Monsoon rain is like nothing else. It hammers down from the sky like something solid, not water at all. When you’re outside, you either run like crazy to get out of it or give up entirely and let yourself get soaked.
It’s loud too. In fact it’s so loud that I did a double take when our hostess, Phyu Phyu Tin, owner of Yangon’s (aptly named) Monsoon restaurant told us that the building was haunted. “What?” I whispered to the woman next to me. “Did Phyu Phyu say it was ‘swamped’?” “No, haunted,” she whispered back. Phyu Phyu carried on, her voice raised over the din of the rain and the gentle swoosh of the ceiling fan, “It’s the ghost of a woman. We don’t know who she is. But we tend not to work late alone.”
Phyu Phyu was speaking to twenty-five or so delegates and spouses attending the Young Global Leaders (YGL) meetings at the World Economic Forum’s East Asia Summit earlier this month. It was the second day of the summit and the 300 or so YGL delegates had scattered across Yangon to attend “Impact Journeys” – full day immersions into different facets of Myanmar business, life and culture, from urban infrastructure to healthcare to the arts.
Our group had signed up for a full day immersion into the subject of Myanmar cuisine, with a focus on the potential relationship between Slow Food and economic growth. “Slow Food” refers, of course, to the movement founded by Carlo Petrini. Given that its roots are in Italy, “Slow Food” tends to conjure images of la dolce vita: picnics under olive trees, hand cured meats, artisanal cheeses, earthy wines sipped in the afternoon sun. It can also bring to mind uncomfortable images of food elitism, Tom Wolfe-like scenarios of over-privileged yuppies braying on about the merits of one particular Tuscan olive oil over another.
If you’ve been to (or read up on) Myanmar, which is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, both of those scenarios could actually sound quite grotesque. People in Myanmar, especially in rural areas, don’t always get enough to eat: rice, a staple, can simply be too expensive. Malnutrition makes children vulnerable to childhood illnesses and dysentery. The food transport system is virtually non-existent.
So, why did it make sense for us to be in Phyu Phyu’s humid and elegant restaurant, learning about Burmese cuisine and thinking about Slow Food, while the power dipped in and out and the rains fell outside?
The answer is that Slow Food is more than a gastronomic movement. It’s a political one. Conviviality, nurturing local knowledge and traditions, environmental sustainability, celebrating particular customs in an era of globalized production and consumption…. These aren’t frivolous, or even neutral, values. They are a statement about the importance of human social life and tradition, and about the right of everyone, not just to eat, but to eat in a human, healthy and connected way.
These values are starkly relevant at this moment in Myanmar’s history. For decades, the well-being of the population of Myanmar was subject to the whim of a series of authoritarian generals. Tax rice, devalue the currency, close off trade – it’s going to have a big impact on how and what people eat. But now, under Thein Sein’s leadership, and with Aung San Suu Kyi out of prison at last, Myanmar is on the threshold of change.
This defining moment is precisely why the World Economic Forum was meeting in Myanmar. Should development be allowed to happen pell-mell, or at the dictates of the market? Or should the people of Myanmar – not just its leaders – be empowered to engage in development in a way that fosters the health and well-being of the people of Myanmar as they see it?
The people of Myanmar whom we met, like Phyu Phyu, definitely want things to improve economically, but they also want development that’s human, sustainable and consistent with local values. Phyu Phyu herself described her shock when she visited the US and saw rampant obesity and streets colonized by fast food chains. That wasn’t her vision for prosperity in Myanmar. And that vision is knocking hard at the window: a Korean fast food chicken chain was just about to open a block from our hotel.
Slow Food is also an ideological framework for thinking about how development could unfold in Myanmar. There are concrete expressions of its implications, like the idea of creating a local food festival that celebrates Myanmar cuisine the way the Mistura Festival celebrates Peruvian cuisine. But Slow Food could also frame how other aspects of development go forward, for example, by ensuring that small farmers are included in decision making, by bringing global food brands into conversation with local food producers, and by keeping food justice squarely in the public debate.
Phyu Phyu and her team taught us how to make Burmese lentil soup, “bachelor” chicken curry (so-named as bachelors might make it after a big night out, with a pinch of marijuana if they’re extremely naughty), spicy fish curry, tea leaf salad and Burmese-style spring rolls (based on a Chinese recipe, but jazzed up with tamarind in the dipping sauce). They also taught us a thing or two about the excitement and anxiety of being part of a culture poised on the edge of drastic change. And they reminded us that certain patterns don’t have to be inevitable. Models for the good life exist. They’re there, ready to be adapted for what’s needed. Myanmar can turn on the lights and banish the ghosts – be they of the past or unwanted futures.