Yangon’s swanky new restaurants are ‘insidious culinary neocolonialism at work’, says Guardian writer

If you live downtown, you probably pass them every day: the brightly-lit emporiums of posh, often Western-style, dining. They look innocent enough. Some of them, set in colonial-era buildings revitalized for the purpose, might even strike you as pleasant.

But the handful of swanky restaurants that have popped up in Yangon since Myanmar started opening to the world in 2012 are actually harbingers of doom for the country’s cuisine, an op-ed published today in the Guardian argues.

The piece, titled ‘Will political change endanger Myanmar’s rich cuisine’, by Mimi Aye, who lives in London, singles out upmarket teashop Rangoon Tea House and the restaurants belonging to hospitality empire 57 Below for particular criticism.

“…there’s a particularly insidious culinary neocolonialism at work. In PR fluff that sounds as if it was dreamed up somewhere in west London, the website of Japanese restaurant Gekko, on Yangon’s Pansodan Road, boasts of floor tiles in “green, gold, burnt sienna and lapis lazuli”, shipped from “Manchester, England”. The only non-English text is Japanese, and prices are not given in the local currency. A Facebook post advertises a $10 (£6.60) bento lunch as a steal, but when local civil servants earn the equivalent of $107 a month, and factories downsize rather than pay a $2.80 daily minimum wage, this seems less of a good deal.”

She’s following up on an argument started by an op-ed in the Myanmar Times, which called out restaurants without local-language menus. But her critique goes a step further, blasting RTH in particular as “gimmicky and expensive, with a bizarre take on local flavours (think pork chops coated in pickled tea).”

“While that’s fine in Dalston, it’s offensive in Myanmar, where a beautiful bowl of mohinga should cost the equivalent of 30p. That bowl will be served to you by a street vendor from a bubbling cauldron bursting with lemongrass and turmeric. They will snip crisp fritters over the top and squeeze fresh lime all over. You’ll eat it right there on the pavement, perched on tiny stools or have them ladle portions into the tiffin carrier brought from home. Burmese cuisine is fire and smoke, and steaming pots and deep-fried snacks, taken in a roadside cafe. It’s another free helping of broth – Burmese food is about generosity, even when money is tight.”

Union Bar and Grill, which serves British classics, is mistakenly identified as ‘American-themed’.  

57 Below declined to comment for this article, while Htet Myet Oo, who owns Rangoon Tea House, did not immediately respond to request for comment. He has however, previously responded to accusations of elitism.

We also spotted this comment on the Guardian article, by a user named ‘Htet Oo’.

“I commend you on your efforts to keep up the traditions of Burmese cuisine, but there is nothing wrong with experimenting, trying to push the limits. Why should 95% of the [sic] county’s best seafood is exported and the remaining 5% only used by western restaurants, why not Burmese.

“A thar mar wat, a thee mar the-yat, a ywat mar laphet (Burmese pronoun saying Pork, Mango’s and Tea Leaves are the best that Myanmar has to offer). There is no gimmick to showing in a different way how you love your cuisine. To each their own.”

Photo: Coconuts Yangon

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