In Person

Burmese Jaggery ‘A Reflection of Childhood’ for Local Entrepreneur

By Tin Htet Paing 23 January 2017

A brown-colored block of sweet jaggery is a gift from above. Made of sugar from the sap of toddy palm trees, it is a traditional dessert in Burma often eaten after dinner to aid digestion. After Rangoon entrepreneur Ma Cho Lei Aung thought to transform the cherished dessert into an organic souvenir, it has become beyond food—her jaggery has become the story of traditional Burmese identity.

Although she studied to become a doctor, 28-year-old Ma Cho Lei Aung now crafts every part of her jaggery by hand, from the bite-sized desserts to the artwork on the packaging. She called her brand “Tree Food” to reflect the toddy palms that it comes from. Last week, Irrawaddy reporter Tin Htet Paing met with Ma Cho Lei Aung in her downtown shop to hear the story of her sweet jaggery journey.

What drew you to jaggery?

As much as we ate jaggery when we were young, it easily skipped our minds. When we became adults, many other food and snacks surrounded us and we didn’t really notice it anymore. One day, I happened to eat jaggery as a dessert after my meal at a restaurant. I took two or three bites but couldn’t eat the whole thing. I am very frugal and didn’t want to waste the rest of the block. I thought, why don’t people make bite-sized blocks of jaggery so that there is no waste. That was 2014.

I wanted to discover the mystery behind jaggery and traveled to the nearest toddy palm tree plantation in Bago. I asked the toddy palm tree owners why they didn’t make bite-sized pieces. They said the art of making jaggery is difficult and they couldn’t make small pieces for me. But I knew there must be a way and tried to make bite-sized blocks in my own kitchen. I was finally able to make it.

Tree Food’s jaggery on sale in downtown Rangoon. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

These bite-sized pieces did not last long, however. They melted after a few hours. I tested several variations and failed but I finally succeeded in making it last without melting.

I asked myself, “So what? Who would buy it anyway?” One day, I was shopping and saw chocolates. Chocolates are actually more than a kind of food. They have many varieties and different flavors. Then I thought, “Why can’t I make jaggery like this?” Since then, I tried making my jaggery with different flavors putting everything I saw in it. After many tests and adjustments, I found four flavors that people would like—ginger, lemon, plum, and yogurt.

When did you establish your Tree Food brand?

After all that testing it took me about two years and I entered the market in September 2015.

Ma Cho Lei Aung’s unique bite-sized jaggery. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ The Irrawaddy)

Can you talk about how you managed to get it into the market?

The market it actually went into was the souvenir market. At first, it was in bottles. I wanted to be environmentally friendly and save costs. I later switched to handmade paper bags with my handwriting and drawings on them. I just asked a few shops I knew to sell my jaggery.

Where did you get your raw toddy palm sap?

From Kyaukpadaung [Mandalay Division] and Pakokku [Magwe Division] in upper Burma.

What kind of challenges did you face to establish your brand?

I still have many challenges now and always will. When I started, the financial struggle was a major challenge. Another was collecting the raw ingredients—they are limited and seasonal.

When I started getting orders, the first difficulty I faced was a human resource problem. It was originally a one-man business and I couldn’t handle it alone anymore when I started getting orders. I also could not find a skilled worker to hire. It was a major headache.

Now jaggery has been available for a year, what do you think of its journey?

Whenever I have to do interviews with the press, I do reflect on the journey. When I started it, I was young and risked many mistakes. But I now think it’s worth the risk. When I look back at the journey, I think I was very brave. I wouldn’t dare do the same thing now.

Did you receive any orders from foreign countries?

No, but some tourists bought it at the airport souvenir shops and later placed orders online. There was a German actor who bought it at the airport and then placed an online order to give Christmas presents to his friends, he said. I was very happy to know that my Burmese jaggery was going to be their Christmas presents, as opposed to chocolates.

What is important for a sustainable business?

There are two parts. First, is finance. It needs to be financially stable. Second is will power, an attitude to continue doing what you believe in. For start-ups, if a product is not making any profit and is not successful, you should stop making the product. It doesn’t mean you should give up. If you give up, you lose your chance to succeed. What is important is that you need to keep walking your path with will power.

What is your philosophy about food?

Food goes beyond the definition of food. It’s an art. Putting many different things together seems easy. But it’s actually very artistic. Food contains colors, creation, and taste. It’s like a painting. You have to know which color you should use and the timing of when to stop.

Every country has its own food. You are what you eat. It’s an identity; how eastern countries eat and how western countries eat. Your food tells your background, your experience and your culture. Food tells everything about you. Burmese meals have such a strong taste and they show both climate and history. What you eat is your identity.

Tree Food can be a connection for Burmese people who live in foreign countries to their home country. They may miss things back home and their childhood. It can be a reflection of childhood. We can spread our identity and culture by promoting our food.

What plans do you have for the future?

When supply and demand are balanced, I am thinking of marketing my products. Also, I am trying offer different products as well.