Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ohn no kauk swey - i am officially burmese and i have the meal to prove it

Ohn No Kauk Swey (burmese chicken curry) - 117Among my many tasks to accomplish while visiting my family, one of the most important one was to learn about Burmese food. My mother and her entire side of the family are actually from Burma (and still, to the grandchildren's dismay, speak it purposely in front of us). And as any good Asian grandmother (her name is Mama, by the way) would be able to do, she cooks up some mean Burmese meals. Mama is famous for making this chicken curry dish (Ohn No Kauk Swey- spelling is all hers, so don't blame me) on every special occasion (and by special occasion, I mean when I or any other relative comes to visit). So instead of having it prepared for me on my arrival like usual, I asked her to restrain herself and allow me to help her. She complied, and we were both very excited to teach me her Asian cooking ways.

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Our morning started with Mama preparing all the ingredients while I sat down behind the kitchen counter, pen and paper in hand. Although this recipe is quite long and time consuming, apparently Mama has had so much practice with this that my hand could barely copy all the information down as she whizzed through it. So please, bare with me, as I'm sure a lot of the measurements and calculations are off a bit.

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The preparations in the beginning probably took the most time. Four pounds of chicken had to be cut and cubed, three onions had to be sliced and chopped, and then there was the mysterious red paste. Background information: I know nothing about preparing curries, or anything Asian (besides basic rice) for that matter. Mixing different spices into a tiny cup, and then adding tap water, sounded odd to me at first. (Remember, I do live in New York; hence my primarily focused Italian food background.)

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I feel I do have to warn you that these following pot pictures are immensely unappetizing. Once preparation had finished, we added the sliced onions, followed by the chopped onions, and then topped off with the "red paste" mixture. Now the burnt yellow mixture turned a bloody red color (mmm, delicious). And to make this whole recipe even more foreign to me, Mama added something called "chicken broth powder". Who knew they sold such a thing? (Especially in such large quantities; she had a Costco sized tin full of this stuff.)

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Ahh, finally a shade of color I recognize- raw chicken! The entire four pounds was dumped in, only to be quickly mixed with the funky ingredients, causing the newly unappetizing color.

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Amidst all these foreign ingredients, Mama whips out a Gram Flour (also called Besan). It's strange that I have never heard of this particular flour. Being that I'm such an avid baker, I liked to think that I knew everything about all flours. Apparently not! This bag of "flour" essentially is ground chickpeas, and is used to naturally thicken up the curry. So in a bowl went a few tablespoons of the gram flour along with a cup or so water. An immersion blender was used to mix the frothy yellow mixture smooth.

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Once the gram flour sauce was thoroughly mixed, it was added to the increasing amount of liquid in the giant pot. To make the pot even fuller, Mama added 2 cans of coconut milk (She claims this brand is the best brand of coconut milk. Good luck to me finding this where I live) along with 4 cans full of water. Alas, a color I recognize! This huge pot full of Mama's delicious sauce is to be left simmering for the remainder of the time. And now, finally, the accompanying sides (something I was capable of doing alone)!

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Mama buys these fresh Chinese noodles (once again, according to her, these are the best). Some of the noodles are fried for a crispy topping to the curry, while the rest gets boiled regularly.

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I can still remember when I was a little kid how much I loved these noodles. Guess what- things haven't changed, and I still love these fricken noodles. To prepare them, they're basically boiled in a large pot of water (something I'm familiar with, as I boil pasta on a regular basis). And yes, Mama is using chopsticks to mix around the noodles. You can take the girl outta Asia, but you can take the Asia outta the girl!

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Here is where my assistance was better used- Chopping. Each type of topping was orderly chopped and placed in their own individual bowl. Here is the coriander along with the chopped red onions and scallions.

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Freshly picked lemons (from Mama's garden) were segmented, and eggs were hard boiled and sliced.

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Fried chopped onions were readied, and the numerous bowls of extremely hot chilis were set out (obviously no where near me).

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And your table should somewhat resemble this conglomerate of ingredients.

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I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out how this dish is assembled. Each bowl is filled with noodles and spread around the table. Each person must then wait patiently for their desired toppings to be passed around for assemblage. And finally, Mama makes her way around the seemingly never-ending table to pour the curry part over it all. (Apparently I got the short end of the stick and had to wait quite a while, hence the photo of the Burmese dish minus the curry.)

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Finally- time to dig in. The warm light brown hues of the curry meld into the entire dish to make it look extremely homey and delicious. I'm the type of person to mix and mash all ingredients together; but that's just my personal preference.

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Fork or spoon? I'll never figure it out. While both utensils are placed at every table setting, I have found I'm the odd one out. My grandparents stick to using both at the same time, while my cousins choose one or the other. I typically use a fork in the beginning to get all the chunky stuff, and finish off the dish with my spoon.

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Then finally, just as you're beginning to finish your plate and think you can eat not one more bite, Mama sneakily appears behind you and plots a huge wad of noodles onto your plate. "Eat more," she chants. Then suddenly your stomach miraculously stretches and you convince yourself, "you know what, I guess I will have a second plate." I mean, there's no harm in eating really good food anyways (Especially since I probably won't have this dish until the next time I visit).

From my awesome grandmother, Mama. (Measurements may be off. She herself had never measured things accurately.)

curry recipe:
1. Cut 4 pounds of chicken breast into little cubes.
2. In a small bowl, sprinkle some salt, 1 tablespoon ground ginger, 1 tablespoon ground garlic, 1/2 teaspoon tumeric, 2 tablespoons paprika. Add barely just enough water to make that into a paste.
3. Get 3 onions. Put 2 onions in the food processor to finely chop them. Chop the 3rd onion into slices.
4. Put the onion slices in a large pot and brown them in oil. Add 1 teaspoon tumeric. Stir until brown.
5. Add the chopped onion. Then add the red paste mixture.
6. Add a few tablespoons of chicken broth powder. Then add the cubed chicken breast.
7. Mix everything together. Add oil or water, if needed. Cover pot and check again in 10 minutes.
8. In a bowl, add 3 heaping tablespoons of Gram flour and 1+1/2 cup water. Blend with a hand mixer. Add the blended mixture to the pot, and if needed, add some more water.
9. Add 2 cans of coconut milk to the pot, along with 4 can-fulls of water.
10. Boil for 15 minutes or so. Taste to see if it needs more time.

preparing side dishes:
1. Boil 1 bag of fresh Chinese noodles, and fry another bag of noodles until they're very crispy.
2. Chop 1 red onion along with a few stocks of scallions and put in a bowl.
3. Chop a bunch of coriander and put in a bowl.
4. Boil 6 or so eggs, slice them, and put in a bowl.
5. Get a few lemons, chop them into segments, and put in a bowl.
6. Gather necessary spices (chopped fried onion, various chilis, soy sauce, fish sauce, etc.)

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