By Susan Bailey
Bagan is world-famous for its architectural heritage but it hardly wins any awards as a culinary hotspot. The recently opened Sanon is hoping to change that by bringing great food for a good cause to the Bagan dining scene.
Sanon, meaning ‘turmeric’ in Myanmar language, promises ‘Creative Local Cuisine’ and relies almost entirely on locally-grown ingredients. The restaurant was established by Myanmar Youth Development Institute (MYDI) in partnership with Friends International, a profit-for-purpose organization that has seven similar projects in Asia and Africa. Together their goal is to offer top-quality hospitality training for marginalized youth which will, in turn, provide them with more employment options for a secure future.
Through MYDI and other reputable organizations, the first batch of students were selected in early 2016. The 19 students are predominately from the Bagan area with a few coming from a Yangon orphanage. Each student has missed out on educational opportunities due to family hardships or other extenuating circumstances. There are also 11 trainers at Sanon who come from various sectors of the hospitality industry and have been trained by the Friends International team.
Although starting with a smaller first class, Sanon’s ultimate goal is to put 30 students per year through the program. Each student is taught both front-of-the-house work and culinary arts over a period of 12-18 months. In addition to restaurant and hospitality training, the students receive other benefits such as accommodation, English lessons, life skill training and medical check-ups. After ‘graduating’ from the program, Sanon assists in job placement at hotels and restaurants around Myanmar. All profits from the restaurant are reinvested in to the program, creating a steady cycle of training for new students.
The restaurant is situated next to Thante Hotel in Nyaung U, a short walk from the market. There is space for 70 guests in the main dining area, an alfresco pavilion, with an additional 20-30 seats available inside the air-conditioned bar. An open-plan kitchen allows for easier observation from the trainers but also gives guests a behind-the-scenes look at what is being cooked. Overall the setting gives Sanon a casual yet classy feeling, a quiet respite from the noisier adjacent backpacker area.
The menu features 30 dishes billed as ‘tapas’, smaller plates designed for sharing. Sanon recommends a ratio of 3-4 plates for every 2 people. Prices range from 2,400 kyats for Crispy Toast with Curried Herb and Garlic Butter up to 15,600 kyats for Fiercely Fiery Tamarind River Prawns. Five of the dishes are tagged as ‘truly traditional’ such as the Burmese Crunchy Bean and Ginger Salad and the Irrawaddy Fish Cake and Glass Noodle Salad with Lime and Green Chili Vinaigrette.
According to project manager Tom Partridge, the restaurant wants to ‘Inspire the creativity of the staff and students and, thus, our menu uses some Burmese classic some adaptations of classic dishes and some western favorites. This enables us to teach a variety of cookery methods and skills and also nurture the artistic potential of Chefs and students.’
An extensive drinks menu accompanies the food and, once again, the emphasis is on high-quality ingredients and consistent presentation. Drinks include espresso-based coffees (starting at 1,500 kyats), fresh fruit juice (2,800 kyats), draft beer (1,000 kyats) and creative cocktails such as the refreshing Frozen Pineapple Chili Margarita (5,800 kyats)
One downside to Sanon is that the menu will not change from season to season, leaving repeat visitors disappointed. Despite having some talented chefs, the training program requires that the students work with the same recipes for one year to enhance the learning process. Given their penchant for local ingredients, this causes some challenges in sourcing consistent produce in Bagan throughout the year but they have so far overcome this hurdle by ordering from Yangon and other regions.
Despite the great food and drink, it is the staff who really make the dining experience at Sanon a memorable one. Serving staff are highly knowledgeable and can explain, in detailed Burmese and English, each dish’s ingredients. Friendly, patient and flashing big smiles, the service is on par with most of Myanmar’s 4 and 5-star hotels. Aside from the occasional sighting of a supervisor watching from afar, it is easy to forget that they are all trainees.
With all of these factors in play, It is not surprising that within its first three months of operation Sanon has made a name for itself. Solid Trip Advisor reviews have vaulted it in to the top 15 of Bagan restaurant listings and travel companies are filling the books with group reservations for the coming tourist high season.
Although the prices are higher than most restaurants in Bagan, the extra money is worth it for the quality of food and the satisfaction of knowing you are contributing to a good cause.
+95 9451951950 / +95 9785989078
Opening hours: 7 days a week 11am-10pm (last food orders 9.30pm)