Our columnist, Emma Freud, celebrates Burmese cuisine with Emily and Amy Chung, whose successful supper clubs led to their first cookbook.
The Rangoon Sisters are two young doctors whose Burmese supper clubs became legendary. They came to my house for mohinga – a rice noodle & fish soup described by food critic Grace Dent as ‘the most delicious thing I put in my mouth in 2017’.
Emma Did you grow up on Burmese food?
Emily Not really – we had a mix of everything. Mum comes from Burma (we still call it that, though it’s now known as Myanmar), Dad was Chinese, and we’re English, so we ate food from all three cultures and more. We often cooked for the family, and made the Christmas dinner while we were still at school.
E Why did you both want to work in medicine?
Amy We were both good at science, and there was a certain expectation and pressure at our school to go in that direction. But I have no regrets – it’s good. I’m doing psychiatry in east London, and Emily’s in south London working in sexual health and HIV.
Emma So how did you end up with a supper club on the side?
Amy We wanted to spread knowledge and awareness of Burmese food and what it offers. When we started the supper clubs back in 2013, there wasn’t much access to it and we wanted people to try it. People expect it to be like Thai food – and there are similarities – but it has its own flavours and textures that make it unique.
Emily We also wanted to give ourselves a challenge. The food industry is so different to working in hospitals, and it’s quite nice for us to have that break. When you apply for medical school, you have to show you’re an all-rounder, so you’re encouraged to do the Duke of Edinburgh Award, or play an instrument. But when you start work, you don’t have time for any of that stuff.
Amy In medicine, we know people that have become burnt out because they don’t give themselves time to do other things.
Emma Anything that slows you down and encourages you to look in another direction has got to be healthy. I also cook for that reason. So how did your first supper club come about?
Amy We went to an American supper club in Walthamstow that served different cuisines each time. At that point, Burmese food wasn’t something many people had heard of. We already liked cooking and entertaining, so we talked to the man running the event, and he said yes. It wasn’t a thought-out decision – he didn’t know us, but he somehow trusted us to do it.
Emma What did you make?
Emily The same dish you’re making today – mohinga. It’s the national dish of Myanmar, usually eaten at breakfast, and you can get it on most street corners and in restaurants. Everyone has their favourite vendor, and the best ones sell out quickly.
Amy The version we have in Yangon (formerly Rangoon, hence our name) is made with catfish and sliced banana stem. We can’t get those easily here, but you get a good flavour substitute with canned pilchards instead of catfish, and shallots instead of banana stem. It’s comforting, moreish, and full of flavour and texture, including one of our favourite fried foods, pe kyaw – a crispy cracker made from dried chickpeas.
Emma Did that first event go well?
Amy We had no idea it was going to be so much work to prep and run. We always ask three or four friends to help us – we don’t pay them and they still want to do it – but it’s really hard work. I think it went okay.
Emma Do you both cook everything together?
Amy We have things that we are better at. Anything deep-fried, Emily loves doing. I’m curries and sweet things. We both do portion control.
Emma Is that difficult?
Emily At our last supper club, we had 90 people, and when it was over, we had enough noodles left for 90 people.
Emma Wow. Massive fail. Your supper clubs tend to donate the profits to charity – how much are you able to give?
Amy It depends, but a few thousand. We sent the money from one of the first clubs to a charity called Medical Action Myanmar. They have clinics that focus on HIV and TB. Emily volunteered with them a few years ago on the HIV side of things. As there’s little mental health provision in Myanmar, I taught the trainee doctors and counsellors – they’re so keen to learn new skills.
Emily We brought you some treats – a relish called balachaung. It’s dried shrimp, onion, garlic, chilli flakes and sesame. I sometimes have it on buttered bread.
Emma Dried shrimp crops up a lot in your dishes – what’s the point of it?
Emily It’s so important. Like fish sauce or shrimp paste, it gives it that other layer. All Burmese food looks for a balance between sour, salty and spicy, but unlike Thai food, there isn’t much sweetness. More sourness and ‘shrimpiness’. (I try it – it’s not like anything I’ve ever eaten before, and is a bit like eating a dried shrimp that, just before it was dried, ate a spicy curry).
Amy We also brought lahpet – a salad of pickled tea leaves. The leaves look rank on their own, but you mix them with cabbage, fried butter beans, peanuts, garlic, sesame, chilli and some lime. It’s unique to Myanmar.
Emma Wow – this is gorgeous. Why have I never even heard of pickled tea before?
Amy Partly because it doesn’t look very nice! The tea leaf gives a little caffeine kick – it’s great as a pick-me-up. I once ate a bowl of leftovers and then couldn’t sleep.
Emma Your first book comes out soon and it’s so beautiful!
Amy I’m really proud of it and excited, though to be honest we’ve been working on it for two years and I’m slightly sick of reading it! But, it still seems unreal that we’re being given opportunities like this.
Emma My theory is, it’s karmic. It’s because you’re doctors. If you put healing into the world, good things like this should happen to you. Would you ever do this full time?
Emily No, it’s nearly 20 years of my life that I’ve trained to be a specialist, and I couldn’t bear to not do it. The NHS is the best thing ever and I’m always going to be part of that. I don’t want it to end, and I’d never stop fighting for it or supporting it. Not even for mohinga!
Find the recipe for mohinga in the May 2020 issue of BBC Good Food magazine.
Read more articles by Emma Freud
The Rangoon Sisters Cookbook by Amy and Emily Chung (£20, Ebury Press) is due to be released 9 July.
Good Food contributing editor Emma Freud is a journalist and broadcaster, director of Red Nose Day and a co-presenter of Radio Four’s Loose Ends.