Cedric Arnold
Ye Htut Win, conjurer of a far-off continent’s foodways
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A Euro Zone, Burmese Style

Naomi Duguid - October 2013

How’s this for an anomaly: Some of the most spot-on European-inspired charcuterie, salumi, cheese, bread, and the like are made by a Burmese using Burmese products at his shop/restaurant in Rangoon. Naomi Duguid walks into Sharky’s and is amazed.

Whenever I’m in Southeast Asia, I never pine for a burger and fries, or for good bread, or, for that matter, any other European or North American staple, common or luxurious, because I want to take every opportunity to explore local foods and culture. So how is it that in Burma I’ve eaten some of the best aged beef, pâté, and Italian sausage I’ve ever tasted? Blame it on Ye Htut Win (pronounced Yay Tut Win), the creative and obsessive mind behind Sharky’s Food and Passion, a remarkable deli/restaurant in Rangoon (now called Yangon), the most dynamic city of Burma (also known as Myanmar) and its former capital.

Walk into Sharky’s, in Rangoon’s “uptown” area a short taxi ride north of the old downtown, and your eye immediately gets drawn to a wide selection of house-made items, from smoked salmon to salumi to grilled beef, as well as a wide choice of gelati, cheeses, breads, and pizzas. And on and on, an endless facsimile of Europe thousands of miles away from the continent. What is this place, and why, were my first questions to the friend who took me there for the first time a couple of years ago.

Win is Burmese. So is the staff that works for him. He’s an interesting character, with a wide-ranging curiosity about food. He’s quiet and focused, and quite private, not a big talker. He’s very analytical about flavor and process. He’s a perfectionist, too. “Food and Passion,” Sharky’s slogan, describes him perfectly. And he’s an idea man who mulls projects until he’s ready to act. Born to Burmese parents in 1960, he was raised both in Burma and abroad, where his father, a diplomat, had several postings (Israel, London, Sri Lanka, Switzerland). As a teenager in Switzerland, he started at the bottom in the food and beverage industry, working as a cleaner at a Wendy’s. That eventually led to management jobs and then 10 years of starting and running several restaurants in Geneva, and finally a stint operating a very successful bar in Geneva.

The late 1980s and early ’90s were dark times in Burma, as a repressive military regime clamped down on a nascent democracy movement, sending thousands to prison. Many others fled the country. By then, Win had been living and working in Europe for a number of years. The timing was lucky for him. And then in the mid-’90s, when things seemed to have calmed in Burma, then renamed Myanmar, he sold the bar and came back to retrieve his roots. He wanted to work with local foods. His first project was a small farm on the outskirts of Rangoon, where he grew a variety of European greens—arugula, salad greens, Mediterranean herbs, and the like. He also grew micro greens for sale to hotels and restaurants. And he started a small retail outlet in the city to sell not only his produce but also the eggs and chickens from a farmer in Kyonpyaw village in the Irrawaddy Delta. Despite the fragile political climate, there was enough of a market—made up of educated Burmese with money and a knowledge of the wider world and foreigners working in Rangoon—to support him and make the business grow.

In the meantime, Win became obsessed with meat. He wanted to use Burmese pigs to make European-style charcuterie. He believed that Burmese animals, which mostly forage and therefore eat a diverse diet, had a more complex and interesting flavor than that of farm-raised animals fed according to a more monochromatic scheme. And so he immersed himself in learning about charcuterie, in particular the Spanish way of curing whole legs of pork and the Swiss approach to pâté. He then started applying what he learned to Burmese pigs. And that led to experiments with a whole range of cured pork products—from bresaola and prosciutto to head cheese, salami, and Ibérico ham.

Curing and air-drying pork in the humid tropical climate of Rangoon is a complicated business. Sharky’s has several cooling rooms housed in thick-walled buildings next to the restaurant, buildings designed by Win and about to be expanded. The first time I stopped into Sharky’s, I tasted an early version of his Bamar ham, cured and sliced like prosciutto. Next to it, by comparison, was a Parma ham. The two were not identical in flavor, of course: the Parma ham had more delicate, almost fruity, aroma qualities; the Bamar ham a more complex meat flavor.

Apart from the pork, he also has covered vats for a variety of pickles—gherkins pickled in whey and salt. The whey gives acidity but without the harsh bite of vinegar. They have great flavor and snap. He has also created two extraordinary products made from local sweet chiles. The chiles—rounded, red, and about 1 1/2 inches long—come from the Irrawaddy Delta, where they’re harvested late in the dry season (January and February) and sun-dried for several weeks before being pickled in salt and vinegar in ceramic vats and left to stand for three years. Their aroma is remarkable and changes as they mature. I lifted the lid off the batches at one year of age, two years, and an almost-ready three year old batch, and each was different, moving from an almost smoky dried chile aroma to a chile-sweetness with a complex edge of fermentation. At three years, the mixture is poured through a sieve, the liquid becoming Sharky’s hot sauce (sold in small Tabasco hot sauce–like bottles), the solids processed to make Sharky’s dark red sweet-hot chile paste. That paste is blended with pork to make a wonderful version of the spicy Calabrian soft salami called nduja.

There’s more than pork and pickles in the cooling rooms; there’s also beef. Win began by selling imported beef and lamb but soon realized that customers wanted cooked and ready-to-serve meat. Two years ago, he began to source local beef, instructing his middleman to pick out Burmese cattle at a local slaughterhouse. These are working animals, three to four years old, and, like the local pigs, “wild-fed” a diverse diet. He ages the steaks—tenderloins, T-bones, and strip loins—for 30 to 40 days before grilling them over charcoal.

In need of good salt for his pickles and cured meats, Win began working several years ago with people near Ngapali, on Burma’s west coast (on the Bay of Bengal), to develop salières. He now sells a variety of Ngapali salts—fleur de sel, smoked salt, and salt blended with either smoked dried chiles or with coarsely ground and locally grown and processed black pepper.

Sharky’s employs over 150 people, some of them front-of-the-house staff in the deli/restaurant that opened in 2008, but most of them in food production. From the beginning, Win’s goal was to develop a corps of knowledgeable artisans so Sharky’s could function smoothly even during times when he was away (usually about four months a year, either for research or business development). Some of his meat people have been with him for more than eight years and have developed an artisan’s “feel” for product and process. His bakers, for instance, turn out baguettes, several rye breads, sourdough boules, and more. They leave their “signatures” on the baguettes: one makes a curling tail at one end, another a knot. It’s all part of getting employees, and customers, too, to appreciate the individual nature of artisanal production.

Kyaw Htut Win, Win’s brother, may be a licensed merchant ship captain, but he takes credit for introducing gelati made from unpasteurized cow’s milk to Sharky’s after studying ice cream–making at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna. The chocolate may be Belgian and the pistachios Mediterranean, but the other ingredients are local, including the mangoes, strawberries, rum, raisins, and limes. That local raw milk also gets used to make young cheeses. Win studied with a cheese­maker near Gstaad, Switzerland, and now Sharky’s, under the direction of cheesemaster Min Min, is producing very good versions of Camembert, Brie, Reblochon, and other European-style cheeses, as well as a rich smooth yogurt. And local milk, cream, and butter go into the cakes and pastries made by Win’s sister-in-law, Nant Shwe Sin.

Sharky’s attracts a diverse clientele. He supplies several of the large hotel restaurants that specialize in European fine dining with meat, cheese, bread, and various deli items, plus breakfast selections like croissants, butter, cheese, bread, house-made jams, and yogurt. But the production pressures are enormous, since, as Burma opens to investment and tourism, demand is growing steeply. And there’s a real mix of customers. In terms of money spent in his restaurant, the proportion is now about 60 percent Burmese to 40 percent foreigner (from 80 to 20 just two years ago). People come to eat in, but just as often they drop by to pick up bread or cheese or meat, or perhaps a Sharky’s pizza to take home. The take-out clientele now splits at about 50-50 foreigner and Burmese.

Where does Sharky’s go from here? Win’s not yet prepared to say what his next goal is. A casual bar-eatery seems to be one possibility. The things he has firmly ruled out are any expansion or franchising of the operation. “I want Sharky’s to stay artisanal,” he says. He wants to go on producing fine locally sourced food, with passion.

Yes, There’s Burmese Food, Too

There’s a wonderfully wide choice of local food options in Rangoon. On-the-street options include mohinga, the classic breakfast noodle dish of fine fresh rice noodles come bathed in a light aromatic fish broth and topped with a choice of deep-fried vegetables and condiment sauces. Pick a stall with lots of locals at it, where the broth is boiling hot and the variety of condiments and toppings generous. If you have some extra time, try asking someone to take you to Ou Yi, a mohinga stall in a lane off Inya Road, open from 5:30 to 9:30 every morning, and serving arguably the best mohinga in Rangoon.

Another morning option is a tea shop. I love Mercury Tea Shop on Anawratha Road between 46th and Thei Phyu Road. It has a lively slightly seedy feel and the service is friendly and alert. I usually order bei nan-pyar, a combo of a hot freshly tandoor-baked naan-style bread (go watch the baker shape and bake the breads, right outside the tea shop) served with a small bowl of tender cooked chickpeas. I wash it down with a Burmese specialty: black coffee, which comes with a wedge of lime on the side, and a little sugar to balance the lime.

Another morning or any time of day option (5 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week), is the famed Osaka Noodles on Bo Myat Thun Street, about two blocks north of the railway line, four blocks north of Bogyoke Street. The specialty is shwe daung khao swe, egg noodles (made in the shop) with coconut-sauced pork (chicken is an option, but I haven’t tried it), accompanied by pork broth, pickles, and other great condiments. It’s heaven. And for a different take on noodles, try noodle salad from a street vendor, who will have a net-covered display of all kinds of noodles, including pale yellow “tofu” that is a Shan tradition and is made from chickpeas or other beans and is, like the rice noodles, completely gluten-free. Noodle salads are a common and delicious snack at any time of the day, dressed with lime juice, roasted chopped peanuts, herbs, chile powder, and lots more.

A traditional rice meal is the best way to sample a full range of Burmese dishes. It’s best eaten with friends or in a group, for it’s served family-style. Each diner gets a plate of rice and a bowl of soup, usually a tart vegetable broth. There are several condiments and a plate of fresh and steamed vegetables put out, too, automatically, with every order. These, plus the dishes that you order—say a salad or two, a meat curry, a fried crispy fish, a vegetable curry—are set in the middle of the table so each person can help himself to a small portion. Foods are sampled in no particular order; you please yourself. Every once in awhile you take a spoonful of soup, or have a bite or two of a raw or steamed vegetable, as a break from eating the more intensely flavored dishes. It’s a very flexible way to eat.

There are a number of well-known classic Burmese restaurants that serve a good rice meal at noontime, the usual time for the main meal of the day. The food is always very freshly made. Try Aung Thukha near the Savoy Hotel, or Khaing Khaing Kyaw (the latter takes reservations). For Rakhine (Arakan) food, with lots of seafood options, head to Minn Lan at lunchtime (closed the 23rd of every month). There are a number of branches of Khaing Khaing Kyaw and of Minn Lan; your hotel can help you find the closest one.

Some restaurants have realized that foreigners tend to like their main meal in the evening. A good option for central Burmese food at night is Feel Myanmar (124 Pyidaungsu Yeiktha Street), where the food is very fresh, with a wide choice of traditional dishes served with rice—meat and vegetable curries, soups, and a choice of condiments and salads (the stars of Burmese cuisine). The vibe is casual. But if you have time for only one restaurant while you’re in Rangoon, go to Myit Sone, very close to downtown at 22 Baho Road (opposite the Chinese embassy). It serves food from the repertoire of the Kachin, the most populous of the people in the far north of the country. Kachin food was a revelation to me when I got to Burma, with intense flavors, inventive use of fresh herbs, and a palate quite unlike the more oil-based mild flavors of Central Burmese. Order the pounded beef, the fish curry, steamed mixed vegetables, in fact anything suggested to you. A dazzling discovery.