July 15, 2024

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Bold flavours of Burma- The New Indian Express

7 min read

Express News Service

A few weeks ago, we were treated to the creamiest, most flavoursome ‘Khauk Swe’— or, as we’d know it more commonly, Khao Suey. A humble Burmese noodle soup in its essence, chances are that it is among your all-time favourite comfort foods.

The maker of this dish was a dear friend — Dwarka resident Anisha Sharma. Speaking about her version, Sharma says that she learnt the dish from her late mother, and continues to follow the recipe ‘to the T’, even today. Her mother’s family had roots in Myanmar (erstwhile Burma), so you can imagine how this was most likely a staple within their community.

Years later, and in a different part of the world, Burmese food continues to be a staple in Sharma’s household — who is now married to her husband, whose roots are based in Goa. Among other dishes within Sharma’s everyday fare are Mohinga — a rice noodle and fish soup; egg ‘bejo’, and Atho — noodles mixed with fresh vegetables.

The influx of this culture is tracked down easily in history. Many narrations have described how Indians migrated and settled in Burma, a move that eventually led to most of them fleeing the nation as Burmese nationalism escalated. As a result, today, you’d find many who have settled here — but with very definite roots in erstwhile Burma.

Sanhita Dasgupta Sensarma, a lawyer based in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, says, “Both sides of my family are from Burma. My maternal great-grandfather had a library there, whereas my paternal great-grandfather was a trader of gems, carpets and luxury goods. They had to flee from Burma overnight during the Japanese invasion on a ship that took them to Chittagong in Bangladesh, which was then a part of India.”

Today, Sensarma is popular in India’s culinary circles for her experiments and studies of food anthropology. During the pandemic’s first lockdown in 2020, she opened a home kitchen with a menu that featured various dishes from Burma. Interestingly, this found many takers across the National Capital Region.

She describes her family’s cooking ‘style’ as “Bengali-Burmese”.

“There are many recipes that my grandmother brought with her from Burma. We’ve adopted them as our own, unaware of their origin. It was only when I was studying in the US that I encountered dishes with similar tastes in some Burmese eateries, and that helped me join the dots,” Sensarma shares. Among such dishes are the hand-tossed Burmese tomato salad, or ‘Khayan chi thee thoke’.

Restaurant consultant Divija Singh of Anand Niketan recalls her grandfather’s love for bottle gourd pakoras served with tamarind dipping sauce from Burma. Brigadier SN Verma, she narrates, was born in Mandalay, Burma, and shifted to India in his teenage years. Through his years, Burma remained a cherished part of his life.“We eat a lot of Burmese food at home, and even our Khauk Swe is different from what is served in restaurants here with overpowering flavours of lemongrass.

Ours remains more traditional,” she says. On a trip to Burma recently to trace her family history, Singh came across the bottle gourd pakoras, which reminded her of her grandfather – creating a bond with her roots unlike before.

But, it’s not just at homes where the Burmese dishes find adulation. In Delhi’s Vikaspuri, the Chin refugee settlement in Bodella houses migrants from Myanmar and is a hub of many Burmese snacks and dishes. One such is ‘Pe palata’, a Burmese paratha with a filling of split Bengal gram. You’d also find various salads such as spicy, tangy chickpea and tofu salad with grated radish, while carts of small, flat Burmese ‘sambusas’ (samosas) are rather common, too.

A more popular destination is Burma Burma, the all-vegetarian restaurant that happens to feature in all-time favourites of many non-vegetarians, too. Here, Ankit Gupta, owner of the restaurant chain, pays homage to his mother Urmila Gupta’s Burmese roots with her recipes. Like many, I too tasted khauk swe for the first time here.

The dish, as many may not know, literally translates to ‘knock and pull’—originating from the process of making hand-rolled noodles that go in the dish. These noodles are then topped with a spicy coconut broth and served with accompaniments such as fried onions, garlic, chives, lemon, chilli and peanuts. While it is the traditional khauk swe that pulls in the crowd, a modern and slightly unorthodox rendition of it at Burma Burma — called ‘Mandalay noodle bowl’—shows the versatility of this grounded bowl of wholesomeness.

Through it all, what’s interesting is to note similarities between Indian and Burmese dishes—in ingredients, preparations and dishes. There is a common love for curries, rice, parathas and fried snacks—divided only by geopolitical borders and an unflattering history. Yet, even as the present generation lives through fading memories of land once shared, there’s no denying the unifying thread of food that pulls the two nations closer than what many may imagine.

Vernika Awal is a food writer who is known for her research-based articles through her blog
‘Delectable Reveries’

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