We invited Emily and Amy Chung, also known as the Rangoon Sisters, to see our latest exhibition Burma to Myanmar and discuss the role food has played in connecting them with their Burmese heritage.
The sisters started a supper club back in 2013 to share their passion for Burmese cooking. Since then they've raised over £10,000 for charity through these clubs and they published their first cookbook in 2020, which celebrates the incredible food and flavours found throughout Myanmar.
'You're Sino-Anglo-Burmese' Dad would say to us. We remember thinking that sounded long and complicated. Growing up, explaining where you were 'from' was always a bit complicated. Often people would look quizzically when we said Burma (they still do at times – 'Where's that?'). We were born and brought up in London, with Mum born in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, present-day Myanmar), and Dad born in Hong Kong. Our parents met in the UK as young adults and the rest is history. Their unifying language was English, which we spoke at home, so we didn't have language to connect us with our heritage. However, what we did have was food, which has so beautifully resulted in the success of our Burmese supper club and cookbook, The Rangoon Sisters. In addition to food, objects around the house reminded us of 'home' and provided talking points for guests – and now opportunities for our children to learn more about where their grandparents came from.
A taste of home
While we were fortunate to visit Hong Kong growing up – and were able to connect with our Chinese roots more easily because of the presence of Chinese culture (such as Chinatown) in London – it wasn't so easy to connect with our Burmese side. So, we found a way through tasting and, later, cooking the dishes Grandma and Mum would create and share with us. Steaming bowls of mohinga, the unofficial national dish of Myanmar – a fragrant lemongrass and fish broth, served with rice vermicelli, egg and crunchy chana dal fritters (chickpea fritters). Slices of sweet, dense sanwinmakin (coconut and semolina cake), cut into diamond-shaped slices with tea. Lahpet thoke (pickled tea salad) – a mix of pickled tea, crunchy fried beans and peanuts, shards of crispy garlic, lime, cabbage, tomato and salty dried shrimp. Now we share all these dishes at our supper clubs and treat every guest like a member of our extended family.
Objects and memories
We also connected with our Burmese heritage through objects around the home and it was fascinating to see similar objects in the exhibition. In the bathroom at home was the thabeik, an ornate silver bowl which our parents would use to wash our hair as children and which became part of our day-to-day life. The bowl has since been handed down and is now used to bathe the newest addition to our family, Amy's daughter, becoming part of her memories and introducing her to part of her heritage.
Next to gold, silver is the most important precious metal mined and traded in Myanmar. Possession of silver objects traditionally indicated a person's rank at royal courts and silver was also traditionally used to pay tribute to a king or leader. This silver bowl in the exhibition is from central Myanmar and is decorated with zodiac motifs – a popular theme in the region.
In the living room
In the living room, you would find the Buddha statue that gazed down peacefully at us. 'Don't ever point your feet at the Buddha', our parents would insist! We had an almost pathological fear of accidentally doing so and we can still feel our feet twitching to make sure they weren't. Seeing this standing Buddha image in the exhibition, which is remarkably similar, brought back those memories.
In the corner of the living room sat the hintha, the golden bird, in the form of a small container (perhaps with some yarn and sewing needles inside!) placed on a stand. Despite it being considerably smaller than the impressive hintha hsun ok in the exhibition, it still seemed majestic and impressive in our home.
A favourite item at home was the lahpet ohk, the lahpet (pickled tea) presentation dish. A shallow, circular box made of lacquer with multiple compartments and a solid lid, it didn't contain lahpet and the usual accompaniments we described above. Instead, it would be full of sweets, dried fruit and chocolate for guests.
The wonderful Ramayana textile hanging we saw in the exhibition, alongside the majestic costumes, highlights the vibrant use of fabric and textiles which was characteristic of our family home, albeit in a more modest manner!
During the daytime our grandma would wear the traditional htamein or longyi, a richly embroidered sarong-style skirt. In the evening she would wear a different htamein made from beautiful silk with a matching jacket, her hair in an elegant bun. We now have our own collection of these garments at home – and where better to have worn them than at the opening night of the exhibition.
A long-awaited visit
We finally made our first visit to Myanmar in 2012, after so many years of reading and hearing about it. We got to try lahpet in our homeland and it was somehow even more flavourful and exquisite. It is made by selecting green tea leaves and then drying and pressing them for several weeks until they ferment. It's a most unique ingredient and often combined with chilli, garlic and oil, and the bonus of a caffeine hit makes it a perfect dish with which to end a meal. Historically in Burma, lahpet was presented as a peace offering between warring states and brought out when a judge made their verdict in a civil court, symbolising the acceptance of the result.
It was such a pleasure to see so many of the items we've talked about being showcased in the exhibition for people to learn more about Burmese history and culture, as well as shining a light on what's happening in Myanmar now. While travel to Myanmar has sadly become more challenging, we now have another place to share our roots with our children and we can't wait to visit again.
You can visit Burma to Myanmar until 11 February and learn more about Burmese cuisine in Emily and Amy's book, which is available from the Museum shop. Check out their website for upcoming supper club dates.
Supported by Zemen Paulos and Jack Ryan