Takeaway

I’ll have the khao suey

Raul Dias | Updated on December 04, 2020

Bowled over: The khao suey sees everything from chicken, beef, pork, seafood and even tofu morsels added to a spicy (mostly) coconut milk- and turmeric-based curry

With as many iterations as components, this Burmese dish is a well-travelled one

* The supporting acts to the main show take the form of a variety of add-ons that range from crispy fried shallots and garlic to halved boiled eggs, fresh coriander leaves and roasted, crushed peanuts

* The dry noodle version of the dish called shwedaung khao suey — popular as a street-side snack in places such as Yangon — is akin to a crunchy salad

* Perhaps the greatest surprise in store for me on the khao suey front was the rather serendipitous discovery of the Memoni Muslim dish of khausa and how closely it is related to Burmese khao suey

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‘A sort of Burmese bhel’ is perhaps one of the most succinct — if a tad short of being apt — descriptions for khao suey that I recently came across on a Mumbai-based pan-Asian restaurant’s menu card. None of the flowery “tender morsels of farm-raised chicken, simmered in an unctuous coconut milk broth...” that hyperbolic menu jargon seems to veer towards these days at most other places.

For the uninitiated among us (though I highly doubt there would be many), khao suey is a much-loved and, dare I say, callously co-opted curried noodle dish of Burmese origin that had been shamelessly adapted and tweaked the world over and here in India in particular. But more on that later.

Bowls of sunshine

With its soothing, yet punchy taste, khao suey can easily be classified as comfort food — a dish that can be scarfed down at any time of the day like they do in Myanmar and other Asian countries. It sees everything from chicken, beef, pork, seafood and even tofu morsels added to a spicy (mostly) coconut milk- and turmeric-based curry. This bright orange-hued curry is then ladled over thin rice noodles to form a soup-meet-stew kind of hybrid dish.

But hold on! It needs more jazzing up. The supporting acts to the main show take the form of a variety of add-ons that range from crispy fried shallots and garlic to halved boiled eggs, fresh coriander leaves and roasted, crushed peanuts, each adding textural and flavourful heft to the dish.

As I travelled around Myanmar a few years ago, I realised that, much like how the word ‘curry’ is misconstrued in the West, the phrase khao suey is largely misunderstood. In the Burmese language, khao suey simply means rice noodles. How one treats those noodles in a dish creates local variations of what we know commonly as khao suey, the all-in-one meal.

The name game

The dry noodle version of the dish called shwedaung khao suey — popular as a street-side snack in places such as Yangon — is akin to a crunchy salad. And this is perhaps how the ‘Burmese bhel’ inference comes into play. The coconut milk-laden, Southern Myanmarese ohn no khao suey is more in line with the iteration of khao suey we are familiar with in India.

Crossing the Myanmarese border from the town of Payathonsu into Sangkhla Buri in northern Thailand via the Three Pagodas Pass, I noticed how easily khao suey had segued into the local cuisine. Known as khao soi Islam, the pork-bereft version (substituted by beef or chicken) is almost similar to ohn no khao suey and is prepared mostly by the Muslims who prefer adding the locally grown mustard greens in a pickled form to the dish.

The other neighbour of Myanmar that has its own version of the dish is Laos. The northern Laotian version also called khao soi is more of a soup made with wide rice noodles, chopped pork and has that unmistakable funky taste of fermented soy bean. All this is topped off with pork rind, coriander and bean sprouts. Interestingly, many are of the belief that the two versions of the shared Singaporean and Malaysian dish of laksa — Assam (meaning ‘sour’) and curry laksa — owe their genesis to khao suey.

Colonial cousins

Perhaps the greatest surprise in store for me on the khao suey front was the rather serendipitous discovery of the Memoni Muslim dish of khausa and how closely it is related to Burmese khao suey. Tasting this truly desi version of the dish at a Memoni food pop-up by a Mumbai-based home chef a few weeks ago, I couldn’t but help marvel at how well the dish had travelled and had got adapted along the way.

Often bearing the moniker of the ‘sailor businessmen of India’, the Memons, who originally hail from Gujarat, have always had very strong ties to Myanmar since the time it was known as British-occupied Burma. Mainly involved in pre-Independence textile, oil and paper production trade, they would travel to Burma regularly. A few even settled there and traded from the British set-up port at Akyub, which is in present-day Sitwe.

Many Memons subsequently moved back to India in 1947, with a second exodus taking place in the early ’60s after the Burmese military junta regime, known to be intolerant of foreigners, came into power. They carried back an edible emissary that they named khausa. Adapted to suit their tastes, khausa employs the more Italian-style wheat spaghetti in lieu of rice noodles. This is topped with a cubed chicken curry made with yoghurt, coconut milk and gram flour. Garnishes take the form of piquant sliced green chillies, ginger juliennes and crunchy deep-fried samosa dough strips, with a sprinkling of chaat masala giving it an unmistakably desi tadka.

Sure wins the vote for the most widely travelled and adapted dish, wouldn’t you say?

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

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Published on December 04, 2020
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