How a piping bowl of homemade soup becomes the only surviving link to a forgotten lineage
Words by Yunus Lasania
Sundays are always a special day at home for us, because that’s when my mother cooks chicken or Burmese food. Coming to think of it, I could easily make a decent menu card out of the dishes my mother cooks at home. My mother, Zubeda Lasania, is a Gujarati who was born and raised in Burma. She grew up cooking a lot of Burmese and Indian dishes and as a result of this, we get treated to hot, piping, flavourful bowls of khowsuey on most Sundays.
Thanks to her and my Burmese paternal grandmother, we have been introduced to a wide variety of Burmese flavours right from a young age. Some of them like khowsuey and laphet (pronounced la-pheh and is a dish of pickled tea leaves, served with a combination of sesame seeds, fried peas, dried shrimp, fried garlic, peanuts and other crunchy stuff) that we instantly took a liking to and some others like mohinga–rice vermicelli served in a fish-based broth, with garlic, lemongrass and a few other accompaniments–which we would fuss about, often whining about its ‘weird’ taste. A typical Burmese meal comprises of a light soup and steamed rice, with a chicken, fish or meat curry. There might be accompaniments such as vegetables or laphet too. My mother used to make adjustments to original Burmese recipes to suit our palates better, almost always making it spicier and by substituting the kind of meat and noodle depending on the local availability of ingredients.
Eating khowsuey in Burma
But let’s come back to khowsuey. It is an ubiquitous dish found everywhere in Burma–on the streets, in restaurants and of course in homes. The general word for noodles here is khowsuey, so no points for guessing what the main ingredient in this dish is. Khowsuey is essentially the southeast Asian staple of noodles in a flavourful broth, finished off with some crunchy toppings.
The toppings don’t just add flavour, but can elevate the dish to another level if you choose the right ones. Since I’ve eaten khowsuey mostly at home in India, our version is slightly Indianised. Fried onions, eggs and chicken are my favourite toppings. My mother adds red chilli powder, lemon and raw onions to her serving usually. So it really depends on what you prefer. One little addition that my mother makes that transforms the khowsuey is garnishing the noodles with crushed samosa pastries.
However, despite having been to Burma (now Myanmar) many times in the past, it was only very recently that I found out that there are a hundred ways in which you can make and eat this dish. Although I have spent a considerable amount of time in Meikhtila (the town where my mother was born) and in Mandalay, I’d ironically eat Indian food most of the time, since we’d be staying at my mother’s parents’ house or that of her siblings, who were as Gujarati as they could get, with a slight Burmese flavour.
It was only when I visited Rangoon (now Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar) in 2011 and stayed there for a good three months that I really explored the food scene in my mother’s hometown. I randomly roamed around the streets and stopped at tea shops to taste whatever I could lay my hands on. At tea shops in Burma, you get everything from main course to dessert, unlike the ones in India where you are mainly served hot beverages and a few snacks.
During one of my first solo visits to a tea shop, I made that stunning discovery. I sat down and confidently asked for my favourite dish, khowsuey. The waiter looked a little puzzled. Communication problem, I thought. Maybe he didn’t understand what I was saying. I tried repeating it, a bit louder the second time, a bit slower the next time. It took me a while to figure out that he was actually waiting for me to tell him what kind of khowsuey I wanted. Till then, I never really knew much about the other kinds of khowsuey, and it had never really hit me that I was eating just one variation of it.
Soon I learnt that the most famous one that can be found in most restaurants here was what we were eating at home, the ono khowsuey, which is served in a coconut milk-based curry. It can have vegetables, too, but it’s mostly laced with chicken, eggs or, sometimes even, beef. Ono means coconut in Burmese, hence the name Ono khowsuey. There are other versions of the dish like Shan khowsuey (a variation from Burmese state, Shan, which borders China) and khowsuey cho (fry) that are available here.
After my little khowsuey adventure, I headed out to get a taste of the street food in Rangoon. I felt giddy just looking at the wide variety of food on offer. I realised that even if I were to eat out every meal of the day for the whole three months, I wouldn’t be able to even sample a small part of the street food here. I ended up eating a wide selection of khowsuey, Malaysian food, various types of fried rice and Burmese dosas (thanks to the Tamil settlements here).
Walking through the streets of Rangoon, I realised that my love for food was one of the things that served as strong a link to this city. As a child, it was through the colour and flavour of my mother’s khowsuey that I discovered the many nuances of Burmese culture. Now, as an adult, I am rediscovering it on my own expeditions. Khowsuey is homemade food for me. It reminds me of the fact that I just don’t belong to a single place. It reiterates the knowledge in me that I am a product of a myriad of cultures and inspires me to keep my Burmese connection alive, even if only through a steaming bowl of khowsuey.