Thursday, September 21, 2017

Could I see the Myanmar menu, please?

I don't mean to embarrass anyone. But I often feel, when I ask the question that often springs to my lips when I eat out in Yangon’s rapidly diversifying restaurant scene, that everyone else in the room has stopped talking and turned to look at me in amazement.

“Could I see the Myanmar menu, please?”

Photo: Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar TimesPhoto: Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times

A simple enough question, you might think. After all, we are in Myanmar. Say you’re in an American-style diner, a Paris-style bistro or an Italian trattoria and you, world traveller that you are, feel perfectly at home as you scan the menu. But what about your Myanmar friends or business associates, who don’t know fusilli from grits?

Once I got thinking about this, a quick check revealed that five out of seven restaurants that I scouted offered menus only in English, with no translations; only two had menus in both English and Myanmar. I asked why.

It’s about demographics. Most of Yangon’s new restaurants are geared toward foreign customers, most of whom, whatever their country of origin, will be familiar with English.

But what about Rangoon Tea House, whose manager, U Soe Htike, told me, “A lot of Myanmar people speak English”.

The general manager of the recently opened Filipino chicken franchise Peri Peri, Daw Yuzana, said, “We want to be international. People of different ethnicities who speak different languages all come here, and English is the most common language. We want the menu to be as concise as possible, and we felt that adding a translation might make it too big and overwhelming.”

Nonetheless, there are also establishments that feel that including both English and Myanmar versions is the best strategy. Daw Su Su Tin, one of the owners of Monsoon, said, “Our customers include both foreigners and locals. So we decided not only to use both languages, but also to list the main ingredients, and to include pictures of the dishes.” Daw Su Su takes personal pride in the bilingual menu, which she translated herself.

Even so, other restaurants which specialise in Myanmar cuisine offer English-only menus. “We want to introduce Myanmar food to foreigners,” said U Soe Htike. So what would be the point of a Myanmar-language menu the customers can’t read?” There’s also the argument that Myanmar customers in Myanmar restaurants already know what they want: mohinga or nan gyi thoke. Who needs a menu?

From a business standpoint, RTH and Peri Peri can justify their decision. But the experience of Monsoon, which has been extremely successful in the 10 years that it’s been open, receiving prestigious culinary awards and hosting such customers as Bill Clinton, seems to show that putting in the effort to translate your menu only helps, never hinders, business.

Now, the owner of an Italian restaurant might argue that you can’t correctly translate “Spaghetti Carbonara” into Myanmar. But you could start by listing the ingredients in the local language.

I’m tired of going out to dinner with Myanmar friends who are perfectly well-educated but have no idea how to read the menu and are reduced to pointing at pictures or asking the waiter. It’s embarrassing.

We’re told Myanmar is opening up, but that works both ways. Myanmar people are becoming interested in, and being introduced to, other cultures. I’m all for restaurants and chefs sharing other nation’s foods with our country, but you cannot share much, if at all, if you are adamant about sticking to a foreign language. That’s not sharing with the Myanmar people; that’s sharing with a select few who speak English.

I am a huge fan of all the restaurants that I looked at, and the quality and passion that are evident in all their meals. But I was privileged to receive an English education. Most of my compatriots did not. If I go to a restaurant in Paris, I’m grateful if they have an English menu, but I don’t expect it. I’d like to think foreigners in Yangon would agree. There’s no reason why a restaurant in Yangon can’t have a bilingual menu. After all, we are in Myanmar.

What do you think? Is Yangon being subjected to culinary-linguistic imperialism? Are your Myanmar friends being made to feel like foreigners in their own country, or infantilised by having to point to pretty pictures to order their food? Or is being presented with an incomprehensible menu a necessary side effect of Myanmar’s reinsertion into the international community? Send us your views to or tweet us @TheMyanmarTimes.

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