Love at First Bite: memories of an inspiring trip to Myanmar

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I arrived in Yangon, Myanmar for the second time in over a week, in late February, just as the weather was shifting from bearable to intolerably hot. I was there to accompany the team from Addenbrooke’s Abroad who work with local health care providers to support and improve care in Trauma care in Yangon General Hospital. I had won the week at an auction at The Addenbrooke’s Centenary Dinner in September last year, and as an Addenbrooke’s trained Nurse in a past life I was tremendously excited about the week ahead. The previous I had spent traveling on the usual tourist trails in the South of the – country – it truly is a beautiful and interesting place and I feel hugely saddened by current events.

Delicious Food – Everywhere:

I had been warned not to expect much from the food in Myanmar,’ little variety, dull flavours’, confirmed a few friends who had previously visited.

How wrong could they have been, had we even been traveling in the same country? Food is everywhere in Myanmar, growing plentifully in the rich and fertile soils along the Irrawaddy; in the hills around Kalaw people toiled in the heat on a patchwork of smallholdings.

Although not as prolific at as they once were, mainly because youngsters prefer the urban life style, the floating gardens of Inle Lake are truly amazing, and in spring and early summer heave with vegetables, herbs and fruit. The lake also teems with fish notably the Inle Carp – hauled aboard wooden boats in conical net baskets by the Shan ‘leg rowing’, fisherman. The daily markets in every town we visited were a joy – whole streets of vendors with stalls piled high with beautiful produce ….. made even more exciting for me because I really hadn’t expected it.

Cooking Lessons – Inle Lake and Yangon

I had treated myself to a cooking classes on Inle Lake and in Yangon with Flavors of Myanmar, getting to grips with the intricacies of several traditional and regional Burmese dishes.

The cuisine is not as hot and rich and as Thai cuisine with its complex spice pastes and coconut based curries, Burmese food, like its people, is understated and gentle. Also like its people it has its own complexity owing to the fusion of many different cultures that meld and blend, bringing influences from other food and cultural traditions. It is bordered by Bangladesh and India, Laos and China all of which have influenced the rich cultural food heritage. Every meal was spiced with a light hand and composed of several tasty dishes usually served together. Broths with fresh dark greens and herbs, Salads of fermented tea leaves and fresh mild ginger, along with curry, the staples of which are fish or vegetables, lightly spiced with turmeric, garlic and fresh tomatoes. You could taste and feel the goodness. It was love at first bite. And so it was that I spent a great deal of my fortnight in serious food heaven.

Food and Hospitality at Yangon General Hospital:

The week with Addenbrooke’s Abroad was a full-on: meetings, discussion groups and visits to hospitals, A&E departments, orthopedic and spinal injuries units, not to mention the university nursing and medical faculties. Everywhere we went we were offered food as a welcome. Delicious sweet treats before heading off on ward rounds, and the most delicious and memorable feast in the nursing faculty.

Bobby Zwe Nanda: The Jamie Oliver of Myanmar

On the final day of the visit the team from Addenbrooke’s Abroad held the formal feedback session which they had been working up to all week. Because of the sensitivity involved it was decided that I would not attend. Instead, they set me up with a very special and personal treat, a wonderful food finale. A day of food-talk and cooking with the Jamie Oliver of Myanmar – Bobby Zwe Nanda.


Bobby in full teaching flow

Bobby’s story is fascination. He remembers always being interested in food, inspired by his father (he doesn’t remember his mother ever cooking), but he hadn’t set out to be a chef, having studied physics at Yangon University. The 1980’s were times of upheaval in Burma (as it was then) and Bobby found himself joining the Merchant Navy instead of perusing a science career. ‘who knows what I was going to do with a degree in physics’, he muses with a smile and a shrug.

Life in the Merchant Navy was good apart from the food. He laughs now as he recalls how vile it was – ‘the chef hadn’t a clue, tipping frozen fish into boiling stock – the result was soup of a kind, with fish cooked half through and still frozen the center!’ – ‘there was nothing for it’, he says, ‘we had to fend for ourselves or starve’. And so, his childhood interest ignited into a quest for knowledge, skills and a contended stomach. He sought out friends who cooked and persuaded Chinese chefs he met, to teach him their craft.

The road for his career is set. When he arrives in the UK to be with his wife Thinn, a trainee Doctor at Addenbrookes, Bobby Initially signed up for a course in Hospitality and Hotel Management but his skill in the kitchen were quickly recognized and he graduated as a chef. His commitment and love of cooking saw him quickly rise through the ranks of the Compass Group, where he also put Burmese food on the map, when he won silver and gold awards, representing them at the Hotel and Catering Awards, Asian Section. He went on to become an Executive Chef, running his own restaurant as well as lecturing in hospitably becoming a Culinary team mentor.

In 2011 the call came from ‘The Lady’ (au sang Suu Kyi), asking him to return to Myanmar to turn the idea of the not-for-profit Hospitality and Catering Training Academy (HCTA), Daw Khin Kyi Foundation academy, into a reality. The job was unpaid and the task onerous, and it is a testament to Bobby’s quiet determination that three years later a beautifully designed building sat in 9 acres of land; the corridors teeming with students often from disadvantaged backgrounds going about their busy training schedules. Bobby was instrumental in the curriculum design, bravely introducing interactive learning to a country more wedded to the didactic ideal.

Bobby’s quiet and graceful manner belies the extent of his energy. Today he oversees the running of his two restaurants, one a fine dining venue, and the more relaxed Babylon Sanctuary Coffee Garden of Yangon. He is a Director of the Brighter Future Foundation which supports the healthcare training and improvement activities in Myanmar which he founded with his wife Thinn (Thinn is co-director of the pathology project set up by Addenbrooke’s Abroad). He is the Co-Founder, Director and Trainer for London Bridge, a vocational education and recruitment centre in Yangon and he also works as a development partner for Tourism Master Plan, which promotes responsible and sustainable tourism in Myanmar.

Bobby is passionate about food provenance and culture in Myanmar. Each region has its own influences, distinct flavours and specialties. When he is not in his restaurants or tending to his other responsibilities Bobby is traveling around the Country selecting the best coffee, the smallest and most delicate chickpeas and talking food with farmers all with the aim of keeping the best of Burma’s traditional foods alive. It’s the same with culinary skills and ethnicity and to this end he regularly showcases on his menus, recipes developed by his young staff who are from all walks of life and various ethnicities within Myanmar.

Careful preparation

Careful preparation by staff at Babylon Sactuary

A Serious Treat – cooking with Bobby on the Terrace of Babylon Sanctuary:

I had met Bobby earlier in the week when he had hosted the Addenbrookes Abroad team the newly opened Babylon Sanctuary. Dinner was an abundance of Burmese street food dishes, samosas and chickpea crackers with spicy dips; mounds of traditional salads – smoky aubergine, papaya and shrimp and the ubiquitous and by far my favorite fresh and zingy ginger salad. Platters of hot spiced black sausage and a succulent and fragrant mutton (or goat as it is called locally) and chickpea curry. And as if we needed more this was all served up with a several different flavours of rice and mashed Yangon potato.

Yangon Market

Choosing from the market

But on this final day I had Bobby all to myself. We walked through the local market where he enlightened me about all the strange and wonderful vegetables, fruits and herbs – he is well known so we were invited to chat and taste as we went. Our basket laden with goodies we returned to Babylon Gardens where I was treated to a cooking lesson on the sunny balcony. As we ground spice pastes, prepared vegetables, fish and prawns for our lunch we talked – food, Myanmar and how Bobby came to be doing what he does. It was for me the perfect ending to an inspiring a memorable trip.


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