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.

The Plastic Menace – Aspiring for a Plastic Free Home

From the first object we pick up on opening our eyes every morning, to the last button we switch off at night, plastic is the material we touch and see all around us. Plastic as a material, has become an addiction. Yet there is increasing focus on the plastic menace, and the threat to life on planet earth.

It is not unusual for man to create things that eventually end up threatening his own survival. Starting out as a convenient, safe, easy to use, unbreakable though totally malleable, durable material, plastic was the big invention of the 19th century. A chemical compound, plastic is a polymeric material that can be shaped and molded by applying heat into myriad shapes and products, that are lightweight and yet not easy to break. Its plasticity apart, plastic is tough and transparent, with low density and low electric conductivity. Its usability extends from bags and bottles to machine parts, equipment and even textiles.

In simple terms plastics are chains of light molecules linked together. These chains are termed polymers, and come in forms like polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and so on. Easy to manufacture at low costs, they are waterproof and not easily breakable, even being resistant to corrosion and chemicals.

The Plastic story – how it all began

The very first known plastics come from nature, in the form of rubber, which has all the properties that plastic is known for. Plastic is derived from natural materials like oil, natural gas, coal, plants and minerals. The first synthetic plastics ever made, though, were made from cellulose, a material found in trees and plants. When heated and mixed with certain chemicals, cellulose yielded a highly durable material that could be put to numerous uses. It was also easy to make plastic out of hydrocarbons, found in oil, natural gas and coal.

The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907, and made without using any natural raw material, it was called bakelite. The onset of World War II saw plastic being used to make lightweight airplane parts and nylon parachutes. It facilitated preserving scarce natural resources, and plastic being easy to mass produce, became the preferred raw material whose production increased by 300%. Plastic became the winning material across the globe, replacing steel in cars, for lighter parts in machines and airplanes, wood for furniture and glass and paper for packaging.

Plastic is cheap, and from its earliest days, it was used to make things that we did not wish to keep for long. Soon it got the prefix, ‘disposable’, meaning use and throw. Thus, it helped overcome the limitations of glass, iron and wood, and helped revolutionize the medical sector. It helped save fuel costs as machines and aircrafts became lighter, preserve the freshness of food by providing a fine transparent wrap to over, create toys for children, film rolls and prints, help transport drinking water to remote corners of the earth, and spare wildlife that was poached for ivory and tortoise shells.

From boon to menace

Plastic was created for a good cause, a substitute for scarce natural resources, to facilitate life and activity, not disrupt and threaten it. It was a boon that should have stayed within limits, but its production was unstoppable and usage far beyond the need.

As plastic surrounded us in every possible shape and form, it gradually came to be perceived as a cheap, inferior material of poor quality. Its mass production also meant that its waste began to pile up and it first cropped up as an environmental issue in the 1960s when the first plastic waste was found in oceans.

Plastic seems so easy to dispose of, takes less space, and is lightweight. But the abundance of plastic has made its waste also reach alarming proportions. It is non-biodegradable and will last forever in the environment (it takes 500 years for plastic to degenerate), and will keep increasing, since very little can be recycled, most of it being single use plastic. The additives that go into making plastic are harmful for all life, and the toxic chemicals leeched out of plastic end up in the human blood stream and body tissue, causing disease.

The plastic bag touted as the big find of the 1970s, has become the biggest menace, with 1 trillion bags produced annually, and almost a million bags used per minute. The convenience of carrying disposable water bottles, Styrofoam cups, glasses and straws, have only added to the colossal plastic piles. We carelessly throw such bottles etc, little realizing how its adding up – some 15000 water bottles are discarded into bins every minute globally. This accumulation of plastic products that float in streams, cover vast areas of land, end up adversely affecting life and habitats on the planet and has come to be called plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution has impacted 40% of existing marine species. According to the National Geographic magazine, nearly 9 million tons of plastic flows into oceans annually from the coastal regions. In urban areas, overflowing drains clogged with plastic, heaps of garbage in which plastic is conspicuous, have become sights we have grown to ignore, little realizing our own contribution to the mess. Landfills are seen on the outskirts of cities, beaches have corners where the piles seem to be constantly rising, and sometimes when the tide rises higher, it sweeps away some of the plastic into the ocean, which then mistaken for food, gets consumed by marine creatures, causing them a painful death when their digestive tract gets blocked.

The growth of plastic in all forms has far outstripped the ability of the waste management industry to dispose it of, without harming the environment. This is particularly true in the rapidly growing Asian countries where waste management and awareness about problems posed by plastic is in its nascent stages and largely ignored.

Myanmar is also seeing increasing levels of plastic pollution, where an estimated 200 tons of waste enters waterways everyday. Attempts are being made by grassroots organizations to educate the people about minimizing plastic waste, and help people make small changes that will have a beneficiary long term impact.

The way forward – start small, keep plastic free homes

Plastic is here to stay, more for its practical uses, and for making things easier. Using it responsibly, is in our hands though. If bio-degrading solutions could be found, plastic would become similar to the organic waste, and focusing on recyclable plastic would help in limiting waste quantities, and prevent it from reaching oceans and water bodies, threatening marine life and even polluting the food chain.

Only 18% of plastic is recycled, and plastic bottles remain the most used. Recycling reduces the need for producing more quantities of plastic and the existing plastic gets used rather than going in to landfills and waterbodies. The first recycling mill accepted residential plastic in 1972, and since then plastics have been segregated and sent to such mills that are now seen in every part of the world. Ideally, the waste at one stage must become a resource for the next.

The toughest issue is finding alternate solutions to plastic. Till then, we can take a few small steps, by not buying more plastic, what is discarded must not be replaced with more plastic, and make conscious changes in our daily life, what we buy, how we use and how we throw. We must stop accepting plastic bags from super markets, instead carry our own reusable bags, made of paper or cloth; replace all our plastic containers with those of glass or steel, never get take-away single use plastic boxes, minimize the use of cling film and Ziploc bags, avoid microwaveable plastics, and use only glass bottles for water and for storing other things. A plastic free kitchen would actually be a dream, but one cannot change the plastic used to make some of the gadgets we use. It will also help if we buy natural, locally produced unpackaged soaps, buy shampoos in glass bottles and oil in tin containers. With none of these to throw, our trash cans will be lighter too.

We need to change our mindset towards plastic. In Myanmar, as early as 2013, it was heartening to see the famed Sharky’s Restaurant and Deli, pack foodstuff in carry bags made out of newspaper. Retailers are trying to do their bit to reduce the plastic bag menace. It is estimated that an average of 4 plastic bags per person per day get used in Myanmar. Citimart, the leading supermarket, marks the last day of the month as ‘no plastic bags day’. It is heartening to see some carry their own reusable bags to bring back their purchases. Paper bags are a good substitute but has its flipside too. While paper takes resources and time to generate, plastic takes a longer time to degenerate!

Plastic must not flood our planet and leave little place for living beings, and this needs every individual’s contribution.

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.

Myanmar’s Golden Pearls

A string of lustrous golden beads, perfect rounds that glisten and glitter, has become one of the most eye-catching pieces of jewelry today. It outshines pure gold necklaces, with the grace it adds complementing all types of attire for every occasion. The golden pearl once extremely rare, is now being increasingly cultivated in countries like Australia, Indonesia and our very own Myanmar.

The golden pearl is the newest addition to Myanmar’s vast repertoire of gems from rubies and sapphires to spinel and amethyst. Myanmar’s cultured South Sea golden pearls became popular after a single pearl was sold for USD 30,000 at a private auction in Hong Kong. Though Myanmar had been participating in international auctions and sales since the early 2000s, the first decade did not include high quality pearls, and were sold at lower prices. Gradually, the quality of pearls being cultured has improved phenomenally, and now Myanmar’s golden pearls participate every year in the Hong Kong jewelry show, besides local shows that attract international buyers.

Pearls – Natural and Cultured        

The pearl is one gemstone that is appropriate for every occasion, never ostentatious, always understated in elegance, at once adding grace and charm. From Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton, pearl strands adorn the neck of millions of women, at the work place and beyond.

Pearls are known by numerous names, as the queen of gems, the gem of the moon, drops from heaven and so on. White pearls have an astrological significance and are believed to bring peace to the wearer. The quality, value and beauty of pearls is determined by the color, luster, size, shape, nacre and surface. Pearls are sold in ‘parcels’ made by sorting similar pearls and vary in value accordingly.

The most common are white pearls, but increasingly now, pink, grey, golden, black and various other colored pearls have flooded the market. Natural or cultured, real pearls from saltwater or freshwater come in wide ranging price levels, from USD 50 – 50,000 and more.

Pearls are the only gemstone that can be called organic, produced by a living creature. They come in various shapes and sizes, different shades and lusters. The best pearls undoubtedly are the natural pearls, which are made up of nacre, right till their innermost core. The pearl is completely made of calcium carbonate. These are also the most expensive and scarce, since only one in 10,000 wild oysters yields a pearl, which again is seldom of the shape, size and color needed for it to qualify as a piece of jewelry. Natural pearls coming out of wild oysters are difficult to find since these pearl producing oysters were hunted decades ago, to near extinction.

Pearls are naturally formed in the shell of an oyster, when any irritant enters a mollusk. The oyster, in self defence secretes a substance called nacre, over the irritant. Layer after layer of nacre leads to the formation of the pearl. Pearls are now cultured and formed due to human intervention. Trained technicians (the Japanese being the best, with an 80% success rate, seeding 600 oysters a day) insert an irritant, a mother-of-pearl bead, or nucleus into the oyster, along with a small piece of mantle tissue. The mantle tissue is a piece of lining of the mollusk that will prevent injury by surrounding and protecting living creature in the shell. The tissue also contains the cells that induce production of nacre which will eventually cover the bead. It takes 4-6 years to harvest a pearl, and the same oyster can be seeded 2-3 times in its lifetime, before being left in wild waters, free from captivity.

The demand and beauty of the pearl has made it into a flourishing industry and human intervention into the natural process has helped to increase production of pearls, though these are cultured pearls.  Cultured pearls can Akoya, South Sea or Tahiti. Akoya pearls are cultivated mainly in large pearl farms in Japan and China, are white, cream or grey in color, and grow to a size of 2mm-10mm, over a period ranging from 8 months to 2 years.

The tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean around countries including Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Myanmar, are ideal for cultivating the fine, larger South Sea pearls. These have a thicker coating of nacre and grow to a size of 10-15mm in shades of white, cream and yellow (this is the famed golden pearl).

Black Tahiti pearls are cultivated in French Polynesia, in a group of 5 island archipelagoes. While called black, they are in various shades of dark grey, with blue, green, violet and other color tones.

Freshwater pearls are found all over the world, but particularly in the US, Japan and China, in streams, rivers and lakes. The typical size of these pearls ranges from 4mm to 10mm. Freshwater pearls are different due to their thicker nacre, different shapes and colors, and take 2-6 years to be fully formed. Freshwater mussels interestingly, can produce more than one pearl at a time, unlike their saltwater counterparts.

Myanmar’s Own Golden Pearls

Myanmar’s golden pearls come with a unique pinkish, apricot hue, a thicker layer of nacre and large size, and are widely perceived as the best in the world.

Myanmar produced a total of 687,000 pearls in 2017-18, showing a 10% increase in number in three years. Pearls are sold loose in lots or parcels, and also as finished ornaments. The pearl industry is managed by the Myanmar Pearls Enterprise (MPE) that comes under the aegis of the Ministry of Mines. It is responsible for the sale of pearls through auctions and exhibitions, and participation in jewelry exhibitions in Hong Kong and other places., where they fetch high prices due to their quality. The industry is regulated and valued at over USD 100 million, even though it pales in comparison to the richer jade, ruby and other gems’ industries worth billions.

Golden pearls being in the limelight is a very recent phenomenon. While being famous in the 1800s for their natural golden hues collected by the nomadic locals called sea gypsies, pearl production fell for a few decades, before being revived again. Today, there are 9 domestic and international pearl culture companies, including a state-owned one, which together invested around one billion kyat to resume pearl cultivation. The Myanmar Pearl Law has also recently been amended to permit foreign direct investment. Within the country, the golden pearls can be purchased at various retail outlets in Yangon and Mandalay. The retail sector is flourishing, though it is not unusual to find dyed pearls to get better prices. The dyeing process does not indicate poor quality, but does differ from original shades of even cultured pearls.

Myanmar is one of the few countries whose pristine clean waters around the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago are the ideal cultivating place for South Sea pearls. Both white and golden pearls are produced by local water inhabitants, the Pinctada maxima oyster. The gold lipped oysters produce the golden colored pearls while the silver lipped ones produce white and silver pearls. Generally, a clean local environment produces the best quality pearls. It is therefore imperative to preserve this clean domain, despite the promotion of tourism in the area, while finding other ways to enhance and maintain the golden pearl quality.

Pearl cultivation in the Myeik Archipelago has been revived with the help of companies and expertise from Japan and Australia. Pinctada maxima oysters, both male and female are placed in water tanks, and the fertilization process takes place only between January and May.  Collector ropes are also placed in the water, to which the larvae get attached. These ropes are then left in an area of the ocean that’s been cordoned off from ships and fishermen. It takes two years for the oysters to grow sufficiently to be seeded. Japanese technicians have now trained Myanmar locals in seeding techniques ensuring similar success rates. The seeding process needs precision and speed, to open the shell to place a nucleus without injuring the living being inside. The oysters are then released back into the waters. It takes four years for the pearls to be ready for harvest. After four years, the golden pearls are cautiously removed by opening the shells again, and another nucleus implanted. In its lifetime, this process can be repeated at least three times for every oyster.

Golden pearls are among the rarest of pearls, and also amongst the largest in size, going up to 12-14 mm in diameter. The shades range from bright golden akin to 24 carat gold, to a soft champagne hue, which is lighter but no less regal. Myanmar is the ideal cultivation ground to reap a rich harvest of these golden beads, which will yield the much needed revenue to aid economic growth and development in the country.

 

 

 

 

 

Yangon-A Place to Learn Meditation

Living in Myanmar is a different experience. The whole country is quieter, calmer than the rest of bustling Asia, beautifully, naturally green, with an unparalleled aura of peace. This is seen even in its biggest cities like Yangon and Mandalay, which have all the features of buzzing commercial centers, and yet have a soothing effect. It’s the tranquil air that touches deep, and most who experience it, opt to stay on. A far cry from lives many of us have left behind, to set up homes in Yangon, we now shun the noise, frenzy, stress and rush that is a part of daily lives in places not far from here. Many of us have turned to Buddhist meditative practices, and now understand how little we need to survive, and while we have not yet renounced material belongings, the craving for more, has dissipated.

The peaceful ambience has to be witnessed and experienced in person, to comprehend what it means to have a calm existence, without any rush or frenzy, without noise and pollution, without panic and chaos of multitasking which at best, yields half-baked solutions to multiple issues. The people also appear so calm and gentle by nature, there are no loud haranguing voices, no shouts and fights, only soft sounds of conversations even in cafes and tea shops. This can be attributed to their Buddhist beliefs, with 90% of the population following Buddhism. Meditation is a way of life, an essential that they turn to, frequently, and most people try to take a few days off annually, for mediation retreats in monasteries in some part of the country.

Myanmar’s association with Buddhism and meditation is centuries old, actively supported by royalty down the ages, and meditative practices were passed on from masters to disciples, generation after generation, and never getting lost. The Vipassana technique of mediation, though originated in India, continued only in Myanmar in its pristine form, while getting lost for centuries where it started. Today, mediation in various forms is spreading all over the world, and many of those carrying this torch have taken their first steps on this path, in Myanmar.

Yangon then, is the ideal, perfect place to learn meditation, with its numerous meditation centers offering comfortable though basic living facilities, and these too, free of cost. Any donation made to compensate for expenses is highly appreciated but remains optional. It is only if one goes for a mediation course that combines yoga, nature walks and meditation and is organized by travel agencies, that one has to pay, depending on the duration and quality of living quarters.

What is Meditation all about

There is always an urge to improve as human beings, meaning that we would like to get rid of our bad habits, vices, negative thinking patterns, and develop a pure mind, far removed from venomous thoughts, ill-feeling towards others, and never wanting to hurt or harm anyone by our words and actions. This is possible only if we develop a razor-sharp mind that stops us before we make a wrong move or utter hurtful words, develop empathy and move towards a high level of purity that touches the core of our being. Meditation is the only way to self-purification.

Asian cultures have inculcated a need for spiritual elevation as one gets on in age. However, in recent years, the spiritual journey for many, begins once they cross twenty and seek a meaning and purpose in life, beyond the material and the mundane. All the meditation centers have a significant number of disciples in their twenties, and some even conduct special courses for teenagers.

Our lives that focus on the physical and material cause only pain, misery, jealousy, craving and aversion. Spirituality and its pursuit lifts us above these. Meditation is the route to freedom from all misery-causing factors, like the ego, which is often the root cause of all negative sensations and aversions in our body. Forgetting the “I” and overcoming self-importance is the only way we can reach the stage of non-self. In the present age, self has become most important and all our actions are about self-gratification, the rest of the world ceases to matter.

Mediation helps us make our mind calm and through introspection, looking inwards rather than outwards, we achieve peace. It involves different ways and methods, though the end goal is the same, achieving peace and rising above misery. One can focus on an object, a part of the body, an action like walking, but all the time, being mindful. One practices moment to moment awareness of the physical and mental state, observing every sensation that arises and passes away. This helps us understand how impermanent everything is, every feeling that comes, goes away, whatever begins will come to an end. We observe and we understand, and eventually imbibe this well enough to apply this truth to every aspect of our daily life.

Meditation need not stretch for 24 hours, day after day. It has to be learnt, and then practiced, preferably daily, whenever one can spare the time. It does require quiet surroundings to facilitate concentration, at least initially, till one has reached such an advanced stage that noise and surroundings no longer distract.

Meditation Centers in Yangon

There is always a long waiting list of prospective students of meditation, both local and international. Before enrolling at any center, it is important to know the precise meditative practices taught and practiced at each of these, and see which one we resonate with. Some teaching walking and sitting meditation, both being an exercise in mindfulness.

All the centers have comfortable living quarters, separate for men and women, provide simple, nutritious food, and basic facilities to accommodate new and old students. The rooms do not have any phones and it is generally recommended to not carry laptops, smart phones, books or reading material. Communication with the outside is possible through the office which has international calling facilities, fax machines etc. Doctors are available for medical emergencies.

Most centers teach Vipassana using the Mahasi Sayadaw method. Dhamma Joti Vipassana center was set up by S N Goenka and follows the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin. In most centers it is possible to receive instructions in English as well. Every year, thousands of international and local students of all age groups enroll for courses in these centers. The daily practice begins at dawn though timings of different centers vary, and continue till nearly 10 pm, with breaks for food and rest. There is time for individual mediation and group sittings, and teachers are available for improving the meditation technique and resolve doubt. For the few days spent in these centers, living is confined to one’s own physical frame, where one focusses on mindful actions of oneself, and not interact with others at all. Even eye contact is avoided.

Students are expected to adhere to the rules and regulations of the center, follow the eight precepts, practice noble silence, and eat twice a day, abstaining from eating after noon time. Beverages are offered in the evening. This gives us a sense of how little we need to survive, and how wasteful our lifestyle is, in the outside world. This may appear tough as an outsider, but once we step in, the purpose spurs us on, and the focus is on learning alone.

Some of the mediation centers in Yangon are listed below:

  • Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center
  • Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center
  • Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Mediation Center
  • Panditarama Meditation Center
  • Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Yeiktha
  • International Theravada Buddhist University

For those wanting complete solitude away from the city, can opt for the few forest retreats in Myanmar, like the Pak Auk Forest Monastery in Mon State, and the Panditarama Forest Monastery not far from Yangon.

 

Is Yangon Sliding Under Urbanization Pressure?

Yangon’s crowds are growing and the numbers on the roads are increasing, be it vehicles or people. IS Yangon overcrowded? Yes, very much. Parks are packed with people taking a break, the sidewalks with pedestrians, and the roads with more vehicles than Yangon has ever seen before. All this is in stark contrast to the Yangon we saw in 2013, when its seemed the most refreshing place to live in, a very green, quiet and serene city with an aura of peace that permeated the inner most core of our being, a few cars, a few people, and there was sufficient room for all. Anywhere I went, there were vast open spaces, quiet corners and empty roads. Fast forward to 2018, one look at Yangon now, and this would seem like a fairy tale.

Yangon today looks like any other big Asian city, with its traffic jams, congestion, pockets of densely populated areas, emerging slums, crowded streets and people spilling everywhere. The once neat and clean city, is often seen with littered sidewalks, broken pavements and everything one sees in a place that cannot take the load of the number of people occupying it.

The transformation can be attributed to a series of factors linked to economic development, which brings with it, urbanization, industrialization and modernization.  Migration from rural to urban areas is one of the first phenomena ones sees.

What Yangon stands for

Yangon’s pristine aura of peace, enigmatic charm, unparalleled scenic beauty, colonial heritage and elusive old-world charm, has made it a top tourist destination and the most popular city for the people of Myanmar. As the country’s biggest urban center, Yangon has charmed one and all. Once the center of art and education, Yangon has been changing and evolving, for better and worse. Today, it is a city that is ready to burst at its seams, stretched to provide basic amenities and subsistence to a rapidly growing population. It is rapidly emerging as a cosmopolitan, commercial hub, providing jobs, homes and livelihood to locals and expatriates alike. Yangon is the country’s commercial capital, with the best quality of life, and the first stop for everyone entering the country.

Yangon being the largest city, has 8% of the country’s total population, the number of people being four times more than those living in Mandalay. This accounts for nearly 52% of the country’s total urban population. The current population growth rate of 3.4% per annum, will take the city to the 10 million mark by 2030.

For Myanmar folk, it is the land of opportunity where the best of education, job opportunities and healthcare facilities are available. Yangon accounts for 50% of the country’s industrial capacity, is the largest financial and commercial center, the seat of education, art, culture, healthcare, tourism, research and development.

Yangon’s character has changed with bridges and flyover, vertical high rise structures rising alongside pagodas, housing sector expanding, shopping malls and multiplexes mushrooming all over the city.

Urbanization and the migrant influx

Urbanization in Myanmar has been pushed due to challenges faced in rural areas. With employable population increasing, earning money has become difficult, since there is lack of sufficient land to employ everyone, old farming techniques still being used, threat of natural disasters and difficulty to overcome past disasters, and lack of work opportunities beyond agriculture. The urban pull emanates from better job opportunities in various fields and higher minimum wages. Evidence shows that urbanization peaks when city wages exceed rural earnings, and revenue from natural resources becomes stagnant with limited potential for growth.

Myanmar’s urbanization process has radically changed two big cities, Yangon and Mandalay, and urban population accounts for 34.65% (2016) of the total. Over 50% of the 11,000 registered firms in Myanmar, are Yangon based. Industrialization which incorporates manufacturing and services, is a big driver of urbanization and this holds true for Yangon. As a result, migrants from all parts of Myanmar come to Yangon looking for jobs and earning options.

Theoretically, urban hubs are the perfect meeting place for talent and opportunity, but lack of a qualified, educated and skilled work force, is an issue. Consequently, jobs which do not require high skill levels are easier to find. Often such jobs do not pay well enough to provide subsistence to families, despite the fact that government-stipulated minimum wages are paid. The result is, search for cheaper accommodation, the growth of slums, and squatters seen in all parts of the city.

Slums are informal, temporary, non-pucca hutments or shanties that crop up in clusters, wherever there is free space, generally on the fringes of cities. Unofficial figures indicate that a quarter of Yangon’s population lives in slums that have cropped up in suburbs. An influx of tenants leads to an escalation of rents in the city areas, and pushes the poorer section further away towards the outer parts. Most slums are overcrowded, unhygienic with limited access to clean water and adequate sanitation facilities. Housing space per family is generally less than 200 square ft, the construction type being wooden frames with leaf roofing, temporary and vulnerable to the elements. Hlaing Thar Yar township has the highest number of slum dwellers, most of whom have migrated from the Ayerwaddy Division.

Myanmar is one country whose urban poor are worse off than the rural poor. This is because urban living requires cash for everything and nothing comes free. In rural areas, there are no payments needed for a lot of things that come free, there is exchange and barter, and very few people sleep hungry in villages. The same does not hold true for Yangon’s squatters. Their living conditions are in sharp contrast to the middle and upper classes, and the contrast between the haves and have-nots, is the ideal breeding ground for petty thefts and crimes. The opening up of the country, the influx of foreign goods and capital, the emergence of shopping malls and entertainment areas, has evoked interest from the once content and complacent population. There is a desire to acquire the latest in fashion goods, devices and gadgets, and get a taste of all that Yangon offers. Those opting for shortcuts would resort to dishonest ways of getting these.

How Urbanization impacts developing countries

Developing nations surge ahead on the basis of manpower that drives industrialization. There is a redistribution of population, an exodus from villages towards cities, in search of better job opportunities. Urbanization involves rural flight and expansion of urban areas, and it is almost always, driven by economic factors, since earning potential in urban areas is much higher than rural areas. Agriculture is the primary source of employment in villages in most developing countries where governments have not been able to set up small scale or cottage industries that tap local resources and add value to raw materials.

Urbanization is an essential step for all nations on the path of development. Urban areas are the ubiquitous centers of education, talent, training, capability, experience and expertise-all prerequisites for industrial growth, which will lead the country towards self-sufficiency, increase productivity, generate employment, raise standards of living, increase per capita incomes, savings and investments. Thus it leads social and economic transformation of societies, improving quality at micro and macro levels.

Nearly 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas today, a far cry from 1800 A.D., when urban population was just 2%. By 2050, the United Nations expects two-thirds of the world population to be in urban areas This is because empirically, it has been seen that cities have more economic potential with their concentration of resources including capital and labor, where talent meets opportunity provided by the manufacturing or services sectors. Urban areas provide variety of opportunity on one side, and consumption on the other.

Urbanization also results in high population density (the number of people living per unit of area), causing overcrowding, shortage of space, homelessness, congestion and pollution. In most developing countries, there is inadequate infrastructure, insufficient affordable housing, water and sanitation, and other basics that are a citizen’s right to lead a dignified life. The dearth of housing leads to slum creation, squatters, shanties being put up on pavements, sidewalks and under bridges, and herein fester crime and danger, out of poverty and frustration, and people take to begging just to survive.

A series of push and pull factors are the root cause of urbanization. Residents of villages are forced to move out when survival becomes difficult, earnings do not cover expenses, and there seems to be no future opportunities for improvement. Hence the push factors come into play, which include landlessness, low wages as farm workers, seasonal work in fields depending on the crop, lack of alternate employment opportunities, and natural disasters that cause loss and damage.

Pull factors include the facilities and opportunities that cities provide. From afar, cities appear to be like paradise and survival easy with all that they offer, better and multiple employment opportunities which are not seasonal, potential to improve skills, better education and healthcare, better infrastructure and communication facilities.  These somehow camouflage the impending threats of extreme poverty, unemployment, vulnerability to crime, exposure to pollution and unhealthy elements.

Can rural exodus be stopped

In the ongoing debate on the ills of urbanization, there is talk of halting the process and a search for alternatives. The solution lies in providing employment opportunities in rural areas through the setting up of small scale industries in villages where local arts and crafts can be manufactured, value added agricultural products can be produced in villages close to the source of raw materials to avoid transportation costs as well. Myanmar’s export earnings from rice, beans pulses, vegetables and fruits, fisheries etc can increase substantially if they are packaged according to international standards and sold as finished goods rather than being finished in other countries. Improvement of education facilities, setting up secondary schools and vocational training centers will also stem part of this influx into Yangon.

Celebrating Thingyan in Yangon – Fifth Year In a Row

After more than four years in Yangon, I too, like everyone in Myanmar, wait with excitement and enthusiasm, for Thingyan, the water festival. Thingyan is the biggest festival, event and celebration of the year in Myanmar. It comes as a welcome break from the hectic pace of life, and brings all activities to a virtual standstill for all, when work stops and workplaces shut down, when the mood of holiday and festivity in the entire month of April means nothing will move. Except for the water spraying pavilions, loud music and vendors feeding the hundreds playing, the city or actually, the whole country is transformed, the buzz and bustle is missing, and there is just an ambience of relaxation and fun, noise and merriment. Those who can afford it, leave the country to take a break elsewhere and catch up on all that is missing in Myanmar.

Continue reading “Celebrating Thingyan in Yangon – Fifth Year In a Row”

Myanmar’s Home Decor Trends

The Myanmar concept of simple living in comfort more than style is conspicuous in most homes one visits in Yangon. The extensive use of teak, as flooring, wall panels, heavy furniture and the ubiquitous mantle for an imposing Buddha statue, adds warmth to the home giving it a much lived in look. It is also in striking contrast to the minimalist look of contemporary westernized homes, which is not found even in the homes of the well-heeled, globe-trotting Myanmar folk who have experienced the best of the west.

But homes are changing and new concepts are being introduced by interior designers and home décor outlets mushrooming all over Yangon. Big brands like Italy’s Marchetti and the exclusive, upscale Casabella, have been around for a long time, but multi brand outlets like the Living Mall are gaining popularity since they are more like one stop solutions for furniture and home décor.

The best of course are the teak, padauk, rosewood, and tamalan wood carved furniture and décor pieces found in numerous outlets like the Teak Villa, Golden Family, Sweety Life, Gold Furniture, and many more. They accept orders and get the pieces manufactured at their factories in Mandalay etc., often taking months to deliver. But the quality remains unquestionable and well worth the wait. The most exclusive furniture one can find is Burma Chindits which operates out of a nondescript warehouse, office cum retail outlet, refurbishing antiques, and using reclaimed teak to carve out new furniture pieces, more traditional than contemporary, in an attempt to preserve the Burmese colonial character of furniture. Helping Hands is another favorite that manages to procure antique pieces of furniture from all corners of Myanmar, restores and sells them.

At the other end of the spectrum are the cheaper furniture varieties made out of prefabricated board, metal and glass that comes in knocked down condition and is ready to be assembled. Available in plenty at multi outlet chains like Sweety Home, Pwint Oo, and others, this is cheaper and not as durable as hard wood furniture, but very practical as a quick fix for those who need furniture for its utility rather than its aesthetic appeal.

In terms of décor and display, interior design and accessorizing solid furniture, a few lessons can be learnt from neighboring Thailand which is pretty similarly endowed but has evolved aesthetically and offers a wide ranging variety of décor accessories that can transform the simplest of homes. There is something very eye catching and soul stirring about Thai décor that makes everyone stop a moment to take in the beauty, the aura of peace, and let the soothing ambience seep into his system. Irrespective of the contrasting styles seen, the common Asian spirit and accents are preserved in both the subdued, natural and earthy tones as well as the rich, bright and vibrant hues used to accentuate dark wooden furniture and wooden parquet floors. These can so easily be adapted to accentuate the beauty of what is available in Myanmar while retaining the basic essence. A close look at Asian countries, reveals décor that has the basic design elements influenced by the Chinese styles, an undertone of Khmer, Indonesian carving styles and Indian art weaving its way into contemporary designs. In countries like Thailand and Myanmar one finds elements of nature indoors, displaying a strong Buddhist influence and the extensive use of handicrafts that showcase the tremendous talent of the people in weaving the most intricate designs into their furniture and artifacts.

While Thailand and Myanmar are neighbors, sharing a long border stretching over a thousand kilometers there is a striking difference in the décor. While both display a distinct diversity in design and color, materials and elements from nature, what makes Thai décor different is the clutter-free and rather neat appearance that can be attributed to the use of natural weaves, mats and fabric to complement the hard wood which gives a warmer, softer appearance.

All over Asia, the décor displays certain common elements:

  • Extensive use of wood– Wood is used for flooring, roofing, wall paneling and of course, furniture. It varies from teak to mango wood, and lacquer adds to the superb finish of flawless workmanship. Intricate carving on wood is seen in screens and wall hangings.
  • Handicrafts and other craft works – these are an integral part of the décor to fill in spaces, adorn the walls and every corner of the home. The lavish use of gold and bright colors dazzle and leave the spectator awestruck as he admires the vases, jars, bowls, plates, mirrors, lamps and statues, all of which are made of clay, wood, or ceramic.
  • The spiritual element– Statues of the Buddha are reverently placed in every home. Symbolic of the powerful and omnipresent Buddhist spirituality, they are an authentic feature of Thai home décor bringing peace, serenity and calm.
  • Water feature– Many Asian homes have started adding a water feature like a miniature water fountain, a fish tank or waterfall as advised by the laws of Feng Shui.
  • Adorned walls– It is unusual to find the walls of an Asian home bare. They will almost always have paintings hung, a collection of pictures or plates, wall hangings, screens and so on.
  • Scents and aroma– The aroma of sandal, camphor, lemon grass or other natural soothing scents waft up like a breath of fresh air as you enter. This could be from aromatic candles, scented oils being burnt in lamps or incense burnt in the spirit house.
  • Utility and Balance– these are visible, irrespective of the shades and materials used. Every part of the décor serves a purpose and a balance is maintained in interior design.
  • The use of silk and jewel tones– While natural and earthy elements are widely used, at the other of the spectrum one finds bright and flashy colors, jewel tones and silk embellishments, besides curtains, covers, runners and so on.

With all these, the décor appeals and impresses, yet its diversity of features and styles makes it easy to blend some of its pieces into the Western home. From the rustic country house or the compact apartment to the modern, elegant villa, these accents have the ability to bring the best of Asia’s exoticism to contemporary home décor, complementing rather than detract from the original home decor.

Ways to bring a fusion of east and west

  • Keep your large pieces of furniture, but add accessories that bring warmth and comfort like cushions and throws, runners on tables and cabinets, mats and rugs. These will instantly make the room colorful and more appealing.
  • Infuse tranquility that emanates from statues of the Buddha, whose serene countenance soothes and heals.
  • Bring gentle light and soft aroma in to the room with aromatic candles. Similarly incense sticks and natural scented oil lamps not only have the air permeating with their fragrance, but also help to keep away unpleasantness and adverse forces from the home.
  • Additional pieces like chairs and cabinets made out of fine dark wood, will brighten the room against the backdrop of light flooring and painted walls.
  • Create a vibrant environment with the dazzling colors and natural sheen of silk accessories like cushions and drapes.
  • Transform the display areas of the home by placing the finest ceramic creations like vases, bowls and plates, on cabinets and centre tables to bring a scintillating richness into the room.
  • Add simple accessories such as art work including figurines and statues, mango wood vases and bowls, paper lamps and pewter clocks can add a touch of originality to your home.

This style of home décor inspires countless home decorating ideas in all western countries that foster beautiful living. What meets the eye soothes the exhausted mind and body, the aroma calms frayed nerves at the fag end of the day and the artifacts make the environment conducive for quiet contemplation, relaxation and peace. Myanmar is gradually discovering this beauty and witnessing its entry into the homes of its residents.

Honey- The Sweet Nectar from Myanmar

Honey Heavy On My Hand…

In the last decade or so, honey has become the new age sugar, added to teas, used as a spread and added to desserts besides being used to tone down the bitterness of certain ingredients, effectively taking the place of refined granulated sugar. This is the outcome of extensive research that exposes the ill effects of sugar and how it triggers various diseases, but also because the benefits of honey are too many to be ignored. As part of eating natural, unprocessed foods, using food ingredients with therapeutic value, honey has been gaining popularity in developed countries where food habits focusing on healthier diets, and poorer, underdeveloped countries where eating natural foods is by default, due to lack of availability of anything else.

The golden, sticky, natural syrup, sweet to taste and helpful to heal ailments and maladies comes from the hives of honey bees. Widely perceived to be the healthier sweetener, linked to treating lifestyle disorders like obesity, the demand for honey has been growing in every corner of the world, as ‘going natural’ has become a fad for the health conscious populace.  We cannot push the sweet taste of foods out of our lives, but foods sweetened with honey would be preferable, keeping our weight in check and many diseases at bay.

How honey gets made

Honey is one of the gifts of nature that comes to us processed by small bees that collect sweet nectar from flowers. The scores of bottles lining supermarket shelves and neighborhood stores, reveals that it is available in abundance, and never a thought spared as to how this sweet, sticky potion is made. We have perhaps never imagined counting the number of birds and insects we see in the vast expanse between the earth and the sky. In actual fact, one pound of honey requires the nectar collected from over two million flowers by 60,000 bees that travel a combined distance of around 55,000 kilometers. A single bee hive has up to 80,000 bees and each bee hive can produce around 100 pounds of extra honey, that can be harvested.

Bees have two stomachs, one for eating for their own nourishment and an extra stomach specially to store the nectar they suck out of flowers during spring, with the help of their tubelike tongues. The nectar stays in the stomach for around half an hour during which time it mixes with enzymes and proteins produced by the bees. The collection of nectar is the job of the worker bees who then head back to their beehives and the nectar enzyme blend is regurgitated into the mouths of the house bees, who then ingest it before depositing it into the hexagonal honeycomb cells. Though the water content has already been reduced, it is further lessened by being fanned by the bees’ wings. When ready the bees move to begin capping the honey with a liquid secreted by the bees’ abdomen. The capping time serves as a signal that the honey is ready.

Therapeutic qualities of Honey

Honey has been called ‘liquid gold’ for all the goodness it carries. It is the only insect produce that is fit for human consumption. The use of honey bee products for medicinal purposes is called apitherapy and is becoming increasingly popular.

Honey is available in hundreds of varieties and each has a distinct flavor and color, depending on the flowers whose nectar they suck. It is a thick blend of sugar, trace enzymes, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. Research has proved that honey provides energy to the human body, heals and helps in treating various diseases and health disorders. Its high fructose level makes it sweeter than sugar.

  1. Sugar substitute that prevents weight gain- Honey is a natural sweetener and therefore lower in calories than granulated refined sugar. It can therefore be added to all foods without the risk of weight gain. Honey is known to contain 22 amino acids and a number of minerals that help the body’s metabolism, and thus prevent the risk of obesity. A new finding indicates that honey speeds up the fat burning metabolism if taken at night and fuels the liver function.
  2. Source of vitamins and minerals – Honey is a great natural source for vitamins and minerals. These include niacin, thiamine, riboflavin and panthothenic acid. It is rich in calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and manganese, all of which are essential for a healthy body.
  3. Prevents allergies – Honey has anti-inflammatory properties which help in treating seasonal allergies leading to rashes, redness, coughs and colds. Doctors believe that it works like nature’s vaccine and the minuscule amounts of pollen help the human create antibodies to the pollen, that’s been known to trigger allergies in thousands of people. Thus it works like a natural antihistamine.
  4. Antibacterial and antifungal properties – Various studies confirm the anti bacterial and antifungal properties of honey. Honey inhibits a broad range of over 60 bacterial species. This helps in treating wounds and burns and hastens the healing process without the area getting inflamed Its antifungal properties make it effective against the common candida fungus. With lower water and sugar content its microbial growth is prevented.
  5. Boosts memory – Honey is known to have huge amounts of antioxidants, which according to a 2011 study, help prevent cellular damage in the brain that can trigger memory loss. Honey helps to absorb more calcium and this boosts brain health. This can reduce the risk of dementia in older people.
  6. Cough suppressant – Persistent cough lingers for weeks after a bout of the common cold, making sleep difficult. It has been found that two teaspoons of honey given to children up to five years of age, coughed less and slept better. It helps adults as well since its stickiness helps to coat the throat and prevent dryness
  7. Aids better sleep – A spoonful of honey taken at night before sleeping facilitates sleep and makes it easier for people to fall asleep. This can be attributed to honey facilitating the action of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps in overcoming insomnia or the inability to sleep. Tryptophan enters the brain through the marginal insulin increase with the intake of honey(it raises blood sugar levels very slightly) and is converted into serotonin, which in turn is converted at night into melatonin, a cure for sleep related disorders.
  8. Treats dandruff – Dandruff causes problems of hair loss, flaky scalp skin and severe itching. Honey’s antibacterial and antifungal properties help to cure seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff, when applied in a diluted form and massaged into the scalp. Honey helps the hair hold on to moisture which prevents dryness. Hair loss caused by dandruff also stops.

Myanmar Honey Production

Honey has been popular in Myanmar more for its traditional medicines with all its therapeutic healing properties. While wild honey is collected from hives scattered all over the country, beekeeping is gradually picking up in the last decade or so. Beekeeping areas include Magwe, Mandalay, Shan, Mon, Chin and Sagaing states. At present, domestic consumption is just 300 tons per annum and locals prefer wild honey for its superior quality.

Honey collected from hives found in the wild is rich and intense to taste, but dark in color. Out of the 3500 tons produced annually over 90% is exported to Japan, USA, Canada and Thailand. Japan purchases over 2000 tons out of this since it prefers the natural quality and the fact that Myanmar honey is free of antibiotics and chemicals. It is commendable that the local honey is able to meet the stringent Japanese standards.

Honey is sold at less than 1 USD per kilogram in the local markets, and in the international markets Myanmar honey is sold at USD 1100 per ton.

However, nearly the entire export amount is raw unprocessed honey, which sells at cheaper rates due to the darker color while international customers have a distinct preference for light colored honey. It faces tough competition from Chinese honey that is light and very cheap, but known to contain antibiotics and other chemicals.

Some of the commonly found honey brands include Tinospora Honey, Mount Khakabo Pure Honey and Integrity Pure Honey.

Beekeeping is gradually picking up in the country especially in Shan State where Tag International Development has opened its beekeeping center in Pindiya. Using Israeli expertise, it has also imported  queen bees from Israel. Incidentally it is only the queen bee that lays eggs and ensures multiplication of bee numbers.

Beekeeping provides ample employment and earning potential for the rural poor and help them lead better lives. At present there are over 120,000 bee hives in the country but there is enormous potential for growth, though it will require training of bee keepers, an initiative being taken up by Tag.

Why Myanmar honey loses out in international markets

Myanmar’s honey is of high quality but unable to capture the market share it deserves internationally. This is because of the following reasons:

  • Only raw honey is exported without being processed
  • The machinery and equipment needed to process honey is not invested in
  • The expense needed to be incurred for processing is not justified by the volumes
  • Adding value and attracting packaging in smaller packs need investment in the industry

The global market for honey is expanding with the goodness of this nectar making it the preferred sweet option over sugar. Its healing and medicinal properties are making it a common ingredient for a wide range of medicines for numerous lifestyle diseases. With an assured market, Myanmar stands to gain from increasing its honey production.

Myanmar’s Bamboo – A promising wood substitute

The thin, hollow, woody poles seen standing tall in numerous places to protect and support, in villages and cities, are of the ubiquitous bamboo, a plant that is far deeply entrenched into the common man’s life in Myanmar, literally from cradle to grave and at every step in-between. This is to be expected in a country that has the third highest proportion of bamboo forest cover globally, after China and India. Though classified as a minor forest product in the non wood category, the bamboo industry is estimated to be worth 25 billion USD globally, as it gradually replaces various wood varieties at every level.

Called ‘waa’ in the local language, bamboo is actually a wild grass belonging to the gramineae family and bambusoideae sub-family. Growing wild in tropical and subtropical forests over 1200 different species of bamboo are found worldwide covering 18 million hectares, and 96 of these species are found in Myanmar’s vast forest lands. Bamboos grow freely mixed with other plants and have been seen to form the under storey in high wild forests, besides being planted for multiple uses as well.

Bamboo is one of the easiest plants to grow, not requiring highly fertile soil or ample amounts of water, though it thrives more in soil that is slightly acidic with a reasonable amount of water. As one of the fastest growing plants, most bamboo varieties add a few inches of height every day, with some tropical large varieties growing as much as 35 inches in the span of a day at the rate of 3 cm per hour. Thus, in the growing season, a bamboo plant reaches its full height within three to four months. In the first year the bamboo grows vertically, and nodes develop branches and leaves in the second year as the culm (the pulp-like wall) dries and hardens, though it reaches its full hardness in the third year. Growth of bamboo takes place during the rainy season and the culms are ready to be harvested after 2-3 years and ideally between 5-7 years. A single bamboo clump, in its lifetime, can produce approximately 15 km of usable pole with a diameter upto 30 cm. This is because new shoots keep emerging and the plant regenerates.

Myanmar’s bamboo resources

Myanmar has forests covering over half its land area, of which 3% is covered with bamboo, as part of its evergreen and deciduous forests, and as pure bamboo stands in the state of Rakhine and Taninthayi Division.

Myanmar is famous for some very superior bamboo species like Kalway-Wa (dendrocalamus asper) and Wani ( dendrocalamus lotiflorus), both used for commercial production of bamboo shoots. It is one of the largest exporters of young bamboo shoots, an exotic delicacy in neighboring China. Other common bamboo species include wagok, waphyu, wabo, wabo-myetsangye, thana, myin, kayin, tin, thaik, and kyathaung. Fourteen species are commercially significant for the economy.

Besides natural forests, bamboo plantations have been expanding in various parts of Myanmar. It is also seen growing along stream banks and on lower hill slopes, while also being planted in zoological gardens, urban landscapes, gardens, parks and monasteries to meet local demand.

Bamboo for sustainable development and environment protection

Bamboo is one the fastest growing, extremely versatile and the highest productivity multipurpose plant in the world. As a high yielding forestry crop, it is a renewable environmentally sustainable resource that continuously spreads vegetatively. This implies that bamboo helps in creating thick forests much faster than an assortment of other tree species together. Also, its mature stems can be harvested while the plant continues to grow and extend its younger stems.

It is being increasingly acknowledged as a substitute for wood that will protect the environment and ensure development that is sustainable. Many countries use bamboo for environmental protection, soil conservation, prevention of erosion on hill slopes and other ecological purposes.

Bamboo absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which it converts into oxygen. Interestingly the carbon dioxide it absorbs, stays trapped inside and is never released even after it has been harvested and transformed into value added products that are useful domestically and commercially. Thus it serves as a carbon sink.

While maintaining fresh water resources, one hectare of tropical bamboo forest area can store more than 30,000 liters of water in its culms during the rainy season. This water is gradually deposited back into the soil during dry periods thus regulating water supply.

Bamboo forests also help in sediment control by forming a wall that prevents loss of flow in rivers. Their forest cover, like a canopy prevents evaporation of water from streams. With its complex woven root system and thick plantation it is recommended in areas prone to landslides.

Bamboo as a substitute for wood

Some of the larger bamboos like the Phyllostachys species has been named ‘timber bamboo’, and is being used as a substitute for wood for decades, without reducing the size of the forests it grows in.

Bamboo has a higher compressive strength compared to wood and concrete, and its tensile strength is comparable to that of steel. This makes it hard and durable, and ideal for use in construction as posts, roofing, walls, floors and beams. Its pulp is as good for making paper as wood pulp. Straightened out, bamboo laminates make the perfect flooring in high quality constructions at very reasonable rates. It is good for making sturdy furniture, household products, boats and makeshift bridges across narrow streams and canals.

Bamboo is actually a perfect timber substitute that can preserve the dwindling timber supply and further cutting of trees to procure wood for its numerous uses to fulfill the needs of increasing populations.

Bamboo’s multitude uses

There are a phenomenal 1500 uses of bamboo worldwide, and its true worth is only gradually coming to the fore as a multimillion dollar trade product. Its lightness in weight, strength, straight length and elasticity makes it a versatile product that is easily available at very reasonable rates.

In rural areas, stacked together it provides protection and shelter, dug into the ground it gives support, straightened out, it serves as a wooden plank.

Cut and dried, it is the perfect material for kitchenware, toys, chin-lone balls, walking sticks, fishing rods, parasols etc. Musical instruments like clappers and xylophones are made out of bamboo, with its hollow insides rendering perfect sound.

It is possible to construct full bamboo houses complete with bamboo floor, cross beams, partitions, fences, staircases and walls. Parquet floors, blinds and panels, furniture and fences, gates and sheds of superior quality can be made out of this material. Handicrafts can adorn homes and interiors, and in the kitchen a whole range of cooking utensils and dishes have become common. The bamboo chopsticks industry is growing to meet global demand for the same.

Bamboo charcoal is used as fuel and made from small pieces and residue of bamboo that are compressed and carbonized. It is also being innovatively used to purify water since it helps to eliminate odors and impurities.

Preserved edible bamboo shoots – the cone shaped sprouts emerging from the soil are tasty and tender when harvested very young. It has 90% water, is a rich source of vitamins and amino acids, high in fiber and cellulose, besides being a low calorie source of potassium.

Bamboo plants have become a favorite for decoration indoors and in gardens and parks. Considered lucky and a symbol of longevity, various decorative varieties of bamboo are found on sale.

In Chinese medicine bamboo is believed to cure infections and aid healing. In Ayurveda, it is used to treat respiratory diseases.

Bamboo pulp is being increasingly used for making paper to save other hard woods that take decades to grow to their full height. Myanmar is emerging as a big source of bamboo pulp that can be used for writing and printing paper. The most common species used for paper pulp are dendrocalamus asper and bamboo bluemanea.

Myanmar’s famed lacquer ware uses bamboo as the base, and the bamboo from forests of Chin state is considered ideal for this purpose.

Boats used in the countless waterways and water bodies are often made out of bamboo due to its properties.

Bamboo as a money spinner for Myanmar

Bamboo is deeply embedded in the lifestyle of Myanmar folk, and historical evidence points to a culture of using bamboo in numerous ways.

Bamboo is a renewable, self generating natural resource unlike timber. New shoots appear annually, after mature culms have been harvested. Interestingly, shoots appear in burnt plants, something unheard of in the world of wood. Bamboo plantations see re-growth even after being burnt down which means no new investment nor sources of irrigation or soil improvement is required.

Quick to grow, bamboo is unlike teak and other premium wood varieties where trees take 20-25 years to mature and grow to their full height. This translates into quicker cash returns after planting bamboo with a very short gestation period. For a country like Myanmar, vast expanses of idle land can be lucratively utilized for bamboo cultivation.

Myanmar’s numerous waterways are the ideal way to transport bamboo, and also the cheapest, and far more convenient than timber.

Environmentalists are convinced about the earning potential of Myanmar’s huge bamboo forests that can produce sustainable crops to be sold globally to meet the spiraling demand for bamboo. The current neglect and uncared for bamboo produce has meant loss of its earning potential both domestically where bamboo is used in every walk of life, and internationally, with many countries opting for bamboo instead of wood. Some technical help and investment in this field can make bamboo the next big export product from the country.

The International Tropical Timber Organization initiated a Bamboo project in 2005, to conserve some Myanmar specific bamboo species through the setting up of bamboo demonstration plots in Kawhmu, Pyinmana and Paukkhaung bamboo plantations.

Beyond these efforts, it is important to not allow the nation’s bamboo resources to be depleted, and the locals must be educated about its value. Till now, the country’s bamboo plantations have been virtually unprotected and not well cared for. Bamboo is harvested as and when needed and sold cheap, and only a small tax is levied on the harvested bamboo. Little wonder then, that where other countries earn over 500 billion USD from bamboo sales, the revenue generated in Myanmar is just USD 1 billion.

Bamboo’s ability to regenerate is threatened by its destructive harvesting and indiscriminate chopping methods. This has affected output and productivity adversely, and quality is deteriorating gradually. The bamboo supply base been seen shrinking in the last few years. The only way out is to step up bamboo silvi-culture to protect tropical forests and ensuring a sustained supply of this wood substitute.

Bamboo and its symbolic significance

Bamboo’s diverse uses have led to it being known by various names like ‘green gold’, biosteel, and poor man’s timber. It was first referred to as green gold during the 7th World Bamboo Congress in India, since bamboo can prove to the vehicle that can boost economies, with its diverse uses and the products that can be made out of it, offering employment opportunities to the rural poor.

Bamboo is known to denote friendship and is described as a ‘friend of the people’ in China and India.  In Vietnam it is described as ‘brother’. Its long life makes it a symbol of uprightness and is used extensively to improve various aspects of life according to the Chinese principles of Feng Shui. Since bamboo plants flower very rarely, their blossoming is said to be a sign of impending famine.

It is also famous as ‘poor man’s timber’, since it is a cheaper alternative to wood, that has diverse uses and offers complete solutions for living and survival to the rural poor, including employment opportunities.

 

Vast vacant lands to the tune of 178,000 acres in Pegu and Tenasserim Yomas mountain ranges are said to be lying vacant. Their geographic conditions are highly suitable for bamboo plantations, which can generate a lot of revenue, reduce the pressure on teak and other hard woods, and ensure that Myanmar’s rich forest resources stay intact.