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Oriental Noodle Soups, Part I: Kaukswe
Blogs - Life, Loss and What I Ate
By Sahar Ali   

Sahar AliThis is the first of a two-part blog dedicated to Oriental noodle soups and friendship. Full of flavor and texture, color and comfort, simple ingredients and complex tastes, the Burmese noodle soup, Kaukswe, symbolizes my enduring friendship with Muna.

It is spelt Kaukswe when rendered in English from Burmese. South Asians spell it as we pronounce it, Khao Suey. My friend Muna’s version is the most animated: Cow Sway. But whatever you may choose to call, whichever way you spell it, this Burmese noodle soup will taste just as great.

It was Bhabi (Naveed Halai Hasan) who brought Kaukswe into my life. I didn’t look up the spelling till much later so I spelled it as I pronounced it, Khao Sway. This phonetic rendition appeared rather apt because khaoing it did make my taste buds sway with delight and pleasure.

Not only did Bhabi introduce me to this delectable Burmese meal-in-a-pot, she also eventually provided a domesticated – and simplified – recipe for it a few years later which I adopted. By domesticated, I mean the recipe has been reimagined for a Pakistani palate. The meat and curry are cooked separately. The latter looks like our karhi without the phulkees.

This desi version has been picked up by Safi, our cook in Karachi, who makes it fairly regularly for my niece Mariam. Just like her Phuppo before her, it makes Mariam’s taste buds sway and swoon every time.

But the person I associate most with Kaukswe is my friend Muna. We started out as Editor (her) and Contributor (me).  She edited the midweek magazine, Tuesday Review, at Dawn.  I was a freelance writer with a scoop – the elusive Jemima Khan, then married to Imran, had agreed to an interview. I was already writing the piece for Khaleej Times’ Weekend magazine in Dubai, but also wanted it published in Pakistan. I called Muna, whom I didn’t know, and asked if she was interested in publishing the piece. She was… and the rest is our personal history.

With her friendship, Muna’s enriched my life in many ways. She was my editor when I began The SWOT Column, my initially anonymous musings on life as an on-the-shelf single woman past her married-by date. She kept my secret through the first ‘season’ of the column. And then, several years later, when I was ready to go public, again at Dawn, I still sought her advice on individual columns. We laughed at the mail the column received, some hating it, most not getting it, and the very rare accolades that came our way.Muna and I didn’t get to travel to and in Italy together to visit Muna’s sister who was doing a year at a university there, but I had a chance to visit her when she was working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She took me sightseeing wanting me to ‘experience’ Vietnam but we strolled through the Reunification Palace gossiping about how a bachelor whom I had been introduced to several years ago, was back on the market after his second divorce. We disco-ed the night away at a Bappi Lahiri concert in HCMC, marveling at the randomness of us in Vietnam witnessing the literally glittering Bappi Lahiri.

In 2007, when I was emotionally shattered after the death of my younger brother, Sameer, she gave me Liz Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love to read. The book led me to yoga and taught me life’s most valuable lesson: letting go gracefully. Being a fellow Gemini, she “gets” me like no-one else. We share a love of food, Sex & the City, Bollywood songs of the 60s, and the movies. Even though we have watched it together but once, she is my favorite companion for Oscar night.

When I was single and lived in Karachi, I would often have my friends over and cook for them. Khao Suey was my most slurped-down recipe. Muna tells me still that it’s the best bowl of ‘cow sway’ she’s ever had.

A few weeks ago, Muna was in the mood to cook ‘cow sway’ and emailed me two recipes which she found during a Google search. She wanted my opinion on them. They were both Indian versions of the dish, by which I mean the women who shared them were Indian. Neither of the recipes listed besan (chick pea flour) as an ingredient. I’m no expert but, in my opinion, besan is a key ingredient in Kaukswe. Not only does it thicken the curry, it lends an earthy, nutty flavor.

So I did some research of my own, and found a Kaukswe recipe that sounded like the real deal, which I shared with Muna and will post a link to here.

I’m also sharing our family recipe, Muna’s all-time favorite version of the dish, which came to me from Bhabi. I don’t know where it originated but it came to her from a personal chef who cooked it for Bhabi’s friend. Whoever you are, thank you, stay blessed, and carry on cooking.

And with this, I’d like to raise my soup bowl to our friendship, Muna’s and mine.

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Watch this space for Oriental Noodle Soups, Part II, where I will blog about Singaporean Laksa and my friend Sheherbano.


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