Umami – The Fifth Taste

A journey to explore Myanmar cuisine is loaded with anticipation – an exploration of tastes, flavors, fragrances, and the wide array of dishes placed in front, hold so much in store for our taste buds. A unique blend of three, four, even five tastes makes Myanmar cuisine delectable and immensely satisfying. Similar to other Asian cuisines, with distinct Indian, Thai and Chinese influences, Myanmar has a vast variety of dishes, each unique in appearance, appeal, taste and flavor. A dash of fish sauce, a spoonful of shrimp or fish paste, sprinkling of MSG (monosodium glutamate) may be common additives, but the taste  of each dish is distinct and aromatic, the only commonality being a depth and intensity which makes us all relish each mouthful, and we end up clamoring for more.

Why is it that some cuisines and dishes, have this unique quality, something different from the four basic tastes we have known all our lives, with a clear preference for some if not all of these – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The secret lies in the fifth taste, Umami, that not too many of us know about. We have all been experiencing it but never put a name to that taste or realized that Umami is actually a different taste altogether, with different taste receptors in the mouth. It has taken the world nearly a century to add it to the official list of tastes, even though it has been one that is savored more and lingers the longest, on the tongue and in our memory.

Umami, literally meaning ‘deliciousness’, gets its taste from mainly the glutamate content in foods. It is that deep, intense, savory flavor found in meats and broths, matured cheeses and vegetables like ripe tomatoes and mushrooms. Though more often identified with Asian cuisine, Umami has existed in all cuisines all over the world, even though it wasn’t blatantly detectable. What was evident was the fact that certain tastes lingered in the mouth for much longer, leaving a deep sense of satisfaction.

Umami the newest officially recognized taste

The human tongue has as many as ten thousand taste buds, which are able to segregate the five different tastes, and research has revealed that amino acids contained in certain foods naturally can intensify the flavor of foods, and by certain cooking methods. This intense taste is different from the four basic tastes, and there have been long debates about whether Umami is actually a different taste altogether which can be experienced singularly or is actually an amalgamation of multiple sensations caused simultaneously. It needs to be clarified that ‘taste’ is actually based on one, singular sensation, while flavor stems from a combination of multiple sensations. Being very subtle, umami was, for a long time, perceived as a taste enhancer of certain food elements and not so much as a distinct isolated taste.

Though first discovered in 1908, by a Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, it got official recognition only 82 years later as the fifth taste in 1990, finally claiming its rightful place in the culinary world. Subsequently in 2006, neuroscientists at the University of Miami were finally able to locate the taste receptors for Umami, which proved to further validate its place in the list of tastes, and acknowledge one more taste that was felt and experienced but never distinctly defined. It has existed since time immemorial and unknowingly, products were used in kitchens in different parts of the world to enhance it, in the form of fermented barley sauces, fish sauce, soy sauce and tomato paste, to name just a few. Thus, these accentuated the taste of food laid out on tables in Rome, the Arab nations, England and China.

It has since, become much talked about, explored and advertised by food connoisseurs. Ikeda, a chemist, tried to isolate and replicate the intense taste found in kombu, an edible seaweed, eventually used his Umami discovery to create monosodium glutamate, MSG, the taste enhancer used extensively in Asian cuisines. MSG is what balances and enhances certain subtle tastes and flavors, leaving a pleasant, lingering savory taste.

Umami rich foods

Umami becomes evident in certain foods by the breakdown of their glutamate components which surface when these foods are ripened, aged, cured or fermented. The amino acid, glutamate, is found naturally in certain foods including meats, dairy, vegetables and fish. Glutamate breaks down when it perishes or ferments, typically upon cooking, as in meats, or in the ageing of cheese. Thus tomatoes ripening under the sun convert glutamate into L-glutamate, and this is what subtly improved its taste, which incidentally is different from the taste of tomatoes that ripen with chemicals in a cold storage.

Ikeda stated after his research that there is a similar, complex flavor to be found in meats, asparagus, tomatoes and cheese, with Parmesan having the highest concentration of Umami. Each of these foods, and many more, stimulate the back of the mouth, roof of our oral cavity and the throat, and the tongue senses a ‘furry’ feeling. The umami taste is protein based, mild, delicate and subtle, and even in highest concentration is does not become strong, all that it does, is harmonizes the other tastes and makes the end preparation delicious.

There are three main umami substances glutamate, inosinate and guanylate. Inosinate is used as a food additive to potato chips and other snacks, and while naturally procurable from bacterial fermentation of sugar, a lot of it is artificially produced. Guanlylate is also a food additive and flavoring agent, and most often, used in combination with glutamic acid.

Glutamate is an amino acid that exists in abundance in nature, in natural foods and is one of the twenty amino acids that help the human body. It is a significant protein component, playing an important role in the body metabolism, nutrition and signaling function. Glutamate produces the umami taste only when it is not bound by other amino acids, and when it interacts with specific taste cells on the tongue. Extensive research has revealed the clear profile of free amino acids, and how they influence the taste of foods.

Miso, seaweed, parmesan cheese, soya sauce, fish sauce, tomato paste, all contain a high level of the amino acid, glutamate. Amino acids are building blocks of protein, conversely, proteins are amino acids linked in chains. Umami is associated with soups and canned foods, perhaps because food manufacturers seek to enhance this taste to replace the sodium content and offering low sodium preserved foods.

Soy beans when fermented and processed develop a higher glutamate content and add to the umami taste of the food they are added to. Seaweeds (the edible varieties), are naturally high in glutamates, and when they form the base of Japanese soups, for example, add to the umami taste substantially. Kimchi, the Korean salad, is fermented and this adds to its taste.

Umami beyond Asia

Umami has become an acclaimed taste beyond Asian nations and its prevalence in cuisines of other countries is being recognized and appreciated.

Its place in our food and flavors repertoire is now well established, and awareness about it is spreading all over. There is now a big Umami information center, we hear about Umami lectures and workshops, an annual international symposium which has acclaimed chefs and taste scientists participating from the US, Japan, Denmark, Italy and other countries. Umami finds pride of place on magazine covers, restaurant names, and is a frequent topic of conversation.

In nature produce, tomato has been one plant extensively used in Western cultures with the highest Umami component, getting its rich meaty flavor from the high level of glutamates contained in it. The British savored it in walnuts and mushrooms as well.  Lotus root, potato, green tea leaves, seafood varieties, all fall in the umami rich food category.

The Italians found it in their mature varieties of cheese much more than the freshly prepared cheeses. Thus, parmesan scored over mozzarella, closely followed by cheddar, gouda, emmental and Roquefort varieties. It was discovered much later that as cheeses age, their protein content breaks down into free amino acids and this increases their level of glutamic acid.

Soups prepared in Japan and also in Western countries were found to have an equal, similar umami taste. This, despite the fact that entirely different ingredients and preparation methods were followed. In the west, soups are cooked on low heat for long periods till the depth of flavor is extracted from ingredients like meat and vegetables. The Japanese soup base dashi, uses kombu, the dried seaweed and dried bonito, the former being dried very slowly over a period of time, but when cooked, it releases its flavors very rapidly, and does not need to be cooked for long. The taste quotient of both is comparable on the umami scale.

Besides soy sauce, a big source of umami taste is MSG, or monosodium glutamate, a fine crystal powder that is a popular food additive and taste enhancer. MSG laced dishes are common in most of Asia, including Myanmar, where it is added while cooking and sprinkled on top. Statistics reported by the Japanese company Ajino Moto reveal that Myanmar people consume 52,000 tons of MSG per annum. MSG has been in the eye of the storm and subject to extensive criticism for its supposed side effects like skin rashes, migraines, and indigestion. However, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration has given it the clearance of ‘generally regarded as safe’. Local nutritionists advise an intake of less than 2 teaspoons per day. It is actually not the glutamate amino acid that is worrisome, but rather its combination with sodium that has the propensity to cause marginal side effects.

Even as culinary experiences get reinvented with variety and multiplicity, Umami is the taste that chefs are seeking to bring to the table in all parts of the world, creating what they call, ‘Umami bombs’ that are the ultimate gastronomic experience. These are dishes prepared out of multiple ingredients that contribute towards creating the umami taste, and the complex end result is delectable and long lasting. Umami is what is bringing variety, novelty in food experiences and excitement about food in general for a section of foodies who tire easily of usual traditional food preparations, always wanting something new.

Myanmar’s Jaggery – A Favorite Traditional Sweet

A walk in any local market in Myanmar presents interesting aromas and colorful displays of local fare, from fruits and local preparations to packets and open heaps of small bite sized pieces of jaggery. The pale gold semi-circular pieces are served as dessert after meals in restaurants, as snack in teashops, and as candy to fill in the long gaps between meals.  It is interesting to find this small piece leave a pleasant, lingering aftertaste, long after it has been digested. Unlike anything one may have tasted, jaggery is an unrefined sweet made out of palm toddy in Myanmar and other tropical countries.

Jaggery has caught the attention of nutritionists and health professionals who have seen the damage caused by refined white sugar. As an unrefined natural sweetener, that is a food in itself, jaggery retains all the vitamins and minerals found in the sap of palm trees called toddy. Its earthy, caramelized taste comes from the cooking of sap in iron utensils, till it thickens, after which it is poured into moulds and cooled. An estimated 80 million kilograms of jaggery is produced every season, and it finds its way into homes and cuisines all over the world.

Jaggery is also made out of sugarcane juice, that is squeezed out of the long bamboo like cane fruit with the aid of machines. It has to be similarly cooked to thicken and is then cooled and sold in bigger chunks. Countries like India have a rich harvest of sugarcane, which is divided between making jaggery and refined sugar. Cane jaggery is a deeper gold in color due to the darker color of the cane juice, unlike palm toddy which is white and translucent. Palm jaggery however, is healthier, richer in minerals and a better taste with a slight caramelized saltiness.

The jaggery making process

Jaggery making is one of the significant rural based cottage industries in Asian countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Requiring minimal capital investment without mechanization or expensive refining involved, it is labor intensive and hence a source of employment, which helps alleviate families out of poverty. Not without risks, the key skill required is tree climbing to collect sap and the returns in the form of earnings are dwindling, leading to a reduction in the number of tappers left in Myanmar.

Jaggery is made out of the sap collected from palm trees. Palms have been known to be the oldest flowering plants since the beginning of civilization, and tapped for centuries to intercept the sugar before it reaches the fruit and its non-edible parts. The palm family, Arecaceae, has many species that produce enough sap that can be converted into sugar and jaggery, though Palmyra palms, coconut and date palms are tapped the most. The sap is called sweet toddy due to its high sucrose content (between 10-20%), and the palm trees get to be called toddy palms.

Palm trees are found in central Myanmar which is also the dry zone. Large toddy farms spread over hundreds of acres in Mandalay’s  Kyautpadaung township and Magwe’s Yanangyaung, Chauk and Yesagyo townships. The trees grow in groves and are ready with rich sap after fifteen years of maturity. The tall trees produce so much sap that it can be collected twice a day, and the process has to continue on a daily basis or else the sap flow will diminish and eventually stop. The process then has to be started from scratch, which can take up to two weeks. To harvest the sap, bamboo ladders are tied to the palm tress that rise to be 25-30 meters high. The first step of tapping is to cut the leaves, make deep cuts on the tree trunk, and hang clay pots into which the sap collects over the day. Multiple pots are hung on each tree and these are collected and replaced at least twice a day. Collection time is generally around 5-6 am every morning and then around 3 pm in the afternoon. The harvesting season lasts for eight months in the year in Upper Myanmar, while central Myanmar trees can be tapped all year around albeit with a period of low productivity between November and June.

The quantity collected also depends on the agility and expertise of the worker. Typically workers are able to climb 25-50 trees in a day, and an average of 5 liters per tree is collected daily. Toddy sells for approximately 1000 kyat per viss (equivalent to 1.6 kg).

The clay pots are first lined with slacked lime to delay the fermentation process since the sap has a short shelf life. It can be preserved at room temperature for a maximum of 24 hours, or a bit more, if refrigerated. Tappers carry back multiple pots after climbing 25-50 trees per session, twice a day. At home, fireplaces are kept ready to The sap is then filtered and lime sedimentation removed before it is transferred to iron pots and placed on high heat. The fuel typically used in rural areas, close to the palm trees, is bean husk, cow dump and chipped palm leaves. Being rich in moisture, it has to be cooked for 3 hours to get rid of the water content, remove the frothy white scum that appears on top, and then allow it to thicken. Adding a bit of oil prevents crystallization and small round balls are made while it is still hot.

Palm jaggery can be used to make refined white sugar, which is higher in price, but this inferior in quality to cane sugar, and hence has low demand. Jaggery is a part of the common man’s diet while white sugar considered a luxury. Of late, the demand for organic palm jaggery is increasing in international markets. Companies like the 555 Shwe hintha Company, have been promoting their brand Royal Jaggery, and have begun their exports to Japan.

Myanmar’s palm jaggery

Some of the traditional Myanmar candies include round pieces of jaggery mixed with tamarind, coconut and jaggery candy and of course, lemon flavored jaggery candy.

Famous domestically as Myanmar’s chocolate, jaggery is an all day snack savoured by young and old alike. Than Nyat Khe, its Myanmar name, has become a craze of late even among the country’s expatriate community, thanks to the innovative efforts of a medical graduate, who decided to make bite sized pieces of jaggery to prevent wastage of chunks offered, which were always too sweet and too big to finish, and even added local organic ingredients like coconut, ginger, lemon, mint and yoghurt. Ma Cho Lei Aung, started her brand Tree Food in September 2015 to promote bite sized pieces of jaggery in artistically self- designed paper bags, and catch the eye of the youth all over again. Jaggery had in recent times, lost out to imported candies which are not even healthy options. The natural earthy goodness of jaggery delicately flavored, has, thanks to her efforts, become popular and gaining ground all over Myanmar, and is one of the top Myanmar specialties carried back home by tourists.  Today it is not only a great souvenir, it is back as an integral part of Myanmar’s identity.

Constraints in jaggery production

Palm tapping is considerably reduced and there are fears of it being a dying cottage industry. This is due to various constraints not entirely attributable to economic growth and development, offering alternative employment with higher earning potential even in rural areas. Families that were once content with their earnings of 10,000 kyat a day from selling 40-50 kilograms of jaggery per day, now prefer employment in hotels and restaurants in the vicinity which multiply the family earnings at least three times when three members go to work. Additionally, they have access to a cleaner safer life, without having to climb 25-30 trees a day, risking falls, injuries and sometimes even death. The end result has been a decline of 50% in the last five years, and an estimated 5 million trees are left today. The rest have been cut and sold for paltry sums, and in some cases, the land has been sold off as well.

Health benefits of palm jaggery

The current trends of high blood sugar levels and ensuing lifestyle diseases like diabetes, refined white sugar is best avoided from an early age. But that does not mean giving up on all sweets. Organic sweets like palm jaggery have a long list of health benefits. A low glycemic index, totally natural and high fiber and mineral content, palm jaggery aids digestion, has a cooling effect, clears the respiratory tract, and provides energy with its richness in iron, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus.

A general awareness about eating healthy has made the masses turn towards organic, natural foods and avoid processed ones. Products like jaggery fit into this category, providing energy and nutrients without any harmful side effects, not even weight gain, despite being sweet. At the macro level cottage industries like jaggery production offer a viable self employment route, a way out of poverty, a source of daily earning and an opportunity to a better life despite the risks. The Myanmar government is also stepping in to help improve the condition of the country’s toddy farmers, by providing loans and technical assistance, modern climbing equipment that reduces risk of injury and fatal falls. The farmers are also being offered expertise to grown new, healthier palm trees, and set up mechanized jaggery making processes for more hygienic products.

Eating out in Yangon 2019

In six years that I have been here, scores of restaurants have opened and tens have shut down as well. The initial foot falls are high and the quality of food appealing. But gradually we find many of them with few diners, somewhat deserted, and one day, the place shuts down, sometimes taken over by another eatery. Public memory is short, and names are soon forgotten too.

The ones to stay include Rangoon Tea House, Nara Thai, Corriander Leaf, Marina, Thai 47, to name a few. the reason for their staying alive, isn’t difficult to gauge – their quality has remained the same over time, and they have made improvements based on customer reviews. Foodies I guess, I wish to replicate experiences, savor their favorite dishes and expect the same taste, aroma and flavors each time.

Some restaurant experiences leave a lot to be desired, but over time, we have learnt to scale down our expectations and be more accepting of what comes our way. This is also in keeping with the Buddhist way of life, to be equanimous, non-reacting and less critical, and we find ourselves becoming softer, less aggressive and hence improving as individuals.

For me, the best pizzas are still at Parami Pizza, even though many new Italian restaurants have opened. Sharky’s pizzas are good too, but Parami scores higher. We are not partial to the Americanized versions with thick crusts and an overload of cheese and other toppings. Even the soups, salads and meats are cooked to perfection, the pastas creamy but light, while L’Opera has very rich sauces that overfill.

The best Chinese still at Dou Hua, the Chinese restaurant on the first floor at Park Royal Hotel. Buffett and a la carte selections offer variety and it is difficult to find fault in any of the preparations. The familiar, friendly staff adds to the warm ambience.

For Thai I like Nara Thai even though their omelet isn’t as sinfully deep fried. The ambience is appealing, clean, spacious, and attentive staff, which is a welcome change from older Thai eateries that look dated and somewhat musty. However, of late, there have been complaints about a change in the food being served.

Gekko, quite the favorite for Japanese cuisine, is a bit difficult to find, without a conspicuous name board outside, one misses it despite being right in front. Like a typical bar, it is dark on ground level, loud music, and not quite a place for both food and conversation.

If its just food, then the ultimate is, to use Yangon Door2door to deliver the cuisine of your choice, at your doorstep, to savor in the comfort of your home. This concept of home delivery has transformed the food scene in Yangon and has become extremely popular in a short span of time. The list of restaurants covered is getting longer, and their earnings from the restaurants not the customers.



Myanmar’s Dairy Industry

A Case for Milk – The Dairy Industry in Myanmar

The white nectar that sustains infants and builds their body and bones in the first year of their life, the wholesome liquid that nourishes and nurtures those unable to eat solid foods, and the rich source of calcium, is slowly weaving its way into the average Myanmar diet. Supermarkets now stock a wide range of dairy products like yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk, cream, butter, ghee, milk powder, evaporated and condensed milk, many of which have a long shelf life. The product range and variety has increased manifold in the last 5-7 years, with more local small scale manufacturers experimenting with newer products as well imported dairy products lining shelves.

Traditionally, milk was never an important part of the average Myanmar diet, as has been seen in other less developed countries. It has also been seen that milk consumption increases as communities and countries develop, earning capabilities improve and awareness about health and nutrition increase. An increase in income leads to the incorporation of milk and dairy products in largely starch based diets. There is a strong correlation between income and milk consumption at the micro level, and between the dairy industry and stage of economic development of a country. At present milk consumption in developed countries is steady, but growing the fastest in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of milk if we combine the production of cow and buffalo milk, though the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of cow’s milk.

The health benefits of milk

The general reference to milk implies cow’s milk, and in some places, buffalo milk, though milk can be procured from other mammals just as well, and from plant based sources like soya, rice and almonds. Cow’s milk is the highest consumed milk due to the nine essential nutrients it contains, including calcium, potassium, and the daily human requirement of protein. Cow’s milk has better flavour and texture, followed closely by buffalo milk which is popular in very few countries, India being one of them. Cow’s milk has an 87% water content and 13% solids which include minerals, proteins, fats and lactose.

Proponents of milk consider it to be nature’s complete nutrient for humans, providing calcium which is needed for better bones and teeth, and prevents osteoporosis in old age. Daily intake of milk helps to neutralize toxins which enter the body through other foods and can damage the human body. The nourishment derived from milk helps sustain energy levels and keeps our minds and bodies active. For infants and those without teeth, a milk and dairy diet is complete nutrition for growth and sustenance. Health experts are convinced about the role of milk in controlling blood pressure and diabetes.

Commercial milk production

Milk is by far the most nutritive beverage and widespread propagation of its importance as an essential dietary requirement has led governments to encourage setting up of dairy farms, both small and large. This includes nurturing animals, collecting and selling milk. This is not simple at all and the journey from cow to cup is rather long.

Raw milk taken from the cow has to be processed to make it safe for human consumption. Being highly perishable, raw milk lasts for only a few hours unless refrigerated. Therefore, large dairy farms typically collect milk in refrigerated stainless steel containers and send them to milk processing plants where milk is passed through a series of separators and clarifiers which remove debris, bacteria, and also separate heavier and lighter milk.

Essentially milk has to be pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria. Pasteurization involves heating milk in a specific manner to kill all harmful bacteria but retaining the good bacteria and natural enzymes. It also helps to extend shelf life of milk. The next step is homogenization, a process used to crush the fat globules floating in the milk solid, to make them so small that they cannot rise to the surface and form a thick creamy layer. Milk is also differentiated by fat content, and a set of processes render full cream, low fat or skimmed milk. Vitamin fortified milk and flavoured milk are other varieties produced.

The milk is then packaged and sent to various destinations in refrigerated vehicles, though long-lasting varieties can be sent through normal vehicles.

All types of commercially packaged milk has to meet stringent standards set by a regulatory authority of the country. Quality control is important and has to be maintained by ensuring hygiene and cleanliness levels of the milk processing plant, as well as the health of the animal that provides the milk.

Myanmar’s Dairy Industry

The diary sector in Myanmar is in an early stage of development. Research indicates that almost 85% of Myanmar’s milk comes from small dairy farms, that sell raw milk, due to limited processing facilities, to consumers and businesses close by. The annual production of milk is around 620 million kilograms, and this is less than half the national milk requirements. The Yangon region has seven large milk processors that process raw milk collected by a small network of milk collectors who in turn procure raw milk from very small dairy farms within a distance of 30 km. Quality control and certification of the milk processed is not a regular practice.

The gradual increase in incomes is spurring demand for milk and milk products, which cannot be met by domestic production. The range of milk products commonly consumed include fresh milk, flavoured milk, yoghurt, plain and flavoured, milk powder, condensed milk, and ice cream. A big source of demand comes from the thousands of tea shops across the country that sell millions of cups of tea laced with generous amounts of condensed milk. Most of this is imported since the local varieties produced in factories in the Mandalay region are unable to compete with imported condensed milk in terms of both price and quality. Milk powder is used extensively in the making of highly popular 3-in-1 tea and coffee sachets.

The gap between demand and supply is being met by imports from Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and other countries. A large segment of this is milk powder, that is also sold as reconstituted milk. According to commerce ministry figures, in a single week in July 2017, 409 tons of condensed milk and 70 tons of milk powder were imported into Myanmar via sea routes. Regular imports from neighbouring Thailand come from the land route across the border.

Some of the leading local brands include Walco, Silvery Pearl, TM, PEP, Fun Hwa and others. This is fresh pasteurized milk in full cream and low fat varieties, but available mainly in the Yangon region. Imported long lasting milk brands include Cowhead, Emborg, Dutch Lady, Foremost, and scores of others, some of which also sell milk powder, condensed milk and evaporated milk in supermarkets and smaller shops lacking refrigeration facilities.

Despite the setting up of various bodies like the Myanmar Dairy Association and Myanmar Dairy Products Manufacturers Association among others, the dairy industry faces multiple stumbling blocks to increasing supply, like inadequate infrastructure, lack of funding and financing options, no access to technical expertise and advisory bodies and others, all of which are essential for improving the quality of milk and making each step of the milk producing process efficient. The dairy industry is at least two decades behind its Thailand counterpart with lack of access to continuous power supply, adequate refrigeration facilities for storage, and reliable transport. Increasing livestock to increase production would be easy, but related issues at every step of the production process need to be resolved first.

Milk and dairy products became a part of the human diet as early as 8000 BCE. Cattle breeding and livestock have sustained civilizations over centuries and milk served to provide essential nutrients in the absence of other foods. However, Southern Asian nations did not include dairy and dairy products as an integral part of their diet, and this trend has continued over centuries. It is only in the last few decades that these nations have started incorporating milk and dairy products into their diets.

The small interest in milk and dairy products began during British Rule for local Myanmar folk, and the Indian influence on food kept that going. Even today, Myanmar’s dairy industry can follow the Indian example, where its Operation Flood, launched the National Dairy Development Board, initiated an unstoppable ‘White Revolution’ and converted India from a milk deficient country to the world’s largest producer, besides generating employment especially in rural areas. The similarity in cultures of India and Myanmar, their proximity and willingness to share knowledge makes India the ideal neighbour to take a cue from.


Diary of a Vegan in Yangon

The Diary of a Vegan in Yangon

A trip to Myanmar is exciting for all the magical, mystical experiences that await us, the untouched natural beauty, serene environs, beautiful pagodas and the innocent beauty of the local Myanmar folk. The only shadow is cast by the prospect of my being a vegan! Will I be able to find pure vegetarian, dairy free food to survive?

My research revealed that there wasn’t much to worry about even though local fare revealed extensive use of eggs, meats, shrimp pastes and fish sauce, but “tat-tat-lo”(the Burmese word for vegetarian) was to be my saviour, followed by pictures of milk, yoghurt, cream etc., since I couldn’t find a Burmese equivalent for vegan.

As I stepped of a modern, plush international airport at Yangon, I was sceptical and was contemplating a minimal, survival diet, when the taxi ride to the hotel revealed umpteen tea shops and shanties selling seemingly vegetable savouries. As I set out on my sight-seeing tour, I was pleasantly surprised to see the road side vegan options, and knew that restaurants and food courts would have much more. I was relieved that I would not have to stick to upscale star-rated hotels for food and request for special meals through the length of my stay here.

I wanted to try my first Burmese meal, and which better place than the famed Rangoon Tea House. A relatively new eatery, it has worked its way into the “top ten things to do in Yangon” list, in a very short span of time. Just expressing my vegan preference sufficed to get me their signature Tofu salad, Peas Paratha and Aubergine bao. Numerous other options were present in the menu, and I was told that eliminating fish sauce and shrimp paste, commonly used in Burmese cooking, would transform the dish into completely vegan fare.

A visit to the supermarket helped me see that the locals do not seem to have a milk drinking habit, though yoghurt is consumed, and tofu is far more preferable to cheese. The yellow Shan tofu had an instant appeal and its taste unparalleled. I learnt about Shan food and the numerous vegetarian and vegan options it offered, and decided to try the 999 Shan Noodle place for my next meal. By the end of the first day I knew, that I could survive on the exotic Myanmar salads and asking for “tat-tat-lo” would get me my vegan preference since I learnt that none of these had any dairy infusions.

Myanmar cuisine options stretched into a long list for me, Monsoon Restaurant visited by Bill Clinton, House of Memories owned and run by a family closely associated with Gen Aung San, Padonmar Restaurant known for its celebrity clientele, and scores more. Tea shops and tea salons are as popular as cafes, and each offers vegetarian snacks, some of which are vegan too.

As a walked in the downtown area, I came across the Nepali Indian Food place on Merchant street, which serves pure vegetarian fare. My knowledge of Indian cuisine told me that vegetarian can easily be transformed into vegan if I request them to eliminate milk and cream for their recipe and not opt for any ‘paneer’ dish. Paneer is the Indian cottage cheese and a favourite of all vegetarians. Yangon now boasts of 33 Indian restaurants including 3 fine dining ones.

My exploration of Yangon showed the amazing variety of cuisines available, like any other cosmopolitan city, with Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Italian and other restaurants, both big and small.  Asian cuisines are more vegan friendly, but Italian food without cheese and their tomato based sauces are equally palatable. Set menus of course, were a no-no, since there was always a course or two, with dairy based dishes.

I found that bread was an avoidable option since most breads contain egg here, so breakfast was also distinctly local, with tat-tat-lo mohinga and khow suey,both of which savoured each morning. Desserts were mainly fruits , an amazing variety of them, each of them sweet and juicy. My biggest discovery was Nourish Café in Yangon Yoga House, that advertises for serving plant based food to nourish body and soul. It is only as I walked in, that I realized that it is Vegan Café with a full vegan menu!

For long, I had felt my switching to veganism would be limiting for my love for travel, to new destinations, but my few days in Yangon have proved me wrong. For me, being a vegan is a lifelong choice, and I will never be able to take in a morsel of meat or dairy products again.

Veganism is a subset of vegetarianism and refers to plant based diets and an animal product free way of life. It has caught on in the Western nations much more than it has in Asia.


Veganism – the Next Diet Mantra

Veganism is the latest, glamorous fad, and has become a part of one’s identity. Every celebrity who is vegan, is introduced so, almost adding to his/her credentials. It may be in vogue to protect animals, talk about cruelty to them, and be ‘the voice of the voiceless’, and hence give up on animal foods. But it is not easy to give up on dairy, seasoned as we are, to consume milk and milk products from the time we are born-the single diet component that spurs growth for the first two years of a child’s life. Vegans have done this and switched to plant-based milks like soy and almond milk, among others.

Veganism is an off-shoot of vegetarianism, a subset of people who eat plant-based foods only, and do not consume any dairy products either. A vegan is a person who does not use or consume any animal product – food, clothing or accessories, anything that involves cruelty to animals. Thus, they do not have fish eggs, meat, poultry, milk, dairy products, even honey. Vegans also do not buy or use leather bags and handbags, wallets and belts, leather jackets or fur coats.

The Vegan Diet

Being a vegan is a choice for health, environment or ethical reasons, and in today’s world, there is no dearth of non-meat, non-dairy options. The repertoire of vegan foods and preparations is multiplying, with vegan substitutes making up for all that one may have missed, in the form of exotic cakes and pies, puddings and cheesecakes. In countries like the UK and USA, where a higher number of vegans are found, vegan curries, vegan pizzas and cakes are commonplace, as much as a wide variety of meal options.

The vegan food list includes fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, and beans. Soya products become an important source of protein, tofu substitutes cottage cheese, and soya also forms the base for mock meats, mock cheese, and soya milk is used as the perfect milk replacement for drinking and for yoghurts. Peanut and other nut butters replace the dairy butter and are richer in nutrients.

Globally, plant-based diets are gaining ground, and even the biggest meat eaters are beginning to notice the benefits of incorporating fruits and vegetables into diets. Surveys indicate a rising vegetarian trend, though countries like India which have over 30% of its population as vegetarian, attribute it to religion. The number of vegans is on the rise, and the flip side of consuming milk and dairy products is gaining ground. A section of scientists and doctors are propagating a dairy free diet for all the ill-effects of milk produced by cows that have been pumped with antibiotics, growth hormones and a diet that only makes them give more milk. Milk produced by cows that graze freely and lead normal lives, without human intervention or prodding, is the only safe nutritional source, not what we buy from supermarkets etc. This is also one of the many reasons behind the wave of veganism that has caught us all.

Myanmar’s Amazing Prawns and Shrimp

For all lovers of seafood, it is a treat to see king sized prawns, looking so mouthwateringly succulent, as they appear on the table. Fresher than any that could have been eaten in other seafood destinations, soft to bite and an unparalleled rich taste, at once sweet and firm, Myanmar’s prawns leave us all clamoring for more. Their size varies, but is big enough to evoke a feeling of awe, since large sized prawns are an expensive delicacy.

Prawns and shrimp, though belonging to different crustacean groups, are nearly identical in taste, but differ in size and physical features, and form part of the booming food industry, their production through aquaculture, being taken up in every country with water resources like rivers and seas in close proximity. The terms shrimp and prawns are used interchangeably though, shrimp generally referring to the smaller sized prawns. Once a delicacy not available to the majority, prawns have now become extremely popular as the ultimate exotic seafood whose consumption is inching up. This explains why aquaculture has become a booming business, to feed the spiraling demand for prawns and other seafood.

Commercial farming for prawns and shrimp was initiated in the 1970s, and over three quarters of the farmed prawns come from Asian countries, the market growing considerably in the last ten years. Major Asian contributors to the shrimp market include Thailand, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Of all the fisheries products, prawns have the highest value in global trade, with Japan, US and EU being the biggest markets.

Health benefits of prawns

Prawns are crustaceans, and perhaps the most versatile, exotic seafood found in the chilled waters of Greenland in the north to the southern most parts of South America. Nearly all varieties have a narrow, tapering body, varying in size and thickness, encased in a brittle shell, the tail is curled, have ten pairs of legs, and they have long, whisker-type antennae.

Prawns need to shelled and deveined before they are ready to be eaten, though certain communities use them whole. Ideally the head is discarded, the shell removed and the sand vein (the digestive tract of the prawn) pulled out. Removing the tail remains optional. The flesh left to be cooked, is much smaller than the whole prawn.

Prawns are being added to daily diet not just because of their great taste, but also because of their nutritional content and health benefits.

  • Low in calories- at a time when calorie count is of utmost importance, prawns provide taste and flavor, without adding too many calories. Dieticians recommend prawns to the obese since they have half the calorie count of an equivalent amount of chicken.
  • Low in fat, high in protein- prawns are a low fat source of protein. 100 grams of prawns provide 25 grams of protein. They also contain beneficial monounsaturated fats including Omega –3 fatty acids.
  • Rich vitamin source- prawns are rich in Vitamin A, E, B6, B12 and niacin, which help build muscle, produce energy, and replenish the red blood cells in the body.
  • Rich in minerals- prawns contain essential minerals like calcium, potassium, copper, zinc and phosphorous, the deficiency of which lead to numerous health problems.
  • Reduce cancer risk – prawns contain selenium which reduce the risk of cancer in humans.

Prawns’ Habitat

Prawns can be easily found near seafloor near most coastal areas and estuaries, besides rivers and lakes. The numerous species adapt to their specific habitats. Majority of the shrimp species are marine species and only one-fourth of the species are in fresh waters. Out of the hundreds of species, there are only around 20 species that are of significance commercially, and used in the food industry.

Prawns live in rocky, sandy and sub-tidal habitats, and prefer depths of at least 70 meters. They thrive in crevices and in muddy bottoms of water bodies. Prawns spend the first part of their life cycle as males and the later part as females. The breeding period is typically in autumn, and hatch in spring(March-April), at a depth of 70-90 meters of water.   During the first year of their life, they remain in shallow waters, at a depth of 55 meters or less, in inlets and bays, since there is abundance of food supply at this level for their carnivorous food habits. In one year after hatching they grow to a size of 100 mm, and start moving towards deeper waters. As the second year begins they are 150 mm in length. In the fourth spring, at 200 mm, they turn female, and their typical life span is 4-5 years.

Prawn farming in Myanmar

The abundance of water bodies in Myanmar and surrounding it, make it the ideal place for aquaculture. Myanmar has a competitive advantage with low pollution levels, a wide range of species devoid of disease, and its ability to provide off-season supplies to feed international markets in both east and west. Aquaculture was first started here in the 1970s, and since then, over 40,000 hectares of fish and prawn breeding farms have come up, producing over a million tons of both. The first harvest of cultured shrimp in Myanmar was sold in 1984 when 7 tons of freshwater prawns were sent to the market.

There are approximately 25 shrimp species known to exist in Myanmar’s waters. Prawns form an important part of seafood exports, though most of the produce is domestically consumed and only 8% of the total output is exported in 2013. Out of the total exports, shrimp exports were valued at USD 68.64 million in 2010-11 according to the Fisheries Statistics of Myanmar. These included tiger shrimp, pink sea shrimp and dried shrimp.

The three coastal regions where prawn farming is highly successful include the Rakhine Coastal Region, the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, and the Thannintharyi Coastal Region. The Rakhine State has the largest area under shrimp cultivation covering over 155,000 acres. All these areas see peak production during the rainy season from May to August, while the lean or off-season lasts between December and March.

Extensive farming methods are commonly used in the shrimp farming sector and production levels of 100 kg of shrimp per hectare per annum have been maintained in the 10,000 acre shrimp farms operational since 1978 along the Naaf River in Rakhine State.  The trap and hold method is gradually giving way to the better intensive farming. According to estimates, 85% of the entire shrimp farming acreage uses extensive farming techniques, which relies on post larvae trapped in ponds.

Offshore, shrimp are harvested by commercial trawler fleet, which include mainly yellow shrimp and speckled shrimp. In shallow waters around coastal areas, where large numbers of giant tiger prawn, banana prawn and red tail prawn are found, shrimp are caught by artisanal fishermen.

The industry was supported by the Asian Development Bank which provided loans in 1984-85 to enable the use of more scientific farming methods, provide training to technicians abroad, and set up two shrimp hatcheries and 3 brackish water shrimp farms.

Government involvement

The Myanmar government is now attempting to help the seafood industry by assisting aquaculture. The shrimp industry has yet to recover from the widespread devastation caused by cyclone Nargis in 2008 since the hatcheries and entire production systems got destroyed.

The government is trying to facilitate upgrading the existing extensive farming techniques in farms to intensive ones, to prevent a declining yield over the years. Other factors responsible for declining yield include mining, as well as the utilization of mangroves for producing charcoal, both of which pollute the potentially promising shrimp culture sites, and destroy the estuarine habitat of post larvae shrimp.

The Department of Fisheries started a program of Good Aquaculture Practice in 2011, for shrimp farming. It banned the use of chemicals and laid out a set of standards for shrimp farms to follow. An increasing number of farms have started working according to the GAP standards.

The National Policy on Fisheries has been formulated to promote all round development of the sector, increase its production to meet domestic demand and share surplus with neighboring countries, and encourage expansion of the marine and freshwater aquaculture.

The giant river prawn has been identified as the most promising species whose production must be encouraged. The government needs to support shrimp farmers for at least the non recurring expenses by facilitating the construction of storehouse, dykes and gates, and provide funding for purchase of equipment like pumps, aerators, shutters, screens, nets and traps.

As of now, no standardized quality checks and controls have been put in place. Regular quality testing and systematic controls need to be put in place for shrimp sent to domestic markets as well. At present the Department of Fisheries inspects and carries out laboratory tests on export produce before certifying it.

Involvement of the private sector will help in pumping in funds desperately needed to improve the prawn industry so as to increase exports which will bring in much needed foreign exchange. The private sector will also be able to bring in technical expertise and the latest equipment, besides onshore facilities for freezing at source to preserve freshness.

As the world discovers the hidden treasures of Myanmar, a country rich in endless natural resources, it is only a matter of time before it also becomes a foodies’ paradise, like Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand.  The quality of produce is richer since it is still largely organic, not genetically modified and the time span from farm to table is very short. The water bodies that beautify this country that is undoubtedly Nature’s Paradise, have the most amazing marine life that is now being exported to scores of countries across the globe. Prawns are part of the seafood exported to countries like Japan, EU, US and South East Asian countries, and can bring in far more earnings than they do at present.

Myanmar can go a long way in using aquaculture to increase its shrimp output manifold. For now, this is being obstructed by a complex framework of regulations, poor capital inputs, outdated technology and absence of trained labor, lack of awareness of overseas market factors and the fragmented industry structure.

Prawn facts

Prawns have a life of 4-5 years on average.

Prawns begin their lives as male and turn female after 2-3 years for their remaining lives.

Cold water prawns are sweeter to eat than warm water ones.

Wild shrimp has a better taste and flavor than farmed ones.

Biggest prawn markets are China and Japan.



Green Vegetables for Good health

It is quite in vogue to be a foodie, and to be perceived as a connoisseur of ‘good’ food. We love to talk about what we eat, where, and how much we spend on a meal. Exotic cuisines, however unhealthy, are a talking point amongst the elite, and current trends in Myanmar, still point towards a largely non vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism is not unheard of, and typical local meals are a good blend of vegetables and meats. This makes them healthier, but it is often seen that people wrinkle their nose at the prospect of eating a balanced meal with a larger vegetable component, though they are palatable when combined with some pork, fish, chicken or even processed meats or dried fish.  This is more common among the youth due to their very recent exposure to international cuisines with the opening of newer restaurants serving different cuisines, not all of which offer too much variety of vegetable preparations.

Eating greens can be trendy too, in the form of delectable and colorful salads and stir fries, as they adorn a corner in a plate or come as a side dish. But visual appeal apart, green leafy vegetables are nutritional powerhouses that improve health and help the human body fight various diseases. Nearly 70% of all known diseases and ailments are linked to dietary habits and unhealthy eating. The latest research indicates that the fiber intake in most developed and developing countries, is far below the recommended intake levels, by relevant authorities. When newer, refined grain varieties, are fiber depleted, it makes sense to supplement fiber in the form of leafy fiber-rich greens.

Thankfully, all Asian cuisines include vegetables and greens as part of the main meal, and tropical climates ensure sufficient local supply of leafy vegetables which have a shorter shelf life. Some are used for their therapeutic qualities while others to enhance the taste with their strong flavor or sour, tangy taste. The latest fad of course, is ‘organic’, or organically grown vegetables which are easily available in Myanmar now.

The health benefits of green, leafy vegetables

Health is the ever elusive, much feared but often ignored, yet essential part of our lives that determines the length and quality of our existence.  However, we conveniently forget how to maintain and preserve, improve and keep our health intact. We focus on our taste buds, and are averse to even trying out foods that are good for us. Eating right, combining what we like with what is good for us, will help us build stamina, raise our energy levels, strengthen our immune system and bring a sense of well being that can be felt with every breath.

Green leafy vegetables are amongst the healthiest foods to eat, forming part of the protective foods category. Low in calories and high in nutrients, they help in preserving good health while shielding the body from illness and disease. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recommends a daily intake of at least one half cup of green, leafy vegetables, to avoid nutritional deficiencies and serious illnesses.

Some of their benefits include:

  • Green colored vegetables are rich in vitamins like vitamin A, C, E and K. Vitamins are essential for the smooth functioning of various body mechanisms and have no substitutes. It is ideal to absorb vitamins from natural foods which must be cooked only so much as to keep their vitamin content intact.
  • They are rich in minerals like iron, folic acid, potassium and calcium, and antioxidant compounds like Indoles and Lutein. Minerals keep the body metabolism in place, and ensure bone health, water balance, and are crucial for numerous other reasons. Each mineral, in the smallest quantity has a role to play in the well being of our body.
  • They reduce the risk of chronic disorders like obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, hypertension and so on. This is because they are able to purify the blood, reduce the oxidative stress, restore smooth cell structure, improve absorption of nutrients and keep the circulatory system healthy.
  • They enhance longevity and help build stronger bones in the young. Leafy vegetables boost overall health through improved body functions and strengthening of the immune system. Their low calorie nutrition keeps weight in check, which in turn, improves fitness, and prevents the body from ageing rapidly.
  • Greens ensure appropriate nutrition to the body’s tissues and organs, and keep the neural system healthy, thus preventing or at least minimizing the destructive impact of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
  • Green leafy vegetables contain chlorophyll that alkalinizes the blood and their high fiber content aids the digestive process. They address flatulence and bloating and ensure a healthy colon. Colon cancer has become one of the dangerous forms of cancer afflicting those not consuming leafy green vegetables.
  • Phytonutrients or plant derived chemical substances, contained in greens provide the crucial link between health and nutrition, ensuring that the human body stays healthy, the skin clear and improved brain functioning.
  • Their low calorie nutrition facilitates weight control and helps to fight obesity without weakening the system.
  • Leafy greens help to reduce risk of cancer, fight certain types of cancer, and through immune regulation, help in tumor resolution.
  • They help to remove free radicals from the human body before they become harmful and cause damage.
  • Visual protection by keeping our eyes healthy is another benefit of greens since they help to filter certain types of high energy light that can damage the eyes. This reduces risk of eye ailments like cataract.

The maximum benefit can be derived if these greens are eaten raw, just slightly cooked or steamed, so that their nutrients remain intact. Overcooking must be avoided since it kills all the essential nutrients contained in the leaves. However, it is safer to soak them in water for some time so that the pesticides and other chemicals are washed off, especially if they are not organically grown.

When leafy greens are missing

Offer a small helping of spinach or water cress to children and most of them will refuse to eat it. There is some kind of mental block in many youngsters about eating any green vegetables, even broccoli, beans, and others. The result is seen in a visit to hospitals and clinics, where so many patients are rather young, and suffering from deficiencies, skin problems, obesity, indigestion and numerous other ailments. A diet without these is bound to lead to problems, diseases and impaired body functioning, which will manifest themselves later in life.

Myanmar Greens

Myanmar cuisine is a good blend of meats and vegetables and its people are accustomed to a diet which includes vegetables in sufficient quantities to promote good health. Over a hundred different vegetables including leafy ones, are grown in the fertile Myanmar countryside under different climatic conditions found in the northern and southern parts of the country. A trip to the vegetable market reveals over a dozen leafy greens, reaching the big Yangon market from farms nearby. Some of these are unique and give Myanmar cuisine its special character, with their distinctive flavor and taste.

Some of the green leafy vegetables found in the markets include:

  1. Bu Nyunt- This is the young tender vine of the gourd vegetable. It is plucked while young and the stem is still soft, leaves are small and have very fine hair on them. This is used in preparing soups are tossed in garlic and served hot with rice.
  2. Ka zon ywet- Called water spinach or watercress in english, ong choy in Chinese and phaak boon in Thai, this has thin long leaves and a hollow shoot. It is cooked with garlic, mushrooms and some even like to add dried fish to it.
  3. Hin nu new ywet- Commonly referred to as spinach, it is a different variety of spinach and is sweeter and milder than the spinach found in other Asian countries. It comes with long stems and round leaves and is cooked with garlic and pine nuts added for flavor.
  4. Ka mon chin ywet- This plant has leaves that are sour to taste and added to soups to add a tangy taste, especially in fish based soups.
  5. Myin khwa ywet- This is Asiatic Pennywort and eaten raw as a salad with fish sauce. Its rounded leaves are flavorful and stems are thin and slender. It is known to have medicinal therapeutic properties.
  6. Mon nyi ywet- Commonly known as Bak choy, this is an Asian favorite and known to be one of the most nutrient rich greens. In Myanmar, it is blanched whole after trimming the base and eaten simply with a bit of oil, salt and garlic.
  7. Mon nyin zayn- These mustard greens have tender stems and long green leaves with a pungent taste, but are highly nutritious. They are usually cooked with ginger and garlic, red chillies, salt and a bit of sugar to tone down its strong taste.

There are many more seen in the local wet markets, their names and cooking styles still elusive to me, even after thirty months here. Their abundance and freshness is sufficiently pleasing, though not so much as to tempt me to try them out. I am happier buying the familiar ones, to which my palette is seasoned too. For one inclined towards a vegetarian diet, it is heartening to see the extent to which these form part of all local meals, relished by the young and old alike. Preserving the originality and richness of Myanmar cuisine will help to keep the locals healthy too.

Is Vegetarianism Healthy?

Vegetarianism is Healthy – Fact, Fad or Fallacy

Our bodies are only as good as the food we eat – a cliché that rings true in an age and time when life threatening diseases strike seemingly healthy people, partly because, they have not been eating healthy. Food that tingles the taste buds, with its taste and flavor is one of the pleasures of life that the best of us succumb to – for only what is pleasantly palatable, will be gladly taken in.
Research costing millions of dollars has created a strong awareness about what foods are healthy, and all the processed foods we savor, are not good at all for our health. Little wonder then, that the list of foods being termed ‘junk foods’ is growing longer, and the ranks of people avoiding all kinds of meat is growing globally. A significant part of this list includes non-vegetarian foods, which are delectable, addictive and damaging.
Non- vegetarian food includes all eating red meat, fish, poultry, and other products derived from animals. This division is a bit hazy, since milk, derived from animals, is considered vegetarian, and forms a significant part of all hard core vegetarian diets.
Over the last two decades, vegetarianism has caught on, and is widely perceived as ‘healthy’, which actually means that it is healthier than a non-vegetarian diet. Vegetarianism refers to a lifestyle, the most significant part of which is following a vegetarian diet that includes plant produce and abstinence of flesh and foods that have an animal source.
Types of vegetarian diets
A diet that includes all plant produce, milk and soy products is loosely classified as a vegetarian diet. Personal preferences, religious beliefs, aversions and convictions have led to the emergence of specific vegetarian diets which include:
• The vegan diet – The most restrictive form of a vegetarian diet includes avoiding all meats and animal products including milk in all forms and eggs. Many vegans do not have honey also. Their diet includes only fruits and vegetables and soy products.
• Lacto-vegetarians – A large section of vegetarians fall in this category, whose diet includes vegetables, fruits, beans and nuts as well as dairy products. They abstain from having meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
• Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – This category of vegetarians excludes meat, poultry, fish but have eggs and dairy products besides vegetarian foods.
• Pesco-vegetarians – these people avoid meats and poultry, but eat fish, eggs, dairy products and vegetables etc.
• Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian diet – this is the most flexible diet since it permits certain types of meats, once or twice a week, supplemented by all vegetarian foods. This makes the diet less limiting and healthier since it provides the benefits of both.
People following each of the above mentioned diets strongly believe in the benefits of the diet they follow. For them it is a lifestyle reinforced by strong beliefs in avoiding cruelty to other living beings who have as much a right to live as human beings-the motto being, live, and let live. Most vegetarians in the US and Canada have been motivated by a desire for self improvement, to lead a longer, healthier life.
Vegetarian food facts
Vegetarianism is viewed mainly in a positive light around the world, and in many countries gets legal and cultural support due to its link to religious beliefs and practices, in countries like India and the UK. The dictates of religion in India, had kept a larger proportion of the country’s population, vegetarian, for centuries. In such countries, being vegetarian is not limiting in any way since ample non meat food options are available due to greater demand for the same.
Most non-vegetarians wrinkle their nose at the prospect of having a vegetarian meal. Beans and leaves are the least appetizing for them and equivalent to not eating at all. Perhaps they do not realize the health and overall benefits of a plant rich diet, and the ill effects of consuming high-fat animal protein and meats.
Some vital facts about vegetarian diets:
• According to the American Heart Association, vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, hypertension and coronary heart disease. This is because their diet is low in saturated fat, high in fiber and easier to digest. Food of plant origin is generally devoid of the ‘bad’ cholesterol.
• They are also at a lower risk of certain types of cancer especially those linked to the digestive system, colo-rectal cancer in particular. This can be attributed to the high level of cancer-protecting phyto-chemicals in vegetarian food.
• Vegetarian diets are a rich source of iron and B-vitamins essential for the body, besides phyto-chemical nutrients that facilitate the functioning of every organ of the body and prevent degenerative diseases.
• Fruits and vegetables contain Vitamins C and E, and cartenoids. All these act as anti-oxidants that protect the body cells from free radicals capable of destroying them.
• The fiber content of whole grains, legumes, beans and fruits improves digestion and prevents diseases like diabetes and other illnesses.
• Vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories since the volume of fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts compared to their equivalent of meat, has a lower calorie count.
• Bacteria and harmful chemicals like pesticides are easier to remove from plant produce than meats.
• Plant based diets are better for the planet as well, according to environmentalists.
• Vegetarians have better overall health and quality of life than non vegetarians.
• According to one of the latest research reports, vegetarians are 12% less likely to die of any cause than non vegetarians.
• Vegetarian meals cause less eating disorders than meat based meals.
Is vegetarianism just a fad?
Vegetarianism has been practiced for far too long to be just a fad, though it cannot be denied that it is becoming increasingly fashionable to be a vegetarian. From the earliest time in history, there have been advocates of vegetarianism who used religious, moral and spiritual arguments to woo the meat eating crowd in an attempt to convert them to a diet including the produce of the earth than live beings walking, swimming or flying. The 19th century, and scientific research started popularizing vegetarian diet as being more healthy but till late in the 20th century, vegetarians were a small sect, surviving on the fringe of society and not part of the main stream, except in countries like India, where religion dictated lifestyles and eating habits.
Like so many new ‘diets’ being touted as the best for weight loss, heart health, fitness etc, vegetarianism has also been tried initially as perhaps a fad, but the feeling of well being it brings, has converted non vegetarians into vegetarians.
It is in keeping with ‘being cool’ and ‘going green’, but with no harm done, it may be the best route to good health. It may be a fad, but will last out longer than any other, and one that is going to spread across borders, even in places where vegetarian options are limited.
The vegetarianism fallacy
Meat lovers and hard core non-vegetarians have long criticized vegetarianism on various counts. And this is not entirely without reason. Since any food devoid of meat qualifies as vegetarian, a section of people feel eating a bowl of French fries, onion rings, fried dumplings, fritters and other oil-rich foods are healthy too. Just keeping meat out a nutrient-empty diet does not make it healthy. It has to have the requisite nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals to qualify as healthy.
It is not entirely true that all vegetarians have lower cholesterol. Vegetarians thriving on heavy fried foods, potatoes and fat rich sweets and savories, are bound to have obesity problems along with cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes and coronary heart disease. India, with a vast vegetarian population, is a typical example.
Vegetarianism has been defined as lifestyle that involves balance, moderation and a conscious effort to balance daily nutrition with the produce of the earth.
Where vegetarianism falls short
There have been concerns about vegetarian diets providing the entire basket of nutrients needed by the human body. The question is about optimal calcium levels which come from milk, and therefore vegans would lose out unless they take calcium supplements.
Meats are a rich source of protein which vegetarians can get from beans, lentils and nuts. Minerals like iron are found in green leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, prunes and nuts. The deficiency of Vitamin B-12 needs to be addressed with supplements by vegans though other vegetarians get this vitamin from milk and eggs.
A good vegetarian diet
A balanced nutritive vegetarian diet should include, whole grains and cereal, beans and lentils, fruits and nuts, rice, wheat and vegetables. Ovo-vegetarians would have the nutritional benefits of eggs, and lacto-ovo-vegetarians gain from the wholesome goodness of milk and milk products like yoghurt, cheese etc. Vegans can substitute milk with soy milk and other soy products and get wholesome, balanced nutrition.
Vegetarianism in Myanmar
It is not difficult being a vegetarian in Myanmar with its rich variety of agricultural produce, including fresh fruits and vegetables, numerous varieties of beans and pulses, soy and dairy products. In fact, most salads and soups in Myanmar cuisine can be adapted to a vegetarian palette and supplemented with stir fries that are completely vegetarian if fish sauce and shrimp paste are avoided. The distinct Indian influence in the country ensures plenty of potato based snacks and curries. Every restaurant has vegetarian options, called “the-taa-lo”. Shaan noodles, tofu curry, vegetable fried rice, dosa, vegetable biryani and vegetable hotpot are some of the safe meal options that are easy to find.

The case for vegetarianism grows stronger with every passing day. Science and the environment all favor this diet path. For those looking for role models find philosophers like Plato and Nietzche, political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Benjamin Franklin, and pop icons like Paul McCartney and Bob Marley, propagating the diets they followed throughout their lives. Turning vegetarian may become a turning point in your lives too.

Carbohydrates and the Battle of the Bulge

The battle of the bulge begins when weighing scales continuously reveal ascending readings, and there is a perennial rightward swing of the needle even as clothes get tighter. The verdict in tests and medical diagnosis is ‘overweight’. The list of reasons for this predicament is long, and the cause – a distinct love for food; and the remedy, difficult and unappealing.

It doesn’t help to be living in an era when being slim and thin is considered aesthetically appealing, and healthier too. Thus begins the search for treatments, therapies and weight loss techniques, which might help in reducing the bulge, painlessly and without intrusive treatments.

Going on a ‘diet’ is the easiest, and there is no dearth of ‘diets’ that promise quick weight loss, and amazing results of a slimmer, thinner you, in a matter of weeks. These dietary plans create a radical shift in consumption patterns and do not necessarily mean cutting intake of food drastically. They all push for a plan to eat right, limiting certain foods, cutting out some and increasing intake of nutritional ones. Thus, there is the Atkins diet, Ketogenic, Paleo, Dukan, Stillman, Hollywood diets and so on. Each tries to incorporate food combinations that have worked well for hundreds in their weight loss endeavors, and an equal number that have found no difference.

The diet battle has, of late been increasingly ending up at the doorstep of carbohydrates, with proponents professing the weight loss impact of a diet that has low or no carbohydrates. The “low carb” diet, as it is popularly called, limits the intake of carbohydrates and prescribes an increased consumption of protein-rich and fatty foods. This helps in reducing the production of insulin in the body and the use of the body’s reserves of fat and protein for energy.

Carbs typically form 40-60% of a normal diet. A diet that has less than 20% calories coming from carbs would be considered low-carb, and supposedly helpful in weight loss.

As in the case of all diets, the weight loss claims are disputed, with the added blame of whether such diets are healthy. While all dieticians concede that there is weight loss in the short term, the long term implications give reason for concern.

Carbs The Well of Energy

In Scientific terms, carbs are a group of organic compounds produced by plants, and include starches, sugars and cellulose. Carbs are the source of energy for the human body. They are converted into glucose by the digestive system. Carbs can be simple, as those found in natural products like milk, vegetables and fruits; or complex, as those found in whole grain cereals, bread and starchy vegetables, with a high fiber content as well.

Carbs provide energy to muscles and prevent protein being used as the energy source. The nervous system gets its fuel from carbs, and lesser amount of carbs can result in dizziness and weakness.  They also facilitate the fat metabolism.

The ample availability of processed foods that are also fattening, have become the preferred source of carbs. However, the best source of energy is the carbs that also provide nutrients like fiber, vitamins and antioxidants-these can be found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruits. Refined grains and added sugars need to be avoided as ‘bad’ carbs.

Optimum Carb intake

The ideal daily intake of carbs varies from person to person depending on his metabolism and lifestyle. However, as the main energy source, carbs must form a bigger percentage of the total intake of food.

The Institute of Medicine in the U.S., recommends at least 130 carbs per day forming 45-65% of the total calorie intake. Variations have to be made depending on occupation and lifestyle, as people with sedentary lifestyles can consume less while athletes need to be on high carb diets.

Carbs and weight connection

The prevalent myth that carbs lead to weight gain, is not correct. It is only the ‘bad’ carbs coming from processed foods and refined grains with a high glycemic index, that cause weight gain, while whole grains and natural foods, fruits and vegetables do not. The non nutritive carbs come from white flour, white rice, refined sugar and highly processed foods that have no nutritive value left in them. It is these that add to the total calorie intake and lead to weight gain.

The spread of obesity as almost an epidemic and disturbing statistics revealing the forecasted population percentages heading towards obesity, has caused panic more due to the risk to health and the ability to lead a normal, disease free life. As dieticians and medical professionals have become more vocal about the need for weight loss, awareness about being overweight has increased tremendously. Most people try to lose weight on their own first, by cutting down on fatty foods and following the latest fad. As of now the low carb diet is a craze.

Low carb diets

The most famous low carb diet is the Atkins diet, developed by a well-known cardiologist Dr. Robert C. Atkins. He limited his patients’ intake of carbohydrates and sugar, so that fat is burned used for energy, to fuel physical activities. This reduces the craving for food and appetite levels also come down.

The popularity of such diets can be attributed to scientific studies indicating that weight gain occurs due to increased intake of carbohydrates. A 2012 study revealed that people who consumed low carb meals, burned 300 calories even while resting! Such effortless burning of calories would be the most envious weight loss program.! These claims have been verified in numerous studies conducted over a period of time, and it is only because the results have been confirmed that the diets continue to be tried and used to shed pounds and become slimmer and healthier.

Various low carb diets are being followed across the globe, all of which typically limit the intake of carbs to less than 20% of the total calorie intake, while increasing the intake of protein and fats. It is easy to limit sugar intakes, but impossible to cut carbs completely out of the human diet, and not advisable either, since they remain the main energy source.

The biggest advantage of flowing such a diet, is that people attempt to cut out refined and processed foods and resort to healthier eating habits. Thus, the ‘bad’ carbs are replaced by wholesome, nourishing foods.

This diet also helps to curb the desire to eat. Wanting to eat less, and decrease in appetite naturally translates in to favorable weight management. Insulin levels come down due to restrictions on carbs. This also helps improve metabolism, and initially all the water weight in the body drops. A decline in weight after this, gives the biggest impetus to continue on the low carb track.

Carbs are not so bad

All carbs are not bad and they are extremely healthy if the processed and refined ones can be avoided. The good carbs with a low glycemic index, coming from whole grains, unrefined foods, legumes, fruits and vegetables, hold the secret to good health, free from diseases and each system in the body working well. Good carbs keep the nervous system healthy and the brain functioning perfectly even in old age, the digestive system gets the much needed fiber, keeping diseases of the digestive tract at bay, muscles and limbs remain active without any sign of weakness, and the skin remain younger looking without wrinkles.

Thus the stigma of weight gain needs to be attached to the craze of eating refined, processed foods, that form the bad carb segment. These have a high glycemic index, low or no nutritive value and also lead to various deficiencies. Additionally, the increase in weight is partly due to the body’s inability to metabolize these carbs and not the carbs themselves. It becomes important then, to find ways of improving the body’s metabolism.

The Ideal Diet

The best diet that will keep deficiencies and disease away while prolonging a healthy life must include the following as part of daily meals:

·       Organic whole grains

·       Fresh fruits and vegetables

·       Beans, pulses, legumes

·       Dairy products like milk, yoghurt, cheese

·       Nuts and seeds

The battle of the bulge will continue for all those who love food and whose intake of calories is more than the calories they burn. It is wrong to blame just carbohydrates for this, when it is a wrong diet, wrong timing, and incorrect lifestyle that need to shoulder the blame. A healthy balanced diet with a balance of carbohydrates (40-45%), proteins and fats (30-35% each) which includes fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, whole grains and unrefined foods, combined with exercise and adequate sleep, can fight the weight battle successfully.




Carbs to avoid

The following broad categories of foods must be kept away:

·       Instant foods and instant grains

·       Refined flour and sugar

·       White rice

·       Processed snacks

·       White potatoes

·       Sweetened fruit juices

·       Baked desserts

·       Fast foods

·       Aerated drinks


Of Familiar Fast Food Chains And Local Culture

Change has become the only constant in Myanmar. From a country that barely witnessed change a decade ago, to have become a rapidly transforming and growing economy, Myanmar stands for optimism and hope, development and advancement…all the positives that appear once the need for embracing change is felt. The air is rife with optimism and enthusiasm, even as the local populace waits expectantly for the next set of newbies to appear.

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