about balance,” she adds.
The emotive power of food
Already people from near and far are embracing Yes Lah. Visitors from cities across the UK, as far as Leicester and Sheffield, have embarked on journeys to Didsbury to get their fill of home whilst local OAPs have incorporated it into their daily routines, more open to trying new flavours than Zos expected. An elderly woman has worked her way through the instant noodles on the shelves, coming in weekly for noodles and an ice tea, whilst another has a new-found appreciation for ube when served in cake form.
Yes Lah has big plans for the future, be it cooking workshops, foodie classes and supper clubs. For now, Zos and Yen are happy to have launched and are looking forward to welcoming customers into the space.
Zos adds: “It’s nice to make stuff we love and watch others grow to love it too.”
Yes Lah, 102 Barlow Moor Rd, Manchester M20 2PN
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