Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Burmese Way With Noodles

The Burmese have interesting noodle dishes, using many of the ingredients that other Asian countries do, but with a few local touches that result in distinctive flavours. As with all dishes, these too have many versions and the ones I have eaten in Burma (Myanmar) to me seem tastier than the reproductions elsewhere. I was often served Mohinga for breakfast - an involved affair that used catfish, fish sauce, shrimp paste, ground peanuts, spices, rice and gram flours to make a thick broth. This was served along with rice noodles, eggs, lime, coriander (cilantro) leaves and bean crackers and was a very wholesome, delicious morning meal. Then there were the Shan rice noodles, served with a meaty pork broth over which were sprinkled golden bits of fried garlic, white and green spring onion slivers and fragrant green coriander.

One of the better known Burmese one-meal dishes is the Burmese Chicken Noodles, called Oh-no Khaukswe (or Kaukswe or Khau swe). This is a rich chicken-coconut milk soup into which are added boiled wheat noodles, bits of chopped chicken, eggs, spring onion greens, chilly powder, raw, sliced onions, lime juice and/or fried rice vermicelli depending on one's personal preferences.

I have found this to be a very popular party dish as the ingredients themselves are delicious and people seem to enjoy putting their meal together in a sense. Much of the work can be done before hand except for prepaing the accompaniments, which I prefer to do a few hours before serving. I give below a recipe modified from Mi Mi Khaing's book (Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way) along with notes about the original recipe. I modified this to make a slightly lighter, vegetarian version of the soup and to increase the variety of accompaniments. This gives it more versatility as a party dish. The left overs last for at least a week in the refrigerator, it's one of my favourite party options for all these reasons. This makes about 20-24 cups of soup depending on how thick you like it (enough for 15-20 servings).

Ingredients for the soup:

3 coconuts, grated, from which coconut milk has been extracted or
3 cups thick coconut milk and about 4-5 cups thin coconut milk or
7-8 cups canned unsweetened coconut milk

2 cups minced or ground onions
1/2 cup minced or ground garlic

12-16 cups water

3/4 cup gram flour (called besan in India, a pale yellow coloured flour)

oil to fry the onion and garlic (about 1/2 cup)

1/2 tsp turmeric
salt to taste


In a large pan, heat the oil till a faint haze appears. Add the onions and garlic, fry till pale brown. Add the thin coconut milk. Make a paste of the besan using about 2 cups of water and slowly stir it into the mixture in the pan. Add the remaining water, turmeric powder and salt. When the mixture comes to a boil, turn the heat to low, add the thick coconut milk and let it simmer for about 5-10 minutes till it is of the desired consistency. Remove from heat. This is ready to serve and can also be stored in the refrigerator and reheated.

Accompaniments (you can select from amongst these, the boiled noodles are essential):

Boiled wheat noodles
Boiled eggs, chopped
Pan fried, sliced baby corn
Fried, finely sliced okra (ladies finger)
Pan fried, chopped prawns
Boiled chicken, chopped
Chopped spring onion greens
Wedges of lime or lemon
Chopped coriander (cilantro) greens
Raw or fried sliced onions (I prefer fried)
Fried chopped garlic
Fried and pounded red chillies
Fried rice vermicelli

A smile(essential)!

Note: The original recipe involves cutting a 3 1/2 pound (about 1 1/2 kg.) chicken into pieces, rubbing it with turmeric, boiling it in water for about 20 minutes or until cooked. The chicken pieces are removed from the water, the meat taken out, the bones smashed and reboiled with the water to get a rich stock which is strained and used (instead of the water that I use in my recipe). About 2 tablespoons of fish sauce are added towards the end of the final cooking. The boiled, shredded chicken is served along with the soup.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Pleasures of Traditional Foods

I did all my winter homework and made large amounts of kanji (fermented carrot juice, a deep pink in colour), bought lots of carrots and radishes for salads and nuts for those in between moments. One could argue about the wisdom of transposing north Indian foods to the south, but I have realized that as long as the weather has a similar pattern (though the intensity may vary) and the ingredients are fresh, the body seems happy with it. And I rediscovered the joys of traditional winter foods after many years.

I discovered, to my surprise, that kanji is perfect for elevenses - a glass is enough to keep me going till lunch and I don't get that cloying aftertaste that packaged 'fresh' juices leave. How one glass of liquid can be so sustaining and satisfying, I have yet to figure out. Undoubtedly it involves not just the stomach but the nervous system as well. But this phenomenon is true of many traditional foods I think - they don't need to be consumed in large quantities yet they remain satisfying and nourishing. A handful of nuts or half a carrot does the job better than a bowlful of fried things. And it leaves one ready for and looking forward to the next meal.

I have also discovered the many joys of Khow Suey (about which I will write more later). It is a Burmese soup, made with coconut milk, gram flour, spices and saesonings and is topped with little bits of meats, noodles, eggs, fried garlic, onions or whatever your heart desires. I have found it to be an excellent party dish, people are drawn to it by curiosity and the fun of assembling one's own dish - and it tastes very good too no matter what you add. But I find, in simplified forms, it serves as an excellent lunch when rice and dal seem too heavy yet one wants something hot, flavourful and slightly liquid. All kinds of left overs go well on the side and the coconut milk in small doses is not as heavy as it would be in a thick curry. I find this preferable to the processed soup - noodle combinations that stores are flooded with these days.

I find that many of these traditional foods easily last upto a week in the refrigerator (the winter foods often last longer) and somehow one doesn't tire of them as quickly. And so it really is not as time consuming to get these things together as one imagines. Though home made traditional foods generally taste better than store bought ones, even if you can't make them, it's good to look out for them in shops.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Headaches and Heartaches of Dogs

I just finished reading 'My Dog Tulip', by J.R. Ackerley - an endearing book on the ins and outs of Ackerley's dog, Tulip. It is a book that only ardent dog lovers can read, filled as it is with details of Tulip's anatomy and physiology, described though in an eloquent, poetic style (interspersed with occasional irritation or impatience with those who failed to understand the magnificence of this beast who could do no wrong).

Over the years, frustrated by the limitations that urban life imposed upon the large female alsation, Ackerley began walking her in the woods and leaving her to her instincts. This seems to have enriched their relationship all the more and he ends the book with a general thought about the fate of dogs and how little we know or think about their needs. For instance, how many of us would know whether dogs suffered from headaches?

I have wondered about this occasionally and have also wondered whether dogs might suffer from toothaches and how they might communicate this to us. I quote a couple of more general passages from this book, descriptive and thought provoking:

"This is our goal, our haven. Here, where the silver trees rise in their thousands from a rolling sea of bracken, Tulip turns into the wild beast she resembles. Especially at this early hour the beautiful, remote place must reek of its small denizens, and the scent of the recent passage of rabbits and squirrels, or the sound of the nervous beating of their nearby hidden hearts, throws her into a fever of excitement. The bracken is shoulder high, but soon she is leaping over it. Round and round she goes, rhythmically rising and falling, like a little painted horse in a roundabout, her fore legs flexed for pouncing, her tall ears pricked and focussed, for she has located a rabbit in a bush. Useless to go after it, she has learnt that; the rabbit simply dives out the other side and is lost. Her new technique is cleverer and more strenuous. She must be everywhere at once. She must engirdle the crafty, timid creature and confuse it with her swiftness so that it knows not which way to turn. And barking is unwisdom, she has discovered that too, for although it may add to the general terrorizing effect of her tactic, it also hinders her own hearing of the tiny, furtive movement in the midst of the bush. Silently, therefore, or with only a muted whimpering of emotion, she rises and falls, effortlessly, falls and rises, like a dolphin out of the green sea among the silver masts, herself the colour of their bark, battling her wits with those of her prey. The rabbit can bear no more and makes its dart; in a flash, with a yelp, she is after it, streaking down the narrow track. Rabbits are agile and clever. This one flies, bounds, doubles, then bounces like a ball and shoots off at right angles. But Tulip is clever too. She knows now where the burrows lie and is not to be hoodwinked. The rabbit has fled downhill to the right; she sheers off to the left, and a tiny scream pierces the quiet morning and my heart. Alas, Tulip has killed! I push through the undergrowth to the scene of death. She is recumbent, at breakfast. Casting an anxious glance over her shoulder at my approach, she gets up and removes her bag to a safer distance. I follow. She rises again, the limp thing in her jaws, and confronts me defiantly."

Along more general lines, Ackerely writes about Tulip's wooers:

"Indeed, now that I was a spectator merely, observing with detachment, I thought of them more deeply and regretted that I had added to canine social difficulties by my persecution of their fellows in the past. Not that I truly cared for them. Whatever breed or non-breed they might be, they seemed too preposterous or indistinct beside the wild beauty of my imperial bitch; but I saw how amiable and well-mannered they mostly were, in a way how sad, above all how nervous with their air of surreptitious guilt, and meeting the mild, worried brown eyes that often studied me and my friendly hand with doubt, I realized clearly, perhaps for the first time, what strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or "put to sleep" without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid seige to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed--did they suffer from headaches? Infinite pains I now took to reassure them, and sometimes succeeded. They perceived, after all, that, surprisingly enough, I did not mean to bully them or interfere; they saw too what a comradely relationship existed between myself and Tulip, whom I was always stooping down to caress and praise; in the end they would come confidently to meet me and put their cold noses against my hand."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Things This Year Brings

Poetry! Travel! To remind myself of these resolutions to read more and travel some, I have re-formatted my blog. All the readers who get my blogs directly by mail might like to make one visit to my blog site to see its new look (I should probably say 'avatar', which sounds more arty but 'look' will suffice, for the content has not changed).

Artisanal bread! I have bought a wonderful, new oven and my cast iron bread pan is on its way from Amazon. Ever since I read the book 'Tartine Bread', I have been introduced to a completely new world of bread and bread making. Of natural leavening, long rises, high hydration and at the end (one hopes) - crackling, crusty, flavourful loaves that keep well. I was so excited by this proposition that I decided to take the leap and buy a small sky blue charcoal grill called Smokey Joe (recently introduced by an American company in Bangalore). So Smokey Joe, Iron Mae (as I have named my bread pan) and I will spend long hours together, rollin' down the rough country road.

Growing my own salads! I hope to attempt growing a few simple leaves and vegetables, praying all the while that the monkeys don't get to them before I do. This is a biased experiment in studying plant-animal interactions. Yesterday I was delighted to see a bird hopping about amongst my pots in the garden, occasionally pecking at something on the leaves or in the soil, peering at the lotus pond and the bird bath (which no bird has used as of now!). It made me decide not to spray any strong chemicals on the plants or in the soil. This year, the aphids made their annual visit but I observed that just with a dose of good nutrients, the plants were able to survive the insect attack. So I will stick to organic gardening in the coming year.

Oh! And I totally forgot to include my resolution to do more 'real work' as well!
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