The Rangoon Sisters are here to convert you to Burmese food
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Salt, sweet, sour, spice, umami and crunch – Burmese food has it all, and yet it’s still relatively unknown in the west.
However, it’s hardly going to stay this way for long, particularly with the help of Emily and Amy Chung and their new cookbook, The Rangoon Sisters. The Chungs have Burmese parents and their nickname comes from the largest city in Myanmar – Yangon – which is also known as Rangoon.
Most people still aren’t really familiar with Burmese cuisine, which Amy drily describes as “absolutely delicious, obviously”. So, what sums it up?
“It does have influences from neighbouring countries, like Thailand, China and India, so there might be some familiar flavours and spices – and there’s lots of onion, garlic and ginger,” explains Amy. “But Burmese cuisine has a lot to offer as an individual cuisine as well; it has curries which tend to be more mildly spiced and aromatic after slow cooking, and you also have lots of vibrant fresh salads, which are more substantial than your average salad. It’s full of textures and different condiments.”
Emily says her favourite thing about Burmese food is “the extra bits you can add onto your plate, to make each mouthful a different flavour”. She associates an “intensity and saltiness” with it because of the prevalence of “shrimpy, fishy flavours”. This, coupled with all the dips and sauces that tend to feature, means “you can make your plate your own”, she adds. “So if you’d like lots of chilli flavour, you can have that, and you can alter the sourness as well – there’s something for everybody.”
The sisters were born and bred in south London and say their Anglo-Burmese-Chinese heritage inspires their cooking. Their food careers started at a grassroots level, when they started showcasing Burmese food through supper clubs.
Looking back at their first one in 2013, the sisters can’t help but laugh. “We hadn’t really thought too much about what we were undertaking,” says Emily with a groan. Instead of starting small and building their way up, their first event was for 60 people, which Emily says was “quite frantic when we were in the kitchen”. However, by the end of the night, they had a room full of happy guests and the sisters had well and truly caught the supper club bug.
All of the recipes they served for that first ever event are now in their cookbook – starting with chickpea fritters (which Emily calls “a deep-fried crunchy fritter, which has chilli, turmeric, paprika and a bit of coriander, served with a tamarind sour-spicy dip”), followed by ohn no khauk swe – a classic Burmese dish of coconut chicken noodles, often served at birthdays – and ending with mango cheesecake.
Talking to them both, it’s clear Emily and Amy have a unique rapport as sisters – and this is often felt in the kitchen too, they agree. “With any siblings, things can vary and be a bit up and down,” Amy admits. “But obviously we’ve been able to work together and things have been successful – but there are times when things get more heated, particularly running up to a supper club.”
So is there much bickering? In typical sibling style, Emily says it wasn’t uncommon in the stressful build-up to an event for them to raise their voices at each other – but being so close helped. “That’s how we were effectively communicating in that situation, and then we’re fine with each other, you just forget about it,” she says.
Their quest to champion Burmese food might be going from strength to strength, but the Chungs haven’t given up their day jobs. Both sisters are also doctors – and they say this complements their culinary side hustle perfectly.
“It helps in the sense that as a medic, to get your day done, you have to be organised, you have to be able to manage your time, and you have to be able to prioritise and communicate with your team,” says Emily – and the same applies to cooking.
They both find food the perfect outlet for their high pressure jobs. “I think it’s really nice to be able to do something quite different, and put your energy and focus into something else that you can get pleasure out of – even though it is quite hard and tiring sometimes,” Emily adds. Amy agrees, saying their food passion helps give them a “work/life balance, in a way”.
It might be an escape from the intense world of medicine, but writing a cookbook came with its own set of difficulties. “One of the challenges we both found is when you’re doing recipes from your mum or grandma or dad, they don’t have fixed instructions or quantities,” says Emily. “So you have to watch what they’re doing and you can’t take your eyes off them, because they’ll be adding this and that without thinking about how much.
“So I think that was the challenge, because you pick up those behaviours, where you’re just tasting and adding and not really thinking about it… But now at least it’s all documented.”
- The Rangoon Sisters: Recipes From Our Burmese Family Kitchen by Emily and Amy Chung, recipe photography by Martin Poole, is published by Penguin, priced £20.