In Myanmar, a common poster details a million ways to die (or hate life). An ice cream + cucumber = chest congestion. Pumpkin + prawns = dysentery. Rabbit meat + mushrooms = death.
All photos by the author.
The Food That Shouldn't Eat Together poster is a familiar sight around Myanmar. These mass-produced prints detail the supposed effects of combining different foods–with consequences ranging from the inconvenient to the deadly. A variety of meats, fruits, sweets, and drinks are covered, from the hard to procure (the apparently-deadly meal of rhinoceros and fish) to more common provisions (like milk and “sour food,” which will also allegedly kill you).
The poster is based far more on superstition than science, but that doesn’t seem to affect its popularity, especially in rural areas of the country. “Many homes have it hanging in the kitchen. They believe it out of fear without [any] proof,” said skeptical Myanmar author Ma Thanegi, who has written several books about local cuisine.
And, it turns out, the poster is just the tip of the food superstition iceberg in Myanmar. There’s a raft of beliefs which govern what should and shouldn’t be eaten at certain times in one’s life. Expectant mothers are advised against eating bananas or chiles—the former supposedly causing fat babies, and the latter resulting in bald ones. Bamboo shoots can lead to postnatal health problems. Spicy foods are seen to exacerbate wounds and other injuries. Oranges are bad for coughs. The list goes on.
Matthew Walton, a Myanmar expert at the University of Oxford, said that some Myanmar residents will also create their own food superstitions based on experiences around a certain product. “I have lots of [Myanmar] friends who have foods that they avoid, often for family reasons, in that multiple people in their family died or became ill allegedly after eating a particular food, so everyone in the family is taught to avoid it,” he said.
The exact origins of these food superstitions remain murky. Ye Htut Win, the founder of popular Yangon restaurant Sharky's, had a few theories. He said that Myanmar’s geographic position—wedged between China, the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Southeast Asia means that the country is influenced by lots of “ancient ways … and philosophies” surrounding food from across the region. As an example, he said that “the Chinese philosophy of Yin foods and Yang foods” is knowingly and unknowingly applied locally.
“One time I ordered a chicken and bitter gourd curry for lunch. The storekeeper warned me that these two dishes would bring death. I ate them both. I’m still alive”
Ye Htut Win added that a few individual ingredients shrouded in superstition are sometimes culprits of food poisoning and/or food allergies (such as dairy products, pork, and mushrooms). This may be why there’s an alarmist attitude around them. But even still, most of the beliefs are “old wives’ tales,” Ye Htut Win said with a laugh, “we need Mythbusters [to come visit].”
It’s compounded by the fact that Myanmar is an extremely superstitious place more generally. Saw Myat Yin wrote in the travel book Culture Shock Myanmar that “events will frequently be interpreted as omens and signs and rumors are usually swallowed whole and passed on.” People from all walks of life (from farmers to politicians) often make decisions based on clairvoyance and astrology.
One big reason why so many superstitions hold such sway in 21 st-century Myanmar is the more than five decades of repressive military rule that only ended (nominally at least) in 2016. Over this time, the country became a pariah state, largely disconnected from the rest of the world. The education system discouraged critical thinking and both the media and entertainment industries were tightly controlled by the government. It certainly wasn’t the environment to challenge long-held beliefs, even those about ice cream and cucumbers.
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54-year-old office assistant Myint Wai Phyo grew up under military rule and is one of many in her generation that fervently believes in food superstitions. She said the most worrisome combination on The Food That Shouldn’t Eat Together poster is mixing duck eggs and watermelon, which “will definitely kill you.” And it wasn’t only Myint Wai Phyo’s parents that propagated these beliefs; she said to this day, neighborhood doctors endorse certain food superstitions. “A doctor once told me that if I have a fever and eat a banana, it could be fatal,” she said.
However, there’s a widening generation gap in Myanmar. As the country slowly opens up, some young people are starting to forge their own path, in areas ranging from music to the arts to yes, superstitions. Take for example 24-year-old Kyaw Soe Htet. The Yangon-based newspaper employee is convinced that The Food That Shouldn’t Eat Together poster is nonsense. He said it’s important to side with the realm of “science and [actual] experts” over tradition in instances like this.
And Kyaw Soe Htet occasionally likes to prove his point. “One time I ordered a chicken and bitter gourd curry for lunch. The storekeeper warned me that these two dishes would bring death. I ate them both. I’m still alive,” he told MUNCHIES.
Seismic cultural shifts are well under way in Myanmar. Official censorship of the press has ended, the once-inaccessible internet is now ubiquitous, and American businesses like KFC have begun to open their doors there. It remains to be seen if these food superstitions will endure in the years ahead. But for the time being, a rabbit meat and mushroom dish is very much off the menu in downtown Yangon.