Opening the lid of her rice cooker, a luxury bought when power finally came to their village in central Myanmar three years ago, Tin Aye scooped out two fat ladles for breakfast.
“I cannot go without eating rice. Since the start of the day, all my stomach asks for is rice,” said the 52-year-old mother of three, laughing.
Myanmar is a nation obsessed with rice.
Its people eat an average of 155 kilos a year, according to a 2016 survey by the country’s rice federation and Yezin Agricultural University, ensuring Myanmar has one of the world’s highest rates of rice consumption.
For half a century, successive leaders anchored agriculture policies on rice. The government used loans, infrastructure, and services to farmers to push them to grow it and people to eat it, so rice is now woven into the fabric of daily life.
In place of “Hello”, people greet each other by asking: “Have you had rice?”
It wasn’t always this way in Myanmar, where diets were once seasonal, diverse – and much more healthy.
But a rice-centric policy that began in the 1960s during the socialist era led people to grow and consume more, said Tin Htut Oo, who has worked in the agricultural ministry and chaired an advisory body to the government.
Myanmar citizens consume 155kg of rice a year. Photo: Paul Downey/Flickr
“Our diets, especially in urban areas, are getting like Western diets. It has become more monotonous,” he said.
Rice – a starchy, high-calorie grain – accounted for at least a third of cultivated land in 2017/18 and nearly two-thirds of diets, government data shows.
But faced with malnutrition and worsening obesity and dietary-related diseases, the South-East Asian nation of 54 million people is trying to diversify what it grows and eats.
The problem is not Myanmar’s alone.
Experts say if the world is to fight a growing malnutrition crisis, agriculture must shift from producing calories, through staples such as rice, to growing nutrients, such as fruits, nuts, vegetables and pulses.
Poor diet has overtaken smoking as the world’s biggest killer, according to the latest Global Burden of Disease study, causing 20 percent of deaths globally in 2017.
Myanmar has embarked on a five-year nutrition plan to alter the nation’s eating habits, which includes the need to diversify the nation’s agriculture so consumers can access a varied food basket and farmers can increase their incomes.
This includes growing pulses, vegetables and fruits, using better fertiliser and improving livestock production, Kyaw Swe Lin, director-general at the agricultural ministry’s planning department, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It would also increase incomes in a country where two-thirds of households work in agriculture and are struggling to get by.
Decades of isolation and economic sanctions have affected food quality, safety and nutrition – and reversing this requires outside help, said Kyaw Swe Lin.
In February, Myanmar’s government signed an agreement with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with agricultural diversification as a major goal.
Myanmar observers – from aid workers to economists – said poor infrastructure, resistance to change, laws that encourage rice production and insecure land tenure all pose challenges.
But Kyaw Swe Lin said there was no other choice.
“If we don’t tackle this now, the impact is going to be very big and very negative.”
Myanmar’s emergence from nearly half a century of iron-fisted military rule less than a decade ago brought glitzy malls, smart phones, fast food and Western hotel chains.
Yet for the country’s women and children, particularly in ethnic and border areas, malnutrition persists.
Farmers are still reluctant to diversify their crops as the governments give out loans for rice farmers. Photo: Mostafa Saeednedjad/Flickr
One in four children under five and one in four adolescent girls are stunted due to chronic undernutrition, according to a government survey.
One in three adolescent girls are anaemic, mainly due to iron deficiency, while more than one in five women are overweight, said the report, published in February.
All of this poses severe risks to diabetes, hypertension and overall health, said Anna-Lisa Noack, FAO’s food security and nutrition policy specialist in Myanmar.
A lack of diversified diets is a significant factor. Emerging evidence suggests more than half the population cannot afford nutrient-rich foods, while consumption of oil, sugar and processed foods is increasing, she said.
In Myanmar, many of the 18,000 plant species so far recorded could be highly nutritious but are neglected, Min San Thein, deputy director at the agricultural ministry, wrote in a report.
One of them is zee phyu thee – Burmese gooseberry – which grows wild in the forests and is rich in vitamin C but is not cultivated, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Nowadays, if you go to villages, you won’t see these trees anymore,” said Min San Thein, who heads the Myanmar Seed Bank.
There are now plans to breed and distribute them in villages, but much more needs to be done to conserve, use and raise awareness of such species to fight malnutrition, he said.
The Seed Bank is also working to expand its conservation work to reflect Myanmar’s rich biodiversity, he added. Currently, more than half of the 13,000 seeds stored are rice.
Education and innovation, including new ways of consuming protein-laden beans and pulses, are key, said Tin Htut Oo, who now heads the agriculture group in Myanmar’s Singapore-listed conglomerate Yoma Strategic Holdings.
Farmers, however, have voiced reluctance to grow other crops, citing government support for rice.
“We get loans of 150,000 kyats (RM408) per acre for rice. We don’t get it for other crops,” said Kyaw Lin, Tin Aye’s husband.
Another barrier to growing nutrient-rich but perishable fruits and vegetables is the lack of infrastructure such as refrigeration and transport networks, said Debbie Aung Din, whose company Proximity Designs make low-cost farm products.
Tin Aye, the farmer in Thar Yar Su, has no intention of cutting her rice intake but said many villagers, herself included, have started to eat more vegetables after reading warnings about bad diets on social media on their smart phones.
“There is more knowledge and awareness now,” she said. – Reuters
The Malaysian predilection for eating is well-documented and undisputed. But it seems local eating patterns are shifting, as Malaysians are now moving towards healthier options, with oats and dairy products currently featuring prominently in the Malaysian diet.
This was based on the findings of an expert industry panel session, headed by dairy giant Fonterra Brands Malaysia and Kantar Worldpanel, an international company dealing in consumer knowledge and insights.
“Across the region, we are seeing a trend towards healthier eating as consumers recognise the nutritional benefit and impact food has on their well-being. With an expanding middle-class and rising disposable incomes across Asia, there is now a wider base of consumers willing to spend on products that support their overall health,” says Karen Leong, regional account director of Kantar Worldpanel.
Food purchases in the region also showed an increase, albeit slightly, with Kantar’s consumer insights for 2018 showing a year-on-year growth from 3.6% to 3.9%.
Kantar also conducted a study to determine what Malaysian adults and children’s preferences were for breakfast, and surprisingly after nasi lemak and sandwiches, oats came in third, with people professing to eat it 24% of the time for their morning meal.
“That has never happened before. If we were to do this study three to five years ago, I don’t think we would see it at No 3,” says Leong, adding that cereal bars and fruits have also become popular snack options.
Dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt have also become staples in South-East Asia as people perceive these milk-rich items be good for their health.
Malaysians are increasingly opting for healthier fare, like cheese. Photo: Filepic
“Health is a very strong factor in Asia, so we see that dairy continues to thrive because of this trend as people equate dairy products with being high quality,” says Leong.
“Many people also see dairy as a good, healthy substitute for carbohydrates,” adds Megawati Suzari, the new product development, scientific and regulatory affairs director at Fonterra Brands Malaysia.
Another trend that is emerging is the growing demand for convenient meals that are easy-to-prepare but are also part of a balanced diet. This is in line with the time-strapped demands of modern living.
“That’s why the ready-to-eat market segment has more players and more interest in Malaysia,” says Leong.
What is perhaps most evident about Malaysian consumers is that they are increasingly more savvy and knowledgeable about food and its provenance. The days of consumers throwing the cheapest options into their shopping trolleys are long gone as most Malaysians are now extremely shrewd shoppers.
“Provenance is more important because people might have trust in imported products, but that depends on where they are imported from. Consumers will look at the packaging and they will read. People are becoming more educated, so whatever food producers put on the label and packaging is very important because that will speak to consumers,” says Leong.
There is a rich, multi-layered story behind the Coca hotpot chain of restaurants and it begins with Pitaya Phanphensophon’s Chinese parents Khun Srichai and Patama.
“My mum ended up in Thailand because of World War II, her family was starving and she was the eldest so they sent her out to find her cousins in Bangkok. My father was driven out of his hometown in China because of communism. He and his brothers swam across the river, and ended up in Hong Kong where they were picked up my uncle. One day, my other uncles decided they wanted to do business in Thailand, so my father was sent there. My mother says their lives were like a Chinese drama series,” says Pitaya, laughing.
Having come from such difficult circumstances, Pitaya’s parents were determined to have something to call their own. So they set up a tiny restaurant in Thailand with 16 seats, serving Cantonese fare. But the chefs working in the kitchen proved unreliable, and turnover rates were high.
“After a few years, my dad said, ‘Let’s do a concept that has less reliance on the chef. That’s how the suki steamboat concept came in,” says Pitaya.
After growing the Coca brand into a global hotpot favourite, Pitaya has now retired and passed the reins to his daughter Nathalie, a nutritionist who is trying to make the food at Coca healthier.
And that’s also how the Coca legacy was born. The brand, which is now 61 years old, is globally renowned for its delicious suki (Thai hotpot) and signature homemade suki sauce and has since spread its wings, with over 30 outlets around the world.
Pitaya, who took over the family restaurant when his father passed away, wasn’t really groomed for the role, but says he’s always had a strong interest in the food business (although he isn’t a chef, a fact he repeats a few times).
“My mother had me when she was older, so she raised me like I was a fragile chicken egg. I wasn’t allowed to go to friends’ houses or do outdoor activities. But I always knew what I liked, because I grew up in a Chinese family with one golden rule in the house – we must have dinner together no matter how busy everyone is. That’s how I learnt my cooking skills – when my parents were talking and had discussions about food,” he says.
Young couple Lee (left) and Shun are the new franchise owners of Coca Malaysia.
While Pitaya went on to start the renowned Mango Tree chain of Thai restaurants in 1994, Coca has always remained close to his heart.
“My mother realised that if you want to do steamboat with fresh ingredients, you can’t hide – it’s pure good meat or seafood, which is why at Coca, we are very particular about good ingredients. I developed further from that, and convinced everybody in my organisation that if it’s not good enough for your children, don’t serve it to other people’s children. Every customer is someone’s child,” he says.
In Malaysia, Coca first opened 27 years ago but has been noticeably absent for nearly a decade. Last month, Coca reappeared in Malaysia at Bangsar Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur with new partners in the form of young married couple Jannio Shun and Elizabeth Thea Lee and a revitalised plan to lure in younger diners.
“Our old partners would be about 65 now and our new partners are 30. So it’s a huge generation gap and will undeniably make a huge difference on how they present the restaurant. And Coca in Bangkok is now run by my daughter Nathalie, the third generation and she’s about 30 as well. So you see Coca changing substantially. Even the food, you will see the vast difference. Nathalie’s a nutritionist and she was the one who influenced me towards more healthy options – Coca is the very first to use rice bran oil, organic vegetables and free-range chicken,” Pitaya says.
In line with its more youthful image, Coca has plans to open more outlets in Malaysia in the next few years and will be diversifying its menu to include enhanced a la carte options, in a bid to cater to young urbanites who may not have the time to fully indulge in steamboat meals.
“Sometimes when people think of steamboat, it takes too long. So to attract the younger office crowd, we are adding more a la carte items to the menu, like fried patanko (dough) and Portuguese chicken – hearty meals. And we’ll plate it nicely, rather than slap everything around,” he says, laughing.
Although he has officially retired from the business now, Pitaya has taken on an ambassadorial role, assuming the mantle of mentor to younger chefs, whom he teaches the guiding principles that have led Coca to success.
Crispy fried patanko with condensed milk is one of the addictive options on Coca’s menu.
“I’m not a trained chef, but I go to the kitchen because I want to train the youngsters in the proper way,” he says.
Retirement has also led Pitaya on a journey of discovery. He now actively thinks about where food comes from and whether the food served at the restaurant is sustainably grown or not. Part of this enhanced enlightenment has come from his daughter Robin, a law graduate turned sustainable farmer. Robin owns and runs a farm that supplies chillies to all the Coca restaurants in Thailand.
These are the chillies which are then blended into Coca’s signature suki sauce.
Ultimately, Pitaya believes quality produce is deeply intertwined with taste, two things his mother never compromised on, and which he continues to hold on to.
“My workforce is younger since I retired. When young people come in, they have different ideas, but one thing I say is ‘Be careful, because in order to survive the next 20 years, your core values on food have to be there.’ I think people still come to Coca, because they know the food here will be good and reliable,” he says.
Pick up your copy of The Sunday Star paper tomorrow (Aug 12) for a 25% discount on these cookbooks. Look for the coupon in Star2.
Author: Michel Roux
The egg, says Michel Roux, “is an undervalued food, invariably overshadowed by expensive, luxury ingredients”. In writing this book, he shares his secrets on what has become his “most faithful companions” and offers 130 recipes and ideas for using eggs.
Roux devotes the first six chapters of the book to the mastery of key cooking methods – such as boiling, poaching, and scrambling – and the remaining seven chapters to the egg’s “genius in all forms of cooking”. Here, he instructs readers on the important role of eggs in batters, pastries, sauces, ice creams, sponges and more.
In this new edition (first published in 2005), classic recipes – such as eggs Benedict and boiled eggs with special soldiers – are presented alongside many modern and creative takes on the egg. For example, soft-cooked eggs with vanilla caramel and brioche is made for those with a sweet tooth, while scrambled eggs masala sounds right up our alley.
This is a great book for all its technicalities on preparing eggs, and it can help you take your egg cookery up to pro chef level – but, as with many cookbooks by Michelin-starred chefs, there is that tendency towards some time-consuming recipes using ingredients that are harder to get.
That said, eggs – the most simple and complete food – are easily available, and it’s always good to know as many ways as possible to cook them. – Jane F. Ragavan
Gennaro’s Fast Cook Italian
Author: Gennaro Contaldo
If you’ve ever watched British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver cooking Italian food on television, there’s a 90% chance you’ve also heard him mentioning his mentor, Gennaro Contaldo. The man is so inexorably intertwined with Oliver that when I went to one of Oliver’s popular Jamie’s Italian outlets in London, the first thing I saw on the specials was Gennaro’s pasta!
His connection to the famed celebrity chef aside, Contaldo is a popular Italian chef and cookbook author who has even nabbed a Guinness World Record for the most ravioli made in two minutes.
In this cookbook, Contaldo highlights easy Italian dishes that require little in the way of elaborate preparation. You’ll discover all sorts of delightful Italian recipes like smoked salmon carbonara, quick fish soup, anchovy-infused lamb cutlets, steaks in a herb-infused tomato sauce, and squid with olives.
The recipes are beautifully photographed (although it would have been nice to have more pictures, as many of the recipes do not have accompanying images) and it is evident that the meals are designed with modern, time-strapped people in mind. Ingredients listed are generally minimal and most of the dishes look like they can be prepared by anyone, from beginners to seasoned cooks.
So if you’re after a range of wholesome Italian dishes to complement your existing stable, you’ll love Contaldo’s easy-peasy, fuss-free recipes. – Abirami Durai
Oh She Glows Every Day
Author: Angela Liddon
Following the success of her New York Times bestselling The Oh She Glows Cookbook, food blogger Angela Liddon returns with more plant-based treats for her fans.
This new cookbook contains 100 new recipes that are all vegan and predominantly soy-free, gluten-free, grain-free and nut-free. In other words, it caters for every conceivable allergy and dietary restriction imaginable.
The recipes are imaginative interpretations of classic favourites – you’ll find recipes for a stuffed avocado salad, mac and peas (with a cheese-less sauce), fresh cherry tomato salsa, golden French lentil stew and the ultimate flourless brownies.
In many ways, Liddon herself is the perfect advertisement for a plant-based diet – she looks golden and glowing and just radiates good health, which might be the kick in the butt you need to actually try these recipes. Because while many of them look appealing, it is difficult to shake off the idea that they are but poor copycats of the real deal.
But if you’re looking to seriously improve your diet and commit to a drastic lifestyle overhaul, Liddon’s inventive recipes (roasted garlic and sun-dried tomato hummus, anyone?) will strike a chord. – AD
The How Not To Die Cookbook
Authors: Michael Greger, Gene Stone & Robin Robertson
TO be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that excited when I first saw this book. After all, who wants to read a cookbook that has the word “die” in the title? But as it turns out, while the title may sound ominous, the book is actually a very sensible approach to extending life spans and reversing diseases.
Written by physician Micheal Greger (the author of the bestselling How Not To Die book), with recipes by vegan cookbook author Robin Robertson, the book does an incredible job of drumming in the importance of a plant-based diet in the introductory pages, with comprehensive information from studies, reports and journals thrown in for good measure. – AD