Oct 12, 2012

Myanmar braces for KFC

The monsoon rainstorm has exhausted itself, which is handy, because like most food outlets in Myanmar, Maung Aye’s teashop is open to the elements. The samosas are still steaming, freshly plucked from a vat of hot oil, and the condensed milk tea is so sweet and thick that Coca-Cola seems almost healthy in comparison.

Yet one patron, Sandar Win, is thinking about treats that are decidedly less exotic, at least in most parts of the world: Western fast food.

“Whenever I fly back from Bangkok to Yangon, I see a lot of people who quickly go to buy KFC and snack food to bring back with them,” says Ms. Sandar Win, who recalls smuggling her own stash of chicken nuggets for her former boss’s son. “Burmese people are really dreaming about snack food.”

Fast food is blamed for expanding waistlines and worsening health around the world, including in places like Thailand, where many youths now prefer a McDonald’s burger over a bowl of noodles. But Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, has remained largely free of fast-food chains, thanks to economic sanctions that prevented Western companies from setting up shop there.

Now this looks likely to change. Western governments are lifting investment restrictions after a new government took power in Myanmar last year and began rolling out economic and political reforms, including the release of many well-known political prisoners.

PepsiCo Inc. recently said it had reached a deal with a local Myanmar company to begin distributing several key brands there, including Pepsi-Cola, after a 15-year absence. Coca-Cola Co. said in June that it also is planning to re-enter Myanmar after 60 years of waiting. Multinational fast food chains are expected to follow.
“They see 60 million people, and they see a country that doesn’t have a lot of Western food available,” says Jared Bissinger, a Myanmar expert who is working on a Ph.D.

He predicts Western fast-food joints could be there in less than a year. A spokeswoman for McDonald’s Corp. said the chain doesn’t comment on future expansion plans, while a spokeswoman for Yum Brands Inc., which owns KFC, said it has no current plans in Myanmar.

For now, Myanmar’s own fast-food joints, known as teashops, will continue selling their own versions of the Happy Meal, with contents such as deep-fried insects (pa yiq), freshly squeezed sugarcane juice (changyeh), coconut noodles (oh no khaoswe), red bean and coconut pancakes (kauk mote) and pig head salad (weqgaunthoq).

These Myanmar versions of fast food can be shockingly unhealthy. The curries sometimes swim in an oil that makes Big Macs look saintly. Locals often say the real secret to Myanmar cuisine is its overuse of monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

But Myanmar’s food has its fans. A favorite of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, was hot naan bread with salted beans. And with the Himalayas in the north, tropical beaches in the south and borders with China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Laos and India, Myanmar has absorbed numerous influences, including the cuisines of the 135 different ethnic groups that live in the country.
Some of the flavors can be sampled at Monsoon Restaurant on Yangon’s Thein Phyu Road. The manager, Tin Aung, says he also likes snacks from the roadside, such as fermented tea leaf salad from a nearby teashop, where the tables and chairs are squeezed together along the street.

Men dressed in traditional Burmese longyi wraps smoke locally rolled cigars and spit fountains of red betel nut onto the pavement, while nearby kitchens serve different styles of snack food from Shan-style noodles to Chinese dim sum and fresh fruit juice.

The lapheq, or tea leaf salad, is served up at any excuse. The tea leaves must be steamed and buried for a few months, where they ferment. They are then pounded with fried garlic, sesame oil and ground peanuts, and topped with fried beans, green chilies and dried shrimp.

It’s this unusual collection of flavors that makes Myanmar food stand out, says one local foodie, Ye Htut Win. He has made a name for himself with Sharkys, a restaurant and grocery store showcasing a range of locally produced cheeses, meats and breads.
Although he caters to the elite of Yangon, he says he’s partial to the national local dish, mohingya, a fish noodle soup that is simmered with lemongrass and banana stems. It also should have a lot of fish sauce, which he says gives it “that umami taste” that makes people want to eat more.

Ye Htut Win worries umami will be no match for Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ Donuts when they arrive. “You’ll go to the street in Yangon, and it will be the same as Bangkok,” he says. “Starbucks, H&M, McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks. There won’t be any more uniqueness.”

Mr. Bissinger sees their arrival more positively. “It’s about giving local people choice about what they want to do and what they want to eat,” he says, “and I think that’s a good thing.”

Back at the roadside teashop, Tin Aung, the Monsoon manager, says he’s not worried about a fast-food invasion. “This kind of tea shop is for all of the levels of people,” he says. “For the fast food like McDonald’s and KFC, only the middle and upper class will eat there.”

Indeed, economics may prove to be a powerful disincentive to abandoning Myanmar’s traditional foods: The bill for four large plates of food and three cups of tea at this teashop is just under $4—less than the cost of a Happy Meal in many countries.

Source: WSJ