I never knew croissants could take 13 hours to make until I found myself in the middle of a lockdown with a lot of free time and a hankering for pastries from bakeries that were shut.
My feeds and groups like Yangon Connection were suddenly flooded with people asking where to purchase baking powder, a bottle of vanilla extract or just a packet of yeast. When my go-to baking supply shop STK Bakery on Upper Pansodan Road reopened, I made sure to arrive 10 minutes before 9am on the first day, and by the time I left half an hour later, there was a queue of about 15 people outside armed with gloves, masks, and a shopping list of baking tools.
In addition to providing people with a new, somewhat time-consuming hobby, a lot of friends I spoke to noted that they turned to baking during lockdown for the same reason that I’ve always loved it – the precise, scientific-ness of it all. Even during my attempt to make croissants for the first time in my life with full awareness of how much rolling and shaping and folding was involved, I knew that if I measured my ingredients precisely and had full faith in the instructions, I would have croissants in the end. I didn’t know what the disease numbers would be tomorrow, or how much longer international air travel would be banned, but I knew that butter and sugar and flour and eggs made dough.
And while baking can be a solitary activity, a lot of people banded together to help each other out.
“I ordered way too much baking powder from an online shop and I had to text all my friends ‘Hey, do you want some powder?’ It looked like I was dealing drugs,” 26-year-old Khin Sandar Win, who goes by Sandar, told me over the phone with a laugh. “My neighbors would be like, ‘Do you have flour?’ or ‘Do you have baking powder?’”
Sandar said the baking connection kept the isolation at bay:
“That was a nice way for me to connect with friends because [they] would also send over what they’d baked for me, and vice versa. Even though we were quarantined, it didn’t really feel like I was shut off from the world and just baking by myself alone.”
Winny Myat, a Yangon-born management consultant living in Washington D.C., also began to bake a lot more during lockdown and browsed through various Asian bakers’ Instagrams for inspiration.
She’d scroll through their feeds and wonder things like:
“‘What are bakers in Singapore baking that I can one day replicate? Or what are bakers in Hong Kong baking?’ There’s a sense of still feeling connected through food.”
Additionally, baking became a way for her to ease her nostalgia whenever she craved pastries that you could easily find back in Myanmar but were now almost impossible to obtain in the U.S. “I started baking a lot of Asian stuff,” she told me from her apartment in D.C. On Father’s Day, she baked her dad’s favorite heong peng. “These aren’t goods I can easily get so it’s very, not just therapeutic, but it makes me feel like there’s still a connection.”
In fact, Winny began to bake so regularly that in addition to posting updates on her Facebook, she started a new Instagram account solely for her baking accomplishments. She’s not the only one who began to turn her culinary accomplishments into content. After all, if you bake a cake and don’t upload a photo on social media, was the cake ever baked? For a few weeks, everyone on my feed was uploading their version of Dalgona coffee, and then once that died down, Basque cheesecake arrived on the scene. Sandar confirmed that her own feed was pretty much identical. As one of the co-founders of Leaders Myanmar, an influencer marketing agency, she’s used to recognizing when something’s gone from a singular post to a full-blown trend.
“It’s like a badge of honor, and you’re participating in the virality of it,” she noted. Talking about “bandwagon culture,” she agreed when I posited that a big chunk of the attractiveness of baking is that “It’s all for the content.”
Coven of the Oven
But why baking over cooking? Even before COVID-19 was ever a thing, ingredients like vanilla extract and chocolate chips have always been difficult to obtain. Additionally, the precision of baking that people like Winny, Sandar, and myself have found comforting conflicts with the Myanmar way of cooking, which, really, is “to taste,” and “add a dash of this and a spoon of that” until it’s the flavor you want.
With baking, you have to set the oven to a specific temperature. But with a cooktop, you can adjust the flame as you go along. Food writer MiMi Aye admitted that even when she was writing her cookbook Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, her Myanmar mindset was hard to shake, and that “that was probably the most painful thing — having to measure everything and being really disciplined about it. Because [there’s] the temptation to tweak and then you’re like ‘Oh no, I have to write down what I tweak.’ It’s very painful.”
And yet, despite Myanmar social feeds becoming increasingly clogged by photos of people’s first forays into baking, the whole thing was very much still perceived as a Western trend.
“I don’t even think my parents’ house has an oven. It’s just not a thing,” Winny said.
My own grandmother has never used the oven in our kitchen. A lot of family friends use their ovens to store pots and trays. When I shared this with MiMi, she laughed and confirmed immediately: “We don’t have an oven culture, we never have.”
While Myanmar cuisine has loads of wonderful desserts, those from the oven are almost nonexistent. Even the quintessential sanwin makin, which does require an oven, is actually a version of the Indian dessert suji ka halwa.
“People that have ovens, even relatively recently – it was a sign of being wealthy. You didn’t use it though. It was pristine,” MiMi explained. “Ovens are a liability. They’re a sign of wealth, but they’re also a liability. It’s a bit like having a functionless but decorative statue.”
For one, with Myanmar’s notorious power cuts, relying on an oven to make your food is a risky game. I personally have had to toss out many an unbaked cheesecake due to the electricity going out with 30 minutes still left on my timer.
Second, there’s the problem of weather. The year-round heat doesn’t ever translate to hot-cookies-straight-out-of-the-oven weather.
“You want something refreshing and that’s going to cool you down, and I don’t think cakes ever really cut it in that way,” MiMi concurred.
It’s true – when I think desserts in the middle of the afternoon, I think of a tall glass of cool falooda from Shwe Pu Zun, or a large bowl of shwe yin aye. I don’t think of a serving of warm fudge brownies.
In the kitchen, the heat also means that a lot of recipes become more difficult than it should be. I made the mistake of rolling out my croissant dough in the late afternoon and in a matter of minutes, ended up with melted butter all over my kitchen counter. Any puff pastry recipe I made from then on was only tackled after 10pm with the air-con on full blast.
When I brought up my drippy butter fiasco, MiMi pointed out that dairy in general – with the exception of, say, condensed milk – doesn’t really play a big role in Myanmar culture. A large part of this is down to the fact that dairy, and baked goods that contain dairy, don’t have long shelf lives. In that sense, baking is a privilege, not only because it indicates a copious amount of free time and access to the necessary resources, but also because you’re indicating that you don’t need to plan ahead when it comes to cooking, and that you have the luxury of making food that is only good for a few days. In comparison, Myanmar snacks are all about preservation, or as MiMi put it, “survival food.”
Cookies and cupcakes need to be stored in a cold room or a fridge, and consumed within a week or two at best. But mont kyut sealed in a tin is good for seemingly ages. We love our airtight packets of pickled fruit. Lahpet thoroughly soaked in oil will last for months in a glass jar. But you can’t store sticks of butter in the back of your cupboard.
Make Something New
But none of this means that Myanmar cuisine isn’t open to a marriage with Western baking culture. After all, the fun thing about baking is that for all of its science, it still allows you to be creative once you’ve got the basics down. Winny, for instance, loves to “add a little Asian flavor” to Western recipes. “I made focaccia with sichuan chili oil. I just thought, if it’s [made with] just olive oil and rosemary, I can just go buy a piece of focaccia,” she explained. Other tweaks she’s made include adding ube flavor to cinnamon rolls, and making the viral Bon Appetit Earl Grey Yogurt Cake, but replacing Earl Grey with Myanmar Royal Tea mix packets.
Despite not being a baker herself, MiMi thinks that there’s definitely room for Myanmar desserts to incorporate more Western elements. She hates the term “elevation,” though.
“I don’t want to lose the identity,” she said. “I think there’s a way of making it so that it’s still recognizably Burmese. It’s not ‘elevation.’ It’s employing different techniques and having a happy marriage.”
“Steal techniques, steal ingredients, but don’t have it so that the idea is that Burmese desserts are shit, so we’re going to use Western desserts instead, because I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s better to take elements from both and make something that is new. Modern Burmese food, right? That’s what you want. Modern Burmese desserts.”
Everyone I’ve talked to said that even now that lockdown is all but officially lifted, they still want to keep on baking as a means to de-stress and do something creative. It might take a long while until ovens become a mainstay in Myanmar kitchens, but we might just be seeing a new generation of Myanmar bakers who are defining what modern Myanmar desserts could be.