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Myanmar’s Evolving Food Industry – Seven Years of Change

A chance conversation on how the food industry has changed since we moved to Yangon seven years ago got me thinking, and the clock went back to October 2012, when I set foot in Myanmar for the first time. Musty restaurants, and plastic-furnished teas shops, fishy foods and constricting choices, fried savories served cold and oil rich curries, was all I came across in my first days here. From the foodies’ paradise, Bangkok, this was going to be tough for sure. Thankfully, my own culinary skills made up for what was missing outside. These were also put to test since ingredients also did not match up to my requirements. Those select cuts of meat, shelled and deveined prawns, fresh herbs and whole wheat bread, were not easy to come by. And food delivery options for those under-the-weather days, was something to be forgotten about for the next 3-4 years.

Fast forward to 2019, seven years passed with a colossal amount of patience, and today, Yangon is set to match its esteemed neighbors, food capitals and gastronomic destinations. The current wave of consumerism, a growing and expanding middle class with higher levels of disposable incomes, a young population wanting to emulate western ways, have all added to create demand for good quality food and variety. There is a growing demand for finer foodstuff, cleaner and more hygienically prepared foods, with cleaner ambience also a consideration while eating out.

In every country, as the pace of economic growth picks up, the food industry is the first to witness change, on both the demand and supply side. Being a largely agrarian economy with rich fertile soil, the range of food products offered will only expand with time. As of now the food industry comprises 66% of the industrial sector of the country.

A low middle income country of 55 million people, Myanmar has a sizeable consumer market that can witness consumer spending of up to USD 100 billion in the next ten years. But it needs to scale up the quality and quantity of its goods and services, provide what the masses are willing to spend on. 

With its abundant natural resources, Myanmar has immense potential. The added advantage of natural beauty across the spectrum from pristine beaches, picturesque lakes, exquisite archipelagos, mountain ranges and skiing opportunities, gives the country the opportunity to expand its tourism network and convert it into the biggest source of revenue and employment. Local cuisine and international food varieties, access to hygienic products and eating places are an integral part of tourism. 

Eating out 

The basic concept of eating seems to have changed in the last few years. At the beginning of this decade, food was eaten mainly at home, and the affluent presented five-course meals on their table, prepared by well-trained chefs, the cuisine ranging from local Burmese, to French and Italian. Tea shops were common meeting places that served local savories and salads, and those who could afford it, went to the Savoy Hotel, The Strand or Acacia Tea Salon.

Street food was popular then and it is loved by locals and foreigners alike, even today. Hawker stalls are multiplying, and one sees lines of stalls along Strand Road offering local fare, and small clusters of stalls crop up near construction sites, schools and offices, hospitals and clinics. Reasonably priced, they offer nourishment to people on the move. While hygiene levels have not yet reached impeccable levels, there is a visible, marked improvement. 

The restaurant and eateries landscape has been completely transformed in the last few years. A walk down Sayar San Road or Yaw Min Gyi street is a feast for the eyes with a treat waiting at every other door…

Sky bars and rooftop restaurants with a wide variety of international favorites line the cityscapes. Fast food restaurants have cropped up, and international food chains have multiple outlets, both stand alone and in Western style shopping malls. I remember finding Sharky’s to be the only place for good pizzas besides L’opera all those years ago. Today, there are at least 3 Parami Pizza outlets in Yangon, besides multiple Pizza Hut and Pizza Company joints, a hundred Japanese restaurants, numerous hotpot and barbecue eateries…the list is endless.

It is fascinating to see the number of bars that have opened and transformed the city’s nightlife. The once deserted, dimly lit streets are abuzz with activity and brightness in all parts of the city after sunset. Atlas, Escape, Red Dot, Burma Bistro, Vista are some that have taken over from the happening 50th Street and Union Bar.

Authentic Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Italian, Mexican and German cuisines are served by specialty chefs in upscale restaurants. Cheaper options have appeared in cafes, and smaller eateries that can be found on virtually every street in downtown Yangon. There are ice-cream parlors, bakery and confectionery outlets, seafood places and noodle shops, breakfast and brunch outlets which seemed unimaginable six years ago.

The end result is a craze for non-home cooked food, and eating out preferred by the youth in particular. What has added to this is the home delivery concept, which has become a roaring success with companies like Yangon Door-2-Door, and Food-2-U, besides a set of restaurants willing to offer home delivery services in their vicinity.  With two wheelers banned in the city, it is touching to see the speed at which young cyclists rush to deliver food orders within the stipulated time.

From wads of cash to card swipes – this is the next welcome change. For expatriates, it took a while to get accustomed to carrying bulging wallets, but thanks to the entry of Visa and MasterCard, hotels and restaurants were among the first to accept credit and debit cards.

The supermarket experience

Seven years ago, there were just a handful of supermarkets with a limited selection of foodstuff and imported products. Finding the right ingredients, herbs and spices was not always easy, and even simple things like cocoa powder and baking powder would be off the shelf for months. 

Today, the supermarket shopping experience is almost similar to any other country. Though still distinctly an urban phenomenon, we see a wide network of large supermarkets, hypermarkets and convenience stores. Initially one saw a few Citimart outlets, which now compete with Promart and Orange supermarkets. Hypermarkets mainly have Ocean and Capital as the main players. There is an array of salts, spices, fresh and dried herbs, baking goods and, of course, fresh fruits and vegetables from the US, Australia, Korea, Thailand etc., and the repertoire of local processed foods has multiplied manifold. One no longer needs to buy Australian yoghurts and sour cream, there are local brands selling equally good ones.  

Non vegetarian food options have multiplied, and today it is easy to buy fresh meat and poultry, seafood and marinated meats. It is a far cry from my early trips when grey-looking chicken pieces had to be rejected, with the stale appearance and unpleasant odors made these lose their appeal. The quality of livestock in general has improved with special emphasis on animal health and disease control, rearing them in clean, well kept farms.

Food processing and import substitution

The food industry begins at the farm and ends at the table. Myanmar being largely agricultural, still needs a modernized, mechanized system of farming that will enhance productivity of both land and labor. Land yields are below Asian averages, and one day’s work generates just 23 kilos of paddy here, compared to 547 in Thailand and 62 in Cambodia. Change is creeping in, with gradual mechanization, use of better quality seeds, improved irrigation facilities, crop diversification, and efforts have begun to make farming less labor intensive.

At present, surplus agricultural produce of rice, beans, pulses etc is largely exported in its raw form, without any value addition. If processing and packaging could take place close to the areas where agricultural produce is collected, and food factories are upgraded, the revenue earned would increase substantially. Small steps are visible, as the range of locally packaged foods has increased, even local frozen foods have started appearing on shelves, and there is a wider selection of dried and fresh foods. 

Already, one sees a transition from buying imported packaged foods, to fresh local produce, which is also organic. Numerous organic farms have mushroomed on the outskirts of cities and these cater to the demands of the middle and upper classes. The growing middle class selects both local and imported packaged foods, and this is giving an impetus to food packaging of local favorites.

Food safety and hygiene 

For the last decade, a big concern for tourists was whether to consider sampling street food that did not appear hygienically prepared and preserved. Food safety norms had not been well defined and general awareness about food hygiene had been very low. Clean water, washing fruit, meats and vegetables properly and storing them on clean, uncontaminated surfaces, was not a regular practice. Covering cooked food, or keeping it refrigerated to prevent it getting spoiled, were also alien concepts. The end result was frequent episodes of food poisoning, even more so among tourists. This was not confined to the street food eating tourists, even meals at star rated hotels have in the past, led to endless stomach ailments, often causing panic.

But change is evident now, and awareness has increased in the last five years. Disposable gloves are used, hand sanitizers are found everywhere. The use of bottled water has become common, and there are NGOs educating street food vendors about basic hygienic practices.

The food industry is just one of many that is witnessing changes and transformation. Change is inevitable since all the ingredients for growth and improvement are present, a young population hungry for more, abundant natural resources that need to be utilized efficiently, a growing international market for international products and an ideally located country between two of the rapidly growing economies, India and China. We are fortunate to be part of this growth journey and get a first hand experience of the economic revolution taking place.