It’s been a month since I moved to Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), former capital of Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). Eager on quickly getting a hang of the local culture, I’ve insisted on learning the language, picking up a few local habits, and of course, eating at a local restaurant to sample Burmese food. But the cultural adventures are for another day. This is about my first taste of authentic and famous Burmese khowsuey.
I love khowsuey and if it’s being served at a party in India, I make sure I have a bowl. I love the noodles mixed with yellow coconut-based gravy, the cute toppings, and the taste of course. It’s a meal in itself and absolutely delicious. So when I sought khowsuey at a Burmese restaurant, I was in for a big surprise. This is what it looked like:
To start with, let’s get the word right
The correct pronunciation for khowsuey or khowshwe or khawoswe is khauk-swey (with the KH sound not too hard and the second ‘k’ almost silent). It should sound something like khow-sway when you say it quickly. (I’m going to spell it the popular Indian way to avoid confusion).
STOP PRESS: Khowsuey is not a Burmese dish. It’s an ingredient.
Khowsuey means “noodles” in Burmese / Myanmar language, and this ingredient is versatile and used in a variety of dishes. It is cooked in a number of ways with different ingredients, depending on the region you’re in.
So, asking for khowsuey in a local restaurant is as specific as asking for say, paneer or rice in an Indian restaurant. Do you want paneer makhanwala, paneer tikka or paneer bhurji? Or would you like mutter pulao, mutton biryani or steamed rice? Like paneer and rice, khowsuey is the star of a variety of dishes, but all cooked differently. I’ve eaten khowsuey at a couple of restaurants in Yangon, and they’ve always looked and tasted different each time I ordered.
Burmese noodles can be shan-style, or coconut noodles, or served as mohinga (thin rice noodles in fish soup) etc. As for the yellow coconut gravy we have in India? Not spotted it in Yangon yet.
A mini-history lesson and a theory about Burmese khowsuey
I’ve been reading up on the history of Myanmar (history was never so interesting in school!), starting with the wonderful book The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U and the history I’ve read so far has given me a theory of khowsuey captured the Indian palate. When the British came to Myanmar in the 19th century, they opened the floodgates to trade establishing the major port at Rangoon. Thousands of Indians came to Burma to earn a living, while keeping in touch with their families back home. So the Burmese khowsuey may have made its way to India from our migrant ancestors, anywhere from the late 19th century to the early 1960s.
Burmese khowsuey is one of those early “fusion” dishes that we Indians loved and re-invented, strongly influenced by Burmese and Indian culinary traditions. So yep, we Indians made our own version of it, like we did with Chinese food! 😀 And this is the khowsuey in India!
Khowsuey toppings are aplenty, and they’re for real.
The Myanmar people garnish their dishes with all sorts of toppings. They love adding roasted peanuts, green chillies, dehydrated onion, chopped garlic and dried shrimp to dishes (thankfully I don’t have a nut allergy). And these are some of the toppings you see at khowsuey counters across parties and weddings. The lemons and fried noodles might be an Indian introduction, and we’re using fried onions instead.
Here’s a Burmese noodle soup with pork.
Enjoy your khowsuey!
Okay, so what if the “Indian” khowsuey” isn’t 100% authentic? It’s still yum, so I’m going to eat it when I get the chance. But if you’re visiting Myanmar anytime soon, you won’t get the Burmese khowsuey you’re used to. And that’s because it’s not authentic Burmese cuisine. Or Myanmar cuisine, as they now like to call it. Instead, try the local khowsuey dishes. You’ll love them- I did!