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Cho Lei of Tree Food

On jaggery, and other forgotten, precious things of Myanmar.


The flat landscape at the heart of Myanmar, an area referred to as the ‘dry zone’, is peppered prodigiously with palmyra palm trees. If passing through this landscape in the morning or late afternoon, travellers will likely see farmers scaling the 100 feet slender trunks to the bound nodules at the top, where they tap the sap into the charred clay pots tied to their waist.

Thatched huts in the dry zone around Bagan welcome travellers in for a glass of palm wine or toddy beer. Also on offer is jaggery. Jaggery (‘htan nyed’ in Burmese) is a traditional Burmese sweet snack made of palm sugar. Often taken after a meal, it is believed to be good for digestion. A favourite of children - and often dished out by the grandparents - talk of jaggery conjures up rich memories of childhood.

And yet, this is less and less the case for Burmese children today. Jaggery is no longer commonly eaten at home, and no longer desired by children due to the onslaught of confectionaries that now stream over the border from Thailand and elsewhere.

Ma Cho Lei Aung, an artist at heart, has begun to set this straight with her company Tree Food, launched in September 2015, offering jaggery in dainty sizes and a variety of flavours. Chic packaging and marketing has led to her ‘art food’ to be a quick success.

More than simply encouraging people to eat more jaggery, Cho Lei is on a mission to preserve the heritage of her country. Now that Myanmar is opening up to the world, Cho Lei’s hip products are becoming a popular snack to offer to travellers. Additionally, they are a favourite with local people, encouraging them to once more dwell on childhood memories.  

Sampan Travel sat down to talk to Cho Lei about preserving such memories and promoting Myanmar culture and tradition.


Please say a little about yourself and how Tree Food came to be.

I am Cho Lei Aung, a graduate from medical school. I was not actually interested in becoming a doctor, so I tried to change my career to business. But I did not really have any idea, or skills! But my sister had one skill, she could make clothes. So we two together wanted to be manufacturers and sell wholesale, but we failed actually. So we became like a tailor shop.

After that, I felt this is not by passion, so while we are doing the tailor shop I tried to learn the art of painting and designing, and doing some installations. At that time I fell in love with art, I was dreaming about becoming an artist. I tired to be a artist, but my family could not accept that. I knew i needed money to survive so I tried to think about how art can be used in a product; how art can be applied to something else. So I tried to find something I can do.

One day I thought about food. The colour combination, the spices, the oil … you can mix it up and make art! Food is art, actually. I tried to make food in an artistic way. A simple dream. Later I thought about Myanmar traditional food, and I found jaggery.

Everyone in Myanmar has been forgetting about jaggery for a long time. We now have lots of choice, lots of imported food. Human beings are changing their behaviour day by day. So toddy palm jaggery should change into something too. Change into something more convenient, something for this era, this day. I think [the traditional pieces of jaggery] are too big for the people right now to eat, so I wanted to make small pieces.

Cho Lei of Tree Food, Cho Lei in the Dry Zone, Myanmar - Sampan Travel Cho Lei in the Dry Zone, Bagan

The toddy palm farmers said it was impossible. But this made me very curious as to why it is impossible. I think it is possible, why not possible? And I made it! I tried for three to four months, and I made it small.

But there were still lots of difficulties in that. OK it is small, but would anyone buy it? I thought about chocolate. Chocolate has lot of variety and options. Why not jaggery too? So I tried a lot of flavours.

Right now I have four flavours, each flavour has a special function:

Lemon flavour, has the smell of lemon, so if we are traveling and we have dizziness or abdominal discomfort we can eat this. Ginger jaggery is very good for pregnant women, because jaggery has a lot of iron and this together with ginger makes the body warm. Also in the winter season we can eat this to prevent the common cold. Yogurt flavour is for the children, as it is a little bit milky. And then plumb masala - the spicy one! This is especially to make the people remember their childhood. When we were young we ate a lot of preserved plumb, but right now they are forgotten. I make the flavours to make us remember our childhood.


How important to you is it too hold on to traditional cultural aspects of Myanmar for the benefit of Myanmar’s children?

The message I would like to give is that we are forgetting about the old things. Tree Food jaggery is in a modern design, so young people like me are very interested in buying it. So we buy it and we take it to the home, and after dinner we have the jaggery and we can talk about childhood memories. I want Tree Food to be a way of communication to support the family; for them to talk about memory and about funny things, with grandma and grandfather. This can be a nice communication tool for them, to talk about memories, and other lovely things.


So today in Myanmar children do not eat jaggery?

They forget about it already, these old things. And now they have a lot of choice on the supermarket shelves. And even at big international events, the hotels use candy made in Thailand. Why not offer jaggery?


What are Tree Food’s ambitions for the future?

I want Tree Food to stand as an innovative and modernised Myanmar traditional food manufacturer. So my plan is to make Myanmar traditional food into something else that can go into the world. I change the design of the jaggery because I want it to be for this era, this market. This is my dream.

Cho Lei of Tree Food - Tree Food Products - Sampan Travel Tree Food Products

You wish to promote Myanmar culture and tradition through the jaggery?

I always talk to people that are promoting food and culture and promoting traditions, it is not only my job. The whole country should do this. Look at South Korea. They have kimchi, and the whole world knows about kimchi; how to eat, how to make, how the women are preparing, how the men are eating ...

Or Vietnamese food like Pho. In the US everyone knows how to eat Pho. But no-one knows about Burmese food! Burmese people are not very good at marketing, at promoting things. This is a weakness; there is a lot we have to do. We have to explain and give things as a gift to a foreigner, explaining how to make, explaining how to eat. We have to export to the world; we need exposure. So I would like to request my Myanmar people to promote our traditions more.


Myanmar is changing fast. It is developing fast and ‘opening up to the world’ once more. Do you think it is important now more than ever to protect Burmese culture and tradition?

We have to change a little bit so to promote our culture and tradition to the world. For example, if I sold traditional jaggery, it would be a little bit harder to promote. We have to change these things, just a small amount. I think we have a lot of opportunity right now. We have to grab that. Ten years ago, there was not much chance to do something creative. Now, it is not a perfect time, but we have to try.


As more tourists come to this country, knowledge about Myanmar culture and tradition will spread. Are you happy with the increase in travellers to Myanmar?

I am very happy if lots of people come and visit us! I think a lot of people really fall in love with Myanmar. My foreign friends, they come to Myanmar, and say ‘Really nice! The people are really nice!’

Myanmar was a very hidden country before opening up 5 or 6 years ago. But Myanmar is just opening now. And there are a lot of hidden, precious, wonderful things still in Myanmar, still happening in Myanmar. So now is a great time to visit. I think everyone falls in love with Myanmar after they come and visit.


And hopefully your jaggery too ...

I hope so!

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