Quite a few people in Pakistan have acquired a taste for the delectable Burmese dish made from noodles and coconut curry
Our family has always been associated with Burma, now known to the world as Myanmar. Both my brother and I were born in Rangoon, in 1928 and 1931, respectively. Subsequently, our parents returned to India. After World War II, some members of the family managed to resettle in Rangoon, but all foreigners were thrown out when the Burmese government nationalized their businesses. This was somewhere round 1960.
In 1948, after a year of studies at the Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Bombay, and at the impressionable age of 17, I went back. I was there for 10 years, up to 1958. The rest of the family who were comfortably settled in Calcutta, in the meantime, migrated to Karachi. I visited Pakistan regularly and after my marriage in 1953, I brought my wife and little daughter with me to Rangoon in 1955. Here, we were blessed with another daughter and spent three very happy and carefree years in the land of golden pagondas.
It is no wonder then that I should have an ongoing romance with Khauk-Swe, a delectable Burmese dish made from noodles and coconut curry. Quite a few people in Pakistan have, over recent years, acquired a taste for this Burmese dish. I personally feel that if you can call chop suey the national dish of China and sukiyaki the national dish of Japan, calling khauk-swe the national dish of Burma would not be incorrect.
Khauk-swe is a light dish, unlike the spicy biyrani and qorma. In Burma, it is considered more of a snack than a dish. Like the Chinese, the Burmese are habituated to small but frequent meals and khauk-swe owes much of its popularity to the fact that it is quickly digested. The Burmese usually have it for breakfast and often in the evenings, as a quick snack.
Like all popular dishes, there are umpteen ways of cooking khauk-swe. The dish is quickly prepared, provided all the ingredients are ready. Burma has several ethnic races living together and each race has a particular way of preparing it. So, besides the original Burmese khauk-swe, known as ‘ohnoe khauk-swe’, you have a Muslim khauk-swe, a Malaysian khauk-swe as well as a Chinese khauk-swe. The Chinese khauk-swe is generally known as ‘panthay khauk-swe’. Some people even call it ‘fried khauk-swe’ because like chop suey, it is stir-fried. My first taste of khauk-swe was as a little boy, in Calcutta. Calcutta had, and still has, a sizable Chinese population and a regular China Town. In the 1940s, one had to go all the way to China Town to buy noodles and so my mother would use macaroni as a substitute. It made a difference, but the macaroni imparted an unusual flavour to the shauk-swe. During my stay in Burma and over the years, I have had all kinds of khauk-swe, prepared in different ways. But I still think that the tastiest khauk-swe I have ever had was the one that my mother made. She passed away a few years ago at the ripe age of 88. She repeatedly told us: “Everyone has to go one day.”
Khauk-swe is essentially a light curry served with boiled noodles. As mentioned earlier, there are ways and ways of preparing it and then again, ways and ways of serving it.
I’ll begin with the original Burmese khauk-swe. The curry is more like a well-brewed broth made of coconut and chicken stock. In addition, a more concentrated and spicier curry is prepared from the rest of the chicken, which is usually boneless. These two curries and the boiled noodles are the three main ingredients. All three ingredients are served separately. Both the curries are poured over boiled noodles and then topped with a multitude of other ingredients that have been chopped and kept in little bowls.
These additional ingredients play an integral part in the taste as well as the presentation of the dish, and are a must. Green chillies, crushed red pepper, coriander (dhania), mint (pudina), spring onions (hari piyaaz), fried noodles, lemon juice and boiled eggs are some of these essential ingredients. The Burmese usually serve their khauk-swe with Ngapi which is made from putrefied fish and shrimps. It is really a chutney and extremely pungent. My wife tried it on a couple of occasions; but understandably, I never went near it.
The ingredients for all the other varieties of khauk-swe are the same. However, there are minor variations in the method of preparation and in the manner it is served. In the Muslim khauk-swe, there is just one curry, thicker and spicier than the curry in the original Burmese recipe. And they prefer to use mutton instead of chicken.
In Rangoon, my wife and I were frequent visitors to a khauk-swe stall set up every evening on the pavements of Mogul Street, by a Zarbadi woman. To clarify, Zarbadis are the offspring of mixed marriages between Muslim men and Burmese women. The lady was known as Khalajaan and it was sheer joy to see her cutting up the noodles with a scissor, before measuring out the curry with a ladle.
Recently, a food festival called Burma on the Rocks was held in New Delhi at a large hotel. Women chefs were specially flown in from Burma to prepare and serve a spread of exotic Burmese dishes. I would have given anything to be there — only to sample one more time the original Burmese ‘ohnoe khauk-swe’. Some of the five-star hotels in Karachi and elsewhere should seriously consider holding similar food festivals.