“KFC is no good,” says a wiry Burmese teenager inside a shared taxi from a Aung Mingalar bus station to downtown Yangon.
“What about McDonald’s?” I ask as the taxi shuttles past roadside noodle shops.
The young man shakes his head silently, admitting that he’s never heard of McDonald’s.
This is no surprise, as Burma is one of the few countries where McDonald’s has yet to enter.
Before decades of isolation and sanctions, Burma had no predilection for—let alone access to—Western fast food. Today, however, foreign brands like KFC are sweeping the market, upending a traditional food economy based partly on staples like thoke (salads), lahpet (pickled tea leaves), and meeshay (rice noodles). The first Western fast food chain to enter the once-hermetic southeast Asian country is Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In Yangon’s downtown Pabedan township, situated amid the hustle and bustle of Bogyoke Aung San Road, Colonel Sanders has set up a 6,000-square-foot shop next to vendors plying the streets with deep-fried tofu and succulent meat-and-vegetable skewers. On the pavement, books evoking a more nostalgic Burma, such as George Orwell’s Burmese Days, are laid out next to calendars optimistic about its future. I pick up one calendar featuring Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s visage. The celebrated democracy icon’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide election in November, and longtime observers expect accelerated and robust economic growth amid increasing foreign investment, as the country welcomes a greater number of fast food chains from abroad.
KFC, which opened its doors in Yangon in mid-2015, serves a maximum of 240 people at any given time, and appears on the vanguard of a movement by Western fast food companies to stake out real estate in Burma. While in the US, some consumers have begun favoring local and organic, in Burma the appetite is increasingly for foreign foods.
“It has been our dream for a long time to have a KFC in Yangon, one of the great cities of the world,” announced the KFC CEO Micky Pant during the shop’s launch last year.
“Although [Burmese] street food is wonderful, Western fast food offerings haven’t been fantastic until now,” says Burmese food blogger and author MiMi Aye, who sees KFC’s entry into the market as a welcome shift.
“KFC wins [Burmese] hearts as it’s seasoned and coated very much to Burmese tastes—though we’d add turmeric—and it’s served on the bone, the way that we’re used to. I was only concerned that the fries would be flabby,” Aye says.
When I visited KFC’s downtown store in Yangon, I encountered Burmese diners sampling Colonel Sanders’ fast food for the first time.
Among them was 22-year-old Kaung Kyaw, an IT technician on his maiden trip to the fried chicken emporium. With his laptop open and empty cardboard containers lined up around him, Kyaw expressed satisfaction with the dining experience: “The taste is great. KFC is the first world-famous fast food brand in Myanmar. All the Burmese people like it. But in my opinion, I don’t think KFC’s spicy fried chicken tastes so great.”
For diners like Kyaw, the air-conditioned, modern interiors offer a nice reprieve from the sun beating down on Yangon residents. With an all-English menu, the chain’s clientele are clearly consumers belonging to upper-middle-class or higher income brackets, a segment that is likely to increase post-economic reforms, as the military’s hand weakens in the national economy.
Still, in Yangon, KFC’s menu is not indigenized to the local tastes—there’s no ngapi (fish or shrimp paste), pickled mangos, or desserts based on tropical fruits like pomelo or mangosteen. Instead the menu offers up options like a 2,500-kyat (about $2 US) rice box set with a soft drink, a 1,600-kyat ($1.30) egg tart and cappuccino, and a 12,000-kyat ($9.90) five-piece chicken-and-fries bucket, among others.
Moreover, although diners are quick to appreciate an all-American menu, KFC’s pop culture iconography and branding have yet to infiltrate the public consciousness. I asked Kyaw and his friends about Colonel Sanders.
“Who’s that?” I pointed to the elderly white man whose face was printed all over KFC’s downtown store.
Kyaw and his friend Pyae Kyaw Pk shook their heads in confusion. Colonel Sanders appeared to be an enigma to all of Burma, including the dozens of diners gathered to eat in the store that day.
Beyond branding and menus, another point of contention among diners was the affordability of the meal.
“I think it may be a little expensive for general workers,” Kyaw said.
“Most people can’t afford much foreign food, so they stick to eating cheap, affordable [local] food,” said Samuel Leebrya, a 14-year-old diner.
Nonetheless, the high prices did not dim the hopes of young, excited Burmese queuing up around the block for KFC in anticipation of their meals.
For 19-year-old Yangon resident Ma Hnin Aye Latt, the newfound access to popcorn chicken is a treat, but sizes are not as supersized as he expected from an American chain.
“I’m a fried-chicken-lover,” Latt said. “Now I no longer need to order KFC from my uncle in Singapore. However, I hate how small the pieces of chicken, tiny pack of french fries, and undersized cup of Coca-Cola are,”
For these reasons, his first try of KFC left him disappointed, not helped by the long waits: “There was a long queue; I had to wait about three hours, which made me mad. But the taste was mouth-watering and delectable, so I’m satisfied with the flavor and taste.”
“Myanmar is blessed with a rich history and culture and is poised for strong economic growth in the coming years; and now joins over 120 countries and territories that enjoy the delicious taste of KFC,” said Pant, KFC’s CEO, at the launch last year.
However, despite Burma’s newfound prosperity, fast food is never a health boon. The life expectancy of an average Burmese adult is 64 to 68, compared to 78.8 years in the United States. From 2010 to 2014, adult obesity rates skyrocketed by nearly 30 percent in the southeast Asian nation, and the number is expected to rise precipitously with incoming fast food from the US.
Moreover, Burma’s rising obesity rates do not bode well for the country in transition. Burma only spends a paltry 1.8 percent of its GDP on healthcare, among the lowest of any government in the world. And the potential health risks are not a welcome topic in a country with ramshackle edifices masquerading as hospitals and poor public expenditure on basic facilities.
For their part, Burmese dining at KFC are cognizant of the looming health risks nearly destined to befall the country, given the opportunities they’ve offered the foreign chains. “Fast food is not good for health,” says Kyaw. “If we eat it, of course we will become fat.”
“Burmese food is healthier, obviously,” echoes Leebrya. “But it isn’t as popular as fast food.”
This awareness hasn’t stopped teenage Leebrya from introducing his elderly grandparents to KFC. The elders, who grew up subsisting off traditional Burmese dishes like mohinga or lahpet thoke, have taken to the American fast food with great relish: “They said it tasted better than the [food] they were used to … My granddad kept asking for more.”
Yet when asked about the potential health drawbacks of the food his grandparents were consuming, Leebrya responded: “Since it’s the first time, we don’t think about it much. But soon when the [fast food chains] get more common, we will question it.”
Indeed, for most Yangon residents, fast food outings are largely reserved for special occasions like birthdays or graduations. For now, consumption isn’t rampant enough to raise alarm about the impending health risks or loss of a traditional food culture.
“It’s not only American fast food that will raise obesity levels,” Kyaw explains. “It’s all kind of fast food, including Burmese.”
This article was originally published at VICE Munchies.