"Poured over a bed of noodles, it's just as soothing but far more exciting than your average chicken noodle soup."
[Photographs: Chichi Wang]
Call it Myanmar; call it Burma. Nomenclature aside, relatively little is known about the cuisine of a country that's larger than both Thailand and Vietnam. Most of the stories we hear pertain to Myanmar's unstable political history—of British colonization, of despotic military rule under the guise of socialism. Political turmoil takes the front page, yet little is said about Burmese-style biryanis with mutton and pickled mango, cold rice dishes flavored with papaya and tamarind, and curries that incorporate garam masala as well as fish sauce and lemongrass.
The cooking tradition of Myanmar reflects its geographical location: poised between India to the west and Thailand to the east, China looms in the northwest region. Burmese cuisine reflects the influence of its neighbors, giving new meaning to the term "Asian fusion." Featured this week: Burmese Chicken-Coconut Soup, simmered with caramelized onions and plenty of turmeric and paprika. Poured over a bed of noodles, it's just as soothing but far more exciting than your average chicken noodle soup.
Called "Ohn-no-khakswe," the flavors of this Burmese Chicken-Coconut Soup speak profoundly of its culinary tradition. The use of an onion and ginger purée in the soup, as well as the doses of turmeric and chickpea flour, is a nod to India. The presence of coconut milk reveals its commonalities with Thai cuisine. Stir-frying the segments of chicken before stewing is a technique associated with wok cookery. Even the garnish of scallions on top, as the Chinese would do, seems significant. It may just be the case that fusion among geographically similar countries works more seamlessly than that among disparate ones. Certainly, the ingredients in Burmese dishes reflect the organic nature of recipes that have developed over decades, or even centuries of cross-cultural exchange.
This soup is thick, yet it possesses a light mouthfeel due to its method of thickening. Instead of cream, the primary thickening agent in the broth is a few spoonfuls of chickpea and fava flour. Made from ground-up chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and fava beans, the flour adds a distinctively beany depth in the resulting soup. Onion, ginger, and garlic are pureed in a blender until perfectly smooth, then added to the liquid for additional body.
Unlike the majority of Indian curries, no spices need to be toasted and ground. A slow caramelization of onions with turmeric and paprika lends a deeply developed flavor not unlike that of French onion soup. Coconut milk, which is added towards the end of the cooking process, lends a note of sweetness to the broth.
This dish is all the more enticing because of its flexibility. Madhur Jaffrey, the esteemed Indian cookbook author and creator of this recipe, came to learn about this curried Chicken-Coconut Soup as a common street snack in the mornings in Myanmar. Plied by vendors and shops owners alike, the garnishes reveal the soup's eclectic tastes: crisp fried noodles, wedges of lime, hard boiled duck and chicken eggs, and fried onion slices, not to mention a myriad of roasted chili powders.
To really indulge in the soothing qualities of this soup, make your own noodles as an accompaniment. Egg noodles like the type used in Italian pasta work well with the pungent flavors of the turmeric and pepper. In a pinch, you can use dried Chinese rice noodles, fresh Chinese lo mein, or even spaghettini or angel hair pasta. Vegetables may be added in the later stages of stewing for a complete one-bowl meal.
For the curry soup 1/2 medium onion, chopped 1 1/2 medium onions, finely sliced in half-rings 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped 2 cloves garlic, chopped 1 pound chicken thighs, bone-in with skin attached, hacked into 1/2 inch chunks Salt and freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons chickpea and/or fava flour 3 cups chicken broth 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 2 teaspoons paprika 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1 cup coconut milk
For the noodles 12 to 16 ounces lo-mein, rice, or pasta noodles
For the garnishes Lime or lemon wedges 4 scallions, cut into thin rounds 2 hard boiled eggs, cut crosswise into slices roasted chili powder
1. Place the chopped onion, ginger, garlic, and 4 tablespoons of water into a blender. Puree until smooth.
2. Spread the cut-up chicken out on a plate. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and let sit.
3. Place the flour in a bowl. Slowly add 1 cup of the chicken broth to mix well.
4. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the chicken and stir-fry until lightly browned. Some of the fat will render from the chicken skin. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon.
5. Add the sliced onions to the pan and cook slowly, allowing the onions to caramelize over the course of five to seven minutes. Towards the end of that time when the onions are beginning to brown, add the turmeric and paprika.
6. In a pot suited for soups, add the chicken along with the juices that will have settled, the sautéed onions, the onion and ginger puree, and the remaining 2 cups of chicken broth. Carefully add the chickpea flour and broth mixture, mixing quickly so that the flour won't clump.
7. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Season to taste with more salt, if needed.
8. Add the coconut milk. Stir to mix and return to a simmer. Serve with noodles and garnishes as desired.