Will Political Change Endanger Myanmar’s Rich Cuisine?

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Yangon is thronging with foreign journalists this week, reporting on Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in Myanmar’s first free election in 25 years. They won’t have had trouble navigating the former capital, especially at dinner time. Businesses, setting their sights firmly on foreign visitors, have made it as easy as possible. Take the new wave of restaurants, which are so blunt about their lack of interest in local customers they have actually dropped the Burmese language from their menus. Is there anywhere else in the world that this would happen?

I understand the excitement that comes with the country opening up. Myanmar has been isolated for more than 50 years by economic sanctions and a corrupt military government. My family are in Yangon and Mandalay, and I have visited frequently since I was a child. Food, as universal, direct and visceral as it is, is one obvious expression of this excitement. And in Myanmar, there has always been curiosity about foreign foods, seen through a kaleidoscope and interpreted, sometimes more successfully than others (we’re noted for our samosa salads; less so for our burgers, which come with wind-dried Chinese bacon).

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Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Burmese drink Star Cola, its bottle a “homage” to Pepsi and flavour redolent of cough medicine. But Coca-Cola’s return to Burma in 2013 as sanctions began to lift was welcomed by many (though perhaps not by my great aunt, who owned a soda factory in Mandalay). Likewise, when KFC recently opened in Yangon, queues went round the block. After decades of imitations, suddenly the real deal was available, and, although more expensive than homegrown, it was affordable. More importantly, it was inclusive – Coke even used Burmese script on its label.

But there’s a particularly insidious culinary neocolonialism at work. In PR fluff that sounds as if it was dreamed up somewhere in west London, the website of Japanese restaurant Gekko, on Yangon’s Pansodan Road, boasts of floor tiles in “green, gold, burnt sienna and lapis lazuli”, shipped from “Manchester, England”. The only non-English text is Japanese, and prices are not given in the local currency. A Facebook post advertises a $10 (£6.60) bento lunch as a steal, but when local civil servants earn the equivalent of $107 a month, and factories downsize rather than pay a $2.80 daily minimum wage, this seems less of a good deal. Nearby, the American-themed Union Bar and Grill serves sandwiches for $11 a pop. It’s a shame such restaurants don’t follow the lead of Yangon Bakehouse – a nonprofit cafe run by local women – reasonable prices, and a fantastic bakery – a real treat in a country that has never had ovens. Steaming, boiling, grilling, poaching, fermenting and frying (often over an open fire) are our methods.

At least all these places are bringing something new to Myanmar, broadening culinary horizons. In a “coals to Newcastle” scenario, Rangoon Tea House provides a “sexier take” on Burmese cuisine, serving deconstructed mohinga, our national dish, for 10 times the price of elsewhere (to a soundtrack of jazz). Its owner has said that “Burmese restaurants in Myanmar lack refinement and restraint” and has even accused local cooks of putting “plastic in their fried food to make it crispier”.

Rangoon Tea House and its like are gimmicky and expensive, with a bizarre take on local flavours (think pork chops coated in pickled tea). While that’s fine in Dalston, it’s offensive in Myanmar, where a beautiful bowl of mohinga should cost the equivalent of 30p. That bowl will be served to you by a street vendor from a bubbling cauldron bursting with lemongrass and turmeric. They will snip crisp fritters over the top and squeeze fresh lime all over. You’ll eat it right there on the pavement, perched on tiny stools or have them ladle portions into the tiffin carrier brought from home. Burmese cuisine is fire and smoke, and steaming pots and deep-fried snacks, taken in a roadside cafe. It’s another free helping of broth – Burmese food is about generosity, even when money is tight.

Source: The Guardian

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