#12 (Part 2): Burmese Ohn No Khao Swè

Gin thoke made a pretty good start to a meal, but I wanted an entree with which to finish it.

The dish I ended up cooking, however, was actually something of a backup plan. I was originally going to make mohinga – Burmese catfish soup, which is the dish I saw described as “Myanmar’s national dish” more often than any other. (A fun fact I have learned while working on this project: I will almost always find at least two or three different foods that are called “[country]’s national dish” every week. There must be a few countries whose citizens have reached a clear consensus as to what their national dish is, but they seem to be outnumbered by the alternative. That said, mohinga got about as much of a consensus vote, at least based on my research, as any food I’ve read about thus far.) Mohinga interested me both because I haven’t made a freshwater fish dish for this project yet (and, for that matter, I’ve never actually cooked catfish before, although I like it) and because I was intrigued by the fact that, despite being something that definitely sounds like dinner to a Westerner, it’s actually a breakfast food in Myanmar. Plus, of course, it sounded pretty tasty. So that was the original plan, but before I actually bought my ingredients, I stumbled across a reference explaining that Burmese catfish don’t actually taste very much like North American catfish, and while they’re closer in taste to Vietnamese catfish (better known in the US as “swai”), that’s still not quite right either. Since I have no idea where I might find specifically Burmese catfish in the American Midwest, I opted instead for a chicken-based dish, since I’m fairly certain Burmese chickens don’t taste significantly different than North American chickens. (I still want to try mohinga someday, though!)

So, after scrapping my mohinga plans, I turned to ohn no khao swè, which I think translates as “coconut milk noodles.” (That would make sense insofar as the dish does contain both coconut milk and noodles, but all I’ve got to go on there is an attempt to plug the name as written in Burmese into Google Translate and add and remove spaces until I ended up with something that made sense, and “coconut milk noodles” seems a lot more likely than “global milk over noodles” or “draw milk around knocking over half,” which were the other options.) It would, however, probably be better described as something like “chicken, onion, and coconut curry with noodles.” Although the “curry” part might be a tiny bit misleading, since Burmese food is somewhat unique in Southeast Asia insofar as it typically isn’t particularly spicy. Ohn no khao swè isn’t completely without heat, but it’s definitely about as mild as anything called a “curry” gets. (That said, it’s apparently entirely authentic to add more red pepper flakes to one’s individual portion once it’s served, if desired, so it can definitely pretty easily be brought up from a “mild” to a “medium.”)

So, shall we get started?

THE PROCESS

ohn1
Here’s some chicken/ And not fish/ With which/ I made/ My second dish/ Burma-Food. (I used/ These rhymes/ In my last post/ (And rather well/ If I might boast)/ And if you’d hoped/ That I was done/ Too bad/ ‘Cause I’m/ Still having fun!/ Burma-Food.)

(I promise I’ll stop writing Burma-Shave poems for my captions someday. You know, someday when I’m no longer writing about Burmese food.)

Anyway, as you can see, this is another dish that involves an impressive quantity of oniony-garlicky-things. I seem to gravitate towards those, don’t I? (And also, as I said in a previous entry, I’m pretty convinced that the universal language of the world is onion. As well it should be!) And as is often the case with such foods, the first step involves sautéing and caramelizing. So, indeed, I began by dicing and sautéing one of those large white onions in a little peanut oil until it was nice and golden, and then removed that pan from the heat. While it cooled down a little, I diced my green onions and somewhere between a fourth and a third of that red onion, and did some more ginger-grating as well.

The next step is a little odd: we’re making onion smoothies! Well, sort of. I have one of those little “bullet” blenders, which worked well for this, but anything that’ll slice and dice and smash and smush will do the trick. Into one of the little bullet-cups went the diced green and red onion, minced garlic, grated ginger, and finally the sautéed white onion (with the oil from the pan, since having liquid in there helps things blend better).

ohn2
Garlic/ Onions/ Ginger too/ Soon will all/ Turn into goo/ Burma-Food.

Onto the blender-base it went. I had to pause and shake things up a few times (and add just a little water to help it blend more easily), but soon my cup o’ onions ‘n’ stuff had been converted into a cheerful-looking light green paste.

ohn3
Though it smells good/ And doesn’t stink, it/ Still seems as though/ You shouldn’t/ Drink it/ Burma-Food.

I set the paste aside for a moment while I sliced some chicken into small, thin pieces. (I used chicken breast, because, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I tend to prefer white meat to dark, but you could absolutely use either or both in this recipe.) Once the chicken was sliced up, it was time to wok and woll (as I would have said when I was four years old and couldn’t pronounce the letter “R,” or, apparently, as I would say when I’m in my thirties and prone to making extremely bad puns). I got out my wok, heated up some more peanut oil in it, and tossed the chicken in there to stir-fry. Once the chicken was half-cooked, I added in all that lovely green paste, the paprika, and 1/2 tsp of the red pepper flakes, and continued stir-frying until the chicken was fully cooked.

ohn4
Cook that chicken/ Cook it/ Well-a/ If you don’t want/ Salmonella/ Burma-Food.

I turned the heat off under the wok and headed back over to the chopping board to dice the other two white onions, and then (once I’d made sure there were no remaining pieces of the first onion left behind to get burned) they went into the same large skillet I’d put the first onion in to be sautéed the same way. (If you wanted, you could simply sauté all three of them at once and then scoop out a third of the resulting onion-pile to purée with the other stuff, but I found this way slightly easier.) Once those two onions were nicely caramelized, I mixed chickpea flour into cold water and then poured that on top of the onions. I added a dash of fish sauce, brought the liquid in the pan up to a gentle simmer and then added my chicken broth. Again, I brought that up to a simmer, and then added the coconut milk, turmeric, and the remaining red pepper flakes. Yet again, I brought it back up to a simmer, but this time I let it sit there and simmer for a bit while I hard-boiled a pair of eggs. Once the eggs were getting close to done, I added my stir-fried chicken mixture to the simmering broth and (one more time) brought it back up to a simmer. You’ll want to taste the mixture at this point – since I was feeding someone on a reduced-sodium diet, I elected not to add any additional salt or fish sauce and just let the rest of us add them to our individual portions, but if you don’t need to watch the sodium content of your food, you’ll most likely want to add more fish sauce and/or salt.

Since I was in the mood for a relatively thick sauce, I kept the pan sitting over low heat to thicken things up while I boiled my egg noodles and prepared a few garnishes: fresh cilantro, lime wedges, a diced green onion, those hard-boiled eggs (cut into halves), thin slices of the red onion I used part of earlier, and, last but not least (at least in terms of how fun they were to make) puffy fried rice noodles.

I wish I’d taken a picture, or better yet, a short video clip of what making the puffy rice noodles looks like. (You know those sponge toys, where they start out as a little pill and then, when you put them in water, they slowly expand until they’re spongy dinosaurs or whatever? It was kind of like watching a time-lapse video of that process sped up immensely until the sponge goes from pill to dinosaur in about two seconds, except that the noodles didn’t actually turn into dinosaurs. Although that would have been even more awesome!) Anyway, you make them by simply heating up an inch or so of oil in a pot (I just reused the same oil I’d used for the gin thoke), carefully adding some rice noodles (broken in thirds or so), and then giggling like an overgrown child when they suddenly go POOF and turn into, essentially, noodle-shaped packing peanuts. If you are like me and are disproportionately entertained by this, after scooping your first set of noodles out of the oil and putting them on a paper towel to dry, you may repeat this a few more times just for the fun of watching the noodles go POOF. If not, you can stop after making just a few of them, since they’re only a garnish and you do not really need very many. (You don’t really need them at all, but c’mon, watching them go POOF is awesome. Unleash your inner child and poof some noodles!)

With my garnishes sliced and/or poofed, the ohn no khao swè was ready to serve! Each portion consisted of egg noodles smothered in curry and then topped with all of the garnishes. If you’re feeling a little spicy, you can also sprinkle some more red pepper flakes over the top. And then it’s time to eat!

ohn5
With all/ The toppings/ Put in place/ I think I made/ A cubist face/ Burma-Food. (Not by design/ I guarantee it/ But now/ I simply/ Can’t un-see it/ Burma-Food.)

THE VERDICT

Pretty darn tasty!

This doesn’t rank among my very favorite things I’ve cooked thus far, but I liked it quite a bit. The chicken becomes wonderfully flavorful from all that yummy onion-smoothie-ness, and the curry mixed with all those toppings made for a very tasty meal. It’s especially good once you drizzle lime juice all over it.

If I make this again, the main thing I’d like to change is adding more salt and/or fish sauce – as I mentioned above, I was feeding a family member on a reduced sodium diet (as I often am), and so keeping things relatively un-salty was important, but adding salt at one’s plate is never quite as effective at getting a dish evenly-flavored. I suspect this would have wowed me more if I hadn’t had several bites that were either under- or over-salted. Aside from that, my only complaint was that the puffy rice noodles were hard enough that they were a little challenging to eat – you kind of have to mix them into the curry to let them moisten and soften a little bit. For all they were great fun to make, I’m not sure I’d bother with them again if I was just making this for family and wasn’t worried about the “presentation” factor.

Oh, and one last thing…

Did you dislike
These “road sign” rhymes
(That I kept
Doing
Several times)?
Perhaps
You think it
Deleterious
That my captions
Won’t get serious?
You might say,
“Just describe the food!
No rhymes!
No jokes!”
But sorry, dude –
I’d tell you I
Was going to quit,
But you’d all know
I’m full of
…wit.
(And Burma-Food.)

THE INGREDIENTS

3 large white onions
1 1/2 tbsp grated ginger
2 tsp minced garlic
1/4 to 1/3 of a small red onion (plus more for garnish)
2 green onions (plus more for garnish)
2 tbsp chickpea flour
1/4 cup cold water
1 lb chicken, cut into small pieces
1 tbsp paprika
1 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp turmeric
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup coconut milk
2 eggs, hard-boiled
peanut oil
fish sauce to taste
salt to taste
egg noodles
a few thin rice noodles
lime wedges
fresh cilantro

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