Sharky’s Bagan: Entertaining in the Shadow of the Shwezigon
Visiting our Bagan Restaurant in the Old Shwezigon Theatre, Nyaung-U? Let us tell you about our incredible journey and all of the things that make Sharky's Bagan unique!
When the crowds from the majestic Shwezigon Pagoda visited their local theatre, Aung Mingalar, they’d never have guessed that, years later, a maverick Myanmar foodie would be serving-up organic full-English breakfasts on the stage; that where performers once rehearsed their routines backstage, a chilled cellar of fine wines and champagnes would await connoisseurs; where rowdy punters once sat in awe of performers, a courtyard of climbers, carp filled lily ponds, vines, and shrubs would provide diners with a calm sanctuary away from the heat and spectacle of the ancient town. And to believe that the gourmet European food being served would be cultivated on plots just a few minutes from the theatre? It would have been unthinkable.
Bagan: calm, beautiful, holy: a place to appreciate the finer things in life. An ancient city synonymous with Myanmar, and a location ideal to host Sharky’s farm to table garden restaurant. Set amongst the arid green plains, alongside the endless sea of pagodas, Bagan, on the banks of the great Ayarwaddy, is also where a large amount of Sharky’s fine artisan products are grown and produced: as such, Sharky’s Shwezigon Old Theatre branch gives us an opportunity to showcase our products at their best.
Sharky’s served ‘farm to table’ out of pure necessity and conviction long before the concept of ‘farm to table’ had been coined and cliched. As the company has expanded, our production locations have spread across the entire country. Yet no other region has proved as successful and wondrously fertile as Bagan. When the opportunity to open a branch arrived, the Sharky’s team realised that this was to the perfect moment to finally give our fans the complete Sharky’s experience: with rolling acres of farmland ten minutes from the restaurant, and space for a an on-site vegetable and herb garden, the theatre property represented an ideal location.
Unconvinced after hearing about the theatre when back in Yangon, Sharky was soon to have a change of heart after heading to Bagan on a research mission. Overgrown, rickety, shabby, and unloved, the neglected theatre complex was quick to win over the management team who - with the experience of renovating our heritage property Pansodan branch still fresh in the memory - took up the monumental challenge to bring life and vibrancy back to the stage. Months of on-site living ensued as the team fought to create something in-fitting with Sharky's ethos of instilling creativity, upholding heritage, and bringing novelty before the monsoon season began.
The first move was to take the majority of the theatre’s roof off, creating, in the words of Sharky himself, a "Hanging Gardens of Bagan": four sides of dining and prep rooms encircling a beautiful inner courtyard, still registering in paint the seating arrangements of the old theatre on the asphalt floor. Now visitors have the choice to sit on a double-tiered stage (with fans, air-conditioning and views of the pagoda directly in front), in our private AC-room, or on multiple levels in the gardens in front of the theatre. Across the entire property, hundreds of shrubs, trees and flowers have been brought in to adorn and enshrine the whole restaurant in a jungle of green. Eventually, the inner court will host a farmers market - a showcase of the finest locally made products from the region.
To the rear of the restaurant now lies a prolific vegetable garden, producing all of the herbs, spices, flowers, and leaves needed for the restaurant plus a surplus which is sent down to Yangon for sale in our delis. Our trademark butterfly pea creepers line our trellises (blooming in four new varieties: single and double-leaved, blue and white flowered) alongside our elegant edible frangipani (which are served in our frito misto tempura!) and nasturtiums. Inside on-site sheds, our famous microgreens are grown ready to be served fresh from their incubation trays. Interested? Just ask a member of staff and we will give you the grand tour!
The Old Theatre is now emerging as one of the most unique and creative venues in Myanmar. In the morning, the restaurant abounds with guest enjoying our breakfasts, pastries, and coffees. By night, the stage is used for both diners and entertainers, with an increasing number of functions and events welcoming visitors to Aung Mingalar whilst they dine on fondues, platters and all of Sharky’s classic European dishes (we serve our famous pizzas, pastas, burgers and most other Yangon menu items here as well!) in the convivial temperate climate of Bagan in season. And drinks? We serve craft beer, fine wine, champagne and a whole range of fresh, non-alcoholic treats, including butterfly pea iced tea! By sun or moonlight, Aung Mingalar is the perfect spot for a scenic, relaxing sup!
A Myanmar Mediterranean: Our Bagan Farms
Moving slightly down river, you encounter another site central to the Sharky’s story. In a tranquil valley sitting between two hill ranges rising aside the Irrawaddy lie many dozen acres of fertile land in which the company produce a significant amount of our organic ingredients (and host an even greater number of experiments testing the viability of cultivating new varieties of food in Myanmar.)
A bucolic scene, one would be forgiven for thinking this was Provence, Napa, or the Po Valley were it not for the hundreds of toddy palms, the delicate bamboo huts, and the gardeners in conical hats. Thriving Mediterranean herb bushes run as far as the eye can see in smartly boarded furrows. Various European and Asian varieties of basil provide fragrance.
This acreage is the epitome of Sharky’s, reflecting the values and the work of Ye Htut Win and his staff for over two decades. Heritage seeds collected the world over now germinate here, in central Myanmar, growing as if taking to their own indigenous soils and soon to be harvested for the benefit of visitors to the finest restaurants across the country: all a result of thousands of mini trial-and-error experiments, an unbridled drive to bring world class flavours to a developing country.
This is a propitious valley indeed. Apocryphal stories say that here is where the King and his court would meet at the start of each lunar new year to discuss strategy. The proximity to the great Irrawaddy, the shelter from either side by Bagan’s gentle hills, and the dry climate still make this patch of land somewhere like no other in Myanmar. The breeze is cooling, the ground green and fertile, and the surroundings stunning. With the addition of organic matter and a radical irrigation system which makes use of the farm’s groundwater flow - runoff from the ensconcing hills - Sharky and his team have found a way to produce things unreplicatable anywhere else in the country.
As with Bordeaux - where vineyard proprietors are prohibited from irrigating, forcing the roots of vines to search deep into the earth for water, absorbing a more complex solution of minerals, - dry farming techniques are used here to produce crops which have lower yields yet are healthier, tastier, and more resilient. For other crops, a drip system is used, deriving water from boreholes 350ft into the valley floor and collected in a central reservoir. The PH balance of 7.6 provides an ideal amount of mineralisation to irrigate the unique menagerie of plants. When Sharky discovered this, he knew that he had struck gold.
Bounty of Bagan: The Products of our Farms
This unique confluence of conditions means that Sharky’s is able to produce a remarkable number of products in these farms - many of which are unavailable elsewhere in Myanmar (and some which grow nowhere else in Southeast Asia!).
Despite our work proving the potential offered by certain lands in the region, Bagan is still relatively underdeveloped agriculturally and relies on a market grounded in low profit, high maintenance crops such as peanut and sesame. Aside from providing a pioneering dining experience, another function of Sharky’s in Bagan is that of regional development. Agriculturally, the company is using its plots to help the whole region by verifying the potential of cultivating high value, low maintenance crops that can be used by local businesses across Myanmar: growing both palettes and livelihoods.
To mention but a few of the cultivated herbs, fruits, and vegetables within our Bagan farms:
The arid climate makes our acres the ideal terroir for the cultivation of Mediterranean herbs. Holy basil grows alongside its European cousins (Italian and Greek), rosemary bushes flourish as far as the eye can see, as does oregano (both the Italian, and Middle Eastern za’atar varieties), sage, and tarragon. These are all perennial (except for basil), meaning a constant crop of these increasingly demanded herbs for mouths across Myanmar. Excitingly, we have begun witnessing the development of interesting and delicious new ‘Myanmar’ variants - for example, due to climatic conditions, our dill displays a different colour - a slight yellow - and emits a deeper and more distinctive fragrance, giving a new dimension to dishes which infuse it's qualities.
At Sharky’s, our unique herbs form the base of all of our dishes. However, we use this bounty in a huge variety of other ways. Basil is a component of our microgreen salad and, of course, also the star of our bottled pesto. All of our herbs are available dried for the larder and fresh for the kitchen.
We are currently in the process of introducing bee hives to bolster the supply of our distinctive, seasonally unique, floral Bagan honey. Our thyme and rosemary bushes will use honey bees as pollinators, giving an even more unique quality to our artisan honeys.
We grow olives in Myanmar. A national first, Sharky’s are experimenting with an Italian variety of olive in Bagan. The need for intense daily sunshine followed by cold nights means that such an experiment has yet to succeed elsewhere, but we are making good progress based on our knowledge and the unique locations of our farms. Olive groves are extremely low maintenance once established and we believe that these could become a new cash crop which would greatly benefit the local economy.
Similarly, we are experimenting with a number of different fig varieties - yellow and green figs from Petra and purple and red varieties from Turkey and France - to establish the first fig plantations in Myanmar. In true Sharky’s fashion, these fruits will find their way into many of our products; being offered fresh or dried, in jams and chutneys, and in our desserts and sauces.
Our farms host in excess of 300 toddy trees, offering the potential for the production of Myanmar’s historical tipple of choice, palm wine. Toddy wine is very difficult to create for the mass market due to safety concerns... but never say never! Likewise, our hundreds of ziziphus trees produce large quantities of the ubiquitous jujube fruit, and our drought resistant goji bushes provide us with a good harvest of valuable ‘superfood’ berries.
We are also cultivating moringa, also known as the ‘miracle tree’, which has a variety of fascinating applications; aside from providing the perfect wind barriers to our farms, the tree produces firewood, fruit, and for seeds used in moringa oil which is found in many cosmetics. The leaves of the moringa tree are high in protein and amino acids, and may be processed into supplements in powder and pill form. The flowers provide a delicate flavour to honeys. Fascinatingly, in certain parts of Africa, the powder is used as a lifesaving water-filtration agent.
Bagan is the site of Sharky’s date farms, providing the key ingredient of our best-selling energy bars.
We have been growing blue and red heritage corns from Peru in Bagan for years. This corn is used in a multitude of Sharky’s products, including our flours, tortillas and breads.
We are the first and only company to be cultivating the espelette pepper - the only pepper in Europe with D.O.P protected status, originating from Segida, in the Basque region.
Myanmar is a country famous for it’s fruits - and Sharky’s wants to add to the large list! We are especially proud of our melons - which we puree for our gelato and jam (and may one day find itself in a Sharky’s melon liqueur!) - and our heritage tomatoes - we are preserving local species by cultivating the indigenous ribbed ‘green tiger’, ‘tiger claw’, and elephant toe varieties. Other specialities being produced in Bagan include cherry tomatoes, courgettes, tropical spinach (a drought resistant New Zealand variety), and kaffir limes.
Where Everything Comes Together: Our Ateliers
Once everything is gathered from our farms, it is time to get crafting! Sharky’s makes it’s dishes fresh - so fresh that visitors can witness dishes being created before their own eyes! Not only are meals ‘farm to table’, but dishes and deli products are also crafted and prepared in-house and on-site by our team of artisans. Bagan is a fine example of this - the restaurant is home to a number of ateliers: areas of production where Sharky’s food is prepared to strict quality control procedures, ensuring our famously high standards.
As with our bakery in Yangon, the Bagan team never rests. Working on a shift system, our master bakers take turns preparing doughs and stoking traditional ovens throughout the day and night, making sure that our large selection of artisan loaves are fresh all day, every day.
Our artisan croissants are made in large numbers in their very own cold room, observing classical French traditions to ensure the famous texture and taste of Myanmar’s favourite patisserie. These are sent out in daily batches for guests and pilots of Bagan’s balloon fleets, with the surplus supplied to guests at our restaurant - on the house! Learning from the only certified gelato master in the whole of Myanmar, Sharky’s Kyaw Htut Win (University of Ice Cream, Bologna, Italy!), the Old Theatre restaurant staff work in an artelier dedicated to the production of our famous gelatos and sorbets.
The air is fragrant with tarragon, rosemary, chili, and pepper at our restaurant - we air-dry all of our herbs and spices in-house in Bagan, herbs which are then shipped to restaurants the country over. And it’s not only herbs that are processed here: our semi-sun dried tomatoes are gathered for sale in our delis and to some of Yangon and Mandalay’s finest restaurants. For our pastas, we further gas dry our tomatoes to make a rich and fruity artisan passata.
Catering For The Tourist Trade
Not only is Sharky’s Bagan the nerve centre of many of Sharky’s food production sites, it also supports Bagan’s tourism industry across the board. As with our operations around Yangon, Sharky’s works to provide a number of Bagan’s leading hotels and restaurants with our produce. Most recently, we are proud to have begun working with premier hot-air balloon company, Balloons over Bagan, to provide luxury breakfasts in the field to visitors paying to experience Bagan from the most superlative vantage point - the crows nest of a hot-air balloon. We also cater for a number of the luxury cruise companies making the stunning voyage from Mandalay to Bagan and back, providing award-winning hospitality on-land to those looking to shake off their sea-legs.