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Khao suey, liquid smoke and a journey into the new year

A year-end ramble through two cities, many lunches and dinners with inventive home cooks

Karishma’s Burmese khao suey. (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

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As farewell dinners go, this one was a runaway winner—a Burmese khao suey, that self-assembled smorgasbord of bits and bobs of spices, condiments and imagination. Its bland description is a noodle soup but it has so many variants and avatars that how you make it is up to your imagination.

Preparing to leave for our annual year-end sojourn in Bandra, Matheran and Mumbai, we were saying our annual farewell to my mother, our cat and the woman, our friend Karishma D’Souza, who cheerfully accepted the responsibility of keeping an eye on both. It was she who made, as a farewell meal, the khao suey, an interpretation of which you can read below.

Karishma’s khao suey was put together at speed, although that camouflaged the substantial prep. When it all came together, it was remarkable that the centrepiece of simple boiled noodles catered easily to all our requirements. It was Thursday, the mother’s vegetarian day, so the coconut-milk curry had only mushrooms, with paneer replacing unavailable tofu as the main accompaniment. For the daughter and I, there was a light, bright red but mild beef curry made with Kashmiri chillies. And, of course, all those bits and bobs.

That meal set off a week of immensely satisfying food produced in familiar kitchens. In the West End Hotel, where my in-laws have lived for 53 years, they had organised my comfort food of grilled masala fish and spinach, with bajre ki roti or, well, pearl-millet flatbread.

The next day was Christmas Eve and dinner at my creative cousin Gitanjali’s Art Deco-themed 22nd-floor home included a garlic, thyme and jalapeño-flavoured baked fish—she had pulled the recipe off somewhere on Instagram—and the juiciest falling-off-the-bone pork chops ordered from a well-known caterer called Havovi Shroff.

As Christmas evening rolled in, we headed to Bandra for our annual meal with the Fernandes family. My friend Naresh is one of India’s finest journalists and writers, a great chronicler of India’s jazz age and a keeper of his city’s secrets. But culinary ability isn’t among his talents—unless he has a well-kept secret. Fortunately, his family more than compensates. After battling some of the most horrendous traffic we had ever seen—after reaching Bandra, it took us 1 hour to cover the last 2km—we staggered into an expansive dinner at the home of his hospitable brother and sister-in-law, Prakash and Joanna.

A bright woman called Reshma, from the local Koli or fisherfolk community, had brought in delectable prawn and tuna cutlets, bound with potato. Over feni and rum, our hosts brought in lasagna, baked chicken and meatballs, which the amazing Joanna had cooked in liquid smoke and molasses. That is incredibly exotic, I said, awed. Where did she get them from? She grinned, “Amazon.”

The next day, I found myself at Ballard Estate with my talented, former colleague Alison Saldanha, now a reporter in Seattle, US. As we walked into the legendary Britannia restaurant, we were somewhat startled at being face to face with a dog—a streetie who had been granted resting rights on the counter. He settled down next to the cashier and we settled down for the fish patra—steamed in a green chutney—and the unique mutton berry pulao.

Back in Bengaluru, I asked the mistress of khao suey when she usually made it, and she said when five people or more came over. “It’s easy to make, the ingredients are not hard to source and most people seem to like it,” she said. That’s a guideline I can live with in the new year. Keep it simple, keep it inventive and make them want to return for more.

KARISHMA’S BURMESE KHAO SUEY
Serves 6-8
Half kg rice noodles, boiled
Beef
Half kg beef or pork or mutton cut into half-inch cubes
1 medium to large onion
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
Mix beef or pork or mutton with ginger-garlic paste and onions in a pressure cooker. After the first whistle, pressure- cook on simmer for 15 minutes. No need to fry; no need to add water.
Red masala for beef/pork/mutton
10 Kashmiri red chillies
1 pod garlic
1 tsp jeera (cumin)
2 tbsp tamarind pulp or more to taste
1 tbsp salt or to taste
Grind masala ingredients to a paste. Mix with boiled beef and simmer for 10 minutes. The beef gravy should be thick. Adjust water accordingly.
Other ingredients
One and a half to 2 litres coconut milk for soupy khao suey
Half cup or a fistful of coriander leaves and stems
Half tsp jeera
20-30 basil leaves (optional)
Half tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
Grind to a paste and fry in 1 tsp oil for two-three minutes. Add coconut milk and heat through. You can add some lightly sautéed vegetables, such as mushroom, to the coconut milk.
Garnish for the khao suey
1 bunch spring onions, finely chopped
1 small bunch coriander, finely chopped
1 capsicum, finely chopped
4 boiled eggs, finely chopped
Half cup peanuts, roasted and coarsely crushed
4 lemons
200g sev (or fried noodles)
One-fourth to half kg onions, thinly sliced and deep- fried till golden brown and crisp
1 pod garlic peeled, slivered and deep- fried
2-inch piece ginger, julienned and deep-fried
Dried shrimp roasted (optional)
Fish sauce (optional)
Any other garnish your taste buds desire

Place a small quantity of noodles in a bowl. Add beef curry and coconut milk curry. It should be soupy.

Top with plenty of garnishing. Squeeze lemon juice. 

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.

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