As Myanmar (Burma) opens up to the world, one cooking school is giving chefs a chance to shine in the bustling kitchens of Yangon as the city prepares for an influx of foreign visitors.
Trainees at the Shwe Sa Bwe, or “Golden Table”, cookery school are learning how to whip up a gazpacho soup, flip crèpes and perfectly grill juicy chunks of chicken – all on the menu du jour for paying guests.
The centre, in a quiet upmarket area just north of Yangon’s Inya Lake, offers free courses to underprivileged young Burmese, giving them the chance to learn French-based cuisine or restaurant hospitality.
François Stoupan, the Frenchman behind the project, says his aim is for the trainees “to be part of the economy and the growth of the country” after their nine months of training.
“Before I only knew about Myanmar’s food but now I’m learning about European food, which is very different,” said 26-year-old Win Mu. “It’s a little bit difficult, especially making the sauces. It takes time.”
Set up in November and now with 14 students, the project has come at an apposite time for Myanmar’s underdeveloped commercial hub, which is struggling to accommodate a visitor boom.
After decades of outright military rule, dramatic changes over the past year have encouraged foreign tourists, diplomats and business people to pile into the city’s hotels, where Shwe Sa Bwe’s students hope eventually to work.
“It’s corresponding to a moment in Myanmar’s history and a period of opening up,” said Stoupan.
Tourist arrivals hit a record high for a second year running in 2011, rising more than 20 per cent, the Myanmar Times weekly said in January, quoting figures from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.
The trend is set to continue as it becomes ever easier to obtain an entry visa, and with Myanmar ranked as a top travel destination for 2012 by publications including the New York Times and Condé Nast Traveller.
Such attention is highlighting the culinary potential of Yangon.
“There are fresh ingredients – very fresh – local ingredients. If you go to the market early at six in the morning, the fish are still alive, still moving,” said Jeoffrey Offer, the French head chef at Shwe Sa Bwe.
Experiments with locally-sourced produce are already thriving in the former
colonial capital, as wealthy Burmese become more adventurous in their tastes.
Sharky’s, a delicatessen and restaurant business, initially targeted wealthy expatriates but is seeing its clientèle diversify “because of the changing situation, the economy, everything,” said operations director Thaw Tar.
“We want to be like Bangkok or more than Bangkok. This is our dream, but who knows if it can happen?” said Thaw Tar, whose eatery sells foods grown, farmed and prepared in Myanmar, from air-dried meats and artisan cheeses to gourmet burgers and ice-cream.
Traditional dishes, which have long languished in the shadows of neighbouring Thailand and India’s world-renowned flavours, are also getting their time in the sun.
The unofficial national dish, mohinga, featured highly in a new Lonely Planet guide to the world’s best street food.
“This comforting noodle soup exemplifies the earthy flavours of the country’s cuisine,” Lonely Planet said of the dish. All in all, say local restaurateurs, there is plenty to excite the taste buds.
“Everybody knows Thai dishes, so we think we should come out more so the world knows Myanmar’s food,” said Phyu Phyu Tin, owner of Monsoon, one of a handful of restaurants in the city that combine a chic dining experience with Burmese dishes such as wether acho chet, a sweet and rich pork curry.
The restaurant’s manager, Aung Moe Winn, says that Myanmar has historically lost many of its energetic young workers to overseas cities with booming service sectors – a trend he hopes will now change.
“We want them to use their qualities and skills to develop our country,” he said.
At Shwe Sa Bwe, the students were chosen partly for their willingness to
stay in Myanmar, and already they are devising ambitious plans to develop their country’s cuisine.
After a stint in a Yangon hotel, Win Mu hopes to set up a fusion restaurant near
her family home in northeastern Shan state, serving a blend of European and Burmese dishes.
It is perhaps the ideal recipe to match Myanmar’s growing interaction with
the outside world – even if Gallic cuisine sometimes baffles the Burmese.
“Myanmar people eat their beef well-done but the French eat it raw. That’s how foreigners like it! For me, that’s really strange,” said Win Mu.