A brave new band of entrepreneurial foodies has emerged, stepping up to create world-class products from the bounty of Myanmar. Words by Sam Foot. Photos by Angel Ko Ko.
Myanmar’s artisan food story begins in Golden Valley, circa 1995. Ye Htut Win had just returned to his home country after making a killing in Geneva’s banker bar scene. Fresh from the Alps where he had been learning the ancient art of cheese production, he began
selling what to this day are still the best—and only—Myanmar-made European-style cheeses. Expanding his operations to bread, then charcuterie, he eventually moved from the porch of his mother’s teak house to Dhammazedi Road. Sharky’s now sells over 300 obsessively developed products, almost all of which are sourced and produced in Myanmar. In the years that followed, few have been brave, dedicated or mad enough to follow in the imposing footsteps of Mr. Sharky. However, visitors to Yangon Zay or the new Yangon Farmer’s Market will be aware that, in the past year, things have begun to change: the rise of the Myanmar food artisan is upon us.
Straight From The Sauce
Myanmar-German former model Lynn Yang Wolf is fast becoming the most recognizable face in Myanmar’s vibrant new foodie scene. The slick Facebook star has, for years, been perfecting the art of the sauce and cultivating her own line of condiments. Lynn’s
journey in the food industry began during her time at university. While acting as brand ambassador for Marketplace, she began using her position as an influencer to share home cooking tips and recipes. Capitalizing on Lynn’s talent and reach, Wolf Kitchen
showcases some of Myanmar’s finest ingredients. Like many of those developing gourmet products in the country, her multicultural heritage and her distinct life experiences merge in her craft. “When my father fell sick with Parkinson’s, the pills that he was proscribed appeared to accelerate his condition,” remembers Wolf, whose mother began using honey and Himalayan salt to treat the disease. Six months later, “there was an observable effect on both his health and his demeanor,” she said. “At this point, we saw that there could be an opportunity to enter the untapped market in food and health.”
Now, a year a half later, and after breaking into CityMart, Wolf Kitchen sells over 2,000 jars of pink-tinted Himalayan rock salt each month. As with much of Myanmar’s natural bounty, not many people are aware that such sought after produce is available internally, mined near Myanmar’s northern border. Wolf Kitchen’s other products reflect both the abundance of Myanmar’s natural heritage and also the increasing demand for healthy produce and for more contemporary flavors from abroad. Lynn notes that Wolf Kitchen’s tea leaf paste sells extremely well among expats, yet her Peri Peri sauce (which uses everyday Myanmar ingredients such as bean and coconut powders), increasingly a staple of Western condiment trays, is also being “gobbled up” by locals. “This shows that flavor and taste can never be predicted—giving customers something different is always a surprise!”
Hive of Activity
Another food in which Lynn Wolf is developing a line is proving to be a sweet business for socially responsible food enterprises: honey. A relatively undervalued resource until recently, a number of companies are beginning to take advantage of the country’s
diversity of raw natural honeys. Remarkably, the world’s oldest bee species has been discovered in Myanmar. Leading the way are Plan Bee and Haven Honey. As with a range of new producers—from coffee and chocolate, to sesame, macadamias and mangoes—these companies have observed, in the words of Plan Bee’s Nicola Amoroso, “direct opportunities for income generation across the value chain… [with] significant opportunities
for international and local premium retail.”
An emphasis on social responsibility—the provision of training, equipment, and avenues of social inclusion for farmers—is a thread connecting the new wave of food producers. Plan Bee support 100 beekeepers in southern Shan state, and train 65 prospects each year. As well as retailing internally, they export fine honeycomb directly to China, Hong Kong, and Japan. The social enterprise foresees a bright future for Myanmar produce which is better value, less polluted, and is considered an ‘exotic’ luxury in many countries.
And changes are coming. According to Calvin Pun, director of Haven Honey, “globally, farmers typically pay beekeepers to bring their hives to farms in order to improve crop yields. In Myanmar, beekeepers typically pay farmers to rent land for hives due to a false belief that bees take from the land. December 2017 was the first time that farmers began to pay beekeepers for their hives—a vast improvement and something that the beekeeping industry has attempted to achieve for the past 40 years.”
Haven, working with leading beekeeper U Soe Thu, has managed to combine Myanmar’s innate capacity for producing remarkable foods with international standard processing techniques, elevating the staple product into something for the connoisseur. From
classic jujube and niger honeys, to rare coriander and lychee varieties, all Haven products are mono-floral (from one variety of flower) and free of additives. Line up a number of Haven’s natural, unprocessed honeys in a tasting session and get an insight into how varied and nuanced the world of honey can be.
Myanmar has long suffered under a monopoly of foamy, airy, over-sugared, artificially-everythinged, and vacuum-packaged baked goods. With the country’s interest in decadent desserts growing at fantastical rates, this travesty is ripe for change. Tree Food is perhaps the brand that has most firmly captured the imagination of New Myanmar’s sweet-toothed citizens. Playing on nostalgic cravings of the Burmese for jaggery, founder Cho Lei Aung began crafting her modern take on the snack after eating a homemade variant among the toddy trees of Bagan. “I wondered why no farmers had taken the initiative to create small pieces of jaggery which are more suited to today’s lifestyle,” she says. After hearing of the farmers’ difficulties with making the jaggery, she began forming a snack with the right size and taste. The company now retails four varieties of jaggery in CityMart; ginger, yoghurt, tamarind, and plum masala (in Cho Lei’s words, the most authentic taste.)
“I make indulgent cakes. Cakes you should feel bad about eating.” June Thein of Dirty Little Secret.
Arguably the most decadent new bakers in town go by the name of Dirty Little Secret. Repats Hazel Zaw and June Thein sculpt all varieties of baked goods, instilling them with pure Myanmar extravagance. From fantastical layer cakes, to oozing cookies, protein bars, and dangerously iced cupcakes, Thein (who is, sagely, also opening a gym to support Yangon’s future Dirty Little Secret-inspired obesity crisis) pulls no punches when stating: “I make indulgent cakes. Cakes you should feel bad about eating. Cakes you want to bury your face in and make babies with.”
In With The Old
Jaggery is not the only traditional snack getting a 21st century upgrade: Myanmar tea business veteran Paline has recently released a line of classic bites, elevating the humble tea leaf salad to something of a delicacy. Offering an organic sesame tea and artisan fried beans, it will not be long before companies such as Paline begin representing Myanmar abroad.
Another foodie devising culinary reinventions is Father’s Office founder Hnin Yee Htun. A favorite which has appeared in Father’s Office (and will soon be hitting the shelves) comes straight out of Hnin’s mother’s pantry: Ma Aye’s Kitchen’s pork belachaung. Reflecting the view of many concerning traditional snacks, Hnin says: “There is plenty of room for growth in Myanmar for food products made using modern culinary techniques. We intend to offer a wider range of products made to a high standard and quality—products that introduce Myanmar food to the world.”
Myanmar’s Delicious Future
Myanmar’s new wave of producers are breaking the mold, using smaller plots from which to cultivate a wider and more varied range of foods, importing innovative systems, and focusing on sustainable, value-added qualities such as organic production, social responsibility, and all-natural ingredients. Branding is improving across the board, as Shwe Taung Nyi demonstrate with its pampered, cardboard-protected eggs. Wolf Kitchen produces its condiments in an FDA-approved factory; Sharky’s 25-acre Bagan farm is a ‘Myanmar Mediterranean’ growing a range of non-native varieties of crop, including herbs, vegetables and fruits which have never before been grown in Myanmar. Similarly, ‘urban farmers’ such as Kokkoya Organics are delivering a spectacular range of fresh products to the city’s dining tables.
With all of this in mind, Myanmar food’s appearance on the global stage is imminent. Internally, Sharky’s and Rangoon Tea House have long discussed how and when they can begin spreading their considerable influence as market leaders overseas, acting as foodie ambassadors for the nation. Haven’s Calvin Pun captures the prevailing zeitgeist when saying: “We have some of the best produce in the world—we just need to work on creating avenues to export it. I would like to one day walk into a store in the EU, USA, Japan or Hong Kong and see my products on the shelves with, most importantly, ‘Product of Myanmar,’ being synonymous with a high quality brand.”