Burma: In the Hidden Pagoda

Noosh-e-Jaan, 21 June 2018

My shirt is full of burn holes from many campfires, I have a rip in my pants and a thick layer of reddish-brown dust on my sweaty skin. In the company of two respectable monks, I feel somewhat unworthy. Cycling through Central Burma during the boiling hot climax of the dry season, looking for a camp spot, I arrive at a hidden temple at the end of a dirt road.

“Can I freshen up somewhere?” I ask softly, pointing to my clothes. I am taken by the hand to the village well, and given a plastic bucket and a longyi, a Burmese sarong. Then the gong sounds for evening prayer and the villagers gather in the prayer hall. I scoop the cool well-water over me until no more brown dust runs down.

I take a deep breath and walk barefoot over a bund of the adjacent rice field, accompanied by the chanting of Buddhist sutras. With every step I feel the warm sand between my toes. Nature takes a breath after a day of stifling heat, and a deep calm descends on the fields. One of the monks is smoking a cigarette around the corner of the temple. Apparently his path to detachment is not yet complete. As I approach, he quickly tosses the cigarette into the sand and points at some steps leading up. This is where I can sleep tonight. Even before I sit down, village girls arrive with bowls of fruit, rice, fragrant coconut curry noodles, a salad of fermented tea leaves and a spicy lentil soup.

Tired and dazed from the heat after a long day in the saddle, I am sitting on the wooden pagoda floor. One of the youngsters is standing next to me with a large hand fan and the monk is silently sitting across from me in his ocher-red robe. In a sleepy haze, I imagine being Dr. Livingstone discovering a tribe in the jungle.

The coconut curry noodles are the original version of the popular Thai dish khao soi. This Burmese dish is obviously served without chicken in the temple, but the richness of the sauce makes that I don’t miss it for a moment. Perfectly fresh noodles with a curry so complex and powerful that each bite is a new sensation. Layer upon layer of exciting flavors, obtained through the dedication of endlessly pounding the spices. The fullness of the coconut milk, the freshness of turmeric and the slightly spicy kick of the chili’s remind me of the subtle and refined way the Burmese treat each other. Every little gesture has a story, such as putting the first grain of rice from the pot  aside with your fingers to show respect for your parents.

We eat slowly and silently. The calm of this hidden temple on a dirt road in Central Burma descends upon us, and soon after I fall asleep. At four o’clock the gong sounds again for morning prayer.

Burmese Khao Swe

The key to this recipe is the short cooking of the noodles and the long pounding of the spices.

Ingredients for 4

5 tbs cooking oil|8 small shallots, sliced|10 cloves of garlic, sliced|14 ounces egg noodles (mie)|1 tbs sesame oil|2 tbs cornstarch|1 quart oil for deep frying|3 eggs|3 tsp cumin seeds|2 tsp coriander|0.5 tsp turmeric|2 red chilies (rawit), pith removed|1 inch ginger, finely chopped|1 onion, finely chopped|¼ cup chickpea flour (besan, replaceable by soy flour or buckwheat flour)|2 cups chicken stock|1.3 lbs chicken thigh fillet, in cubes|salt or fish sauce|4 tbs roasted peanuts, finely chopped|1 lime, in wedges|1 tbs red chili flakes|fresh cilantro|spring onions|1 cup coconut milk|

  1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan and caramelize the shallots and 2 cloves of garlic for 40 to 50 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally.
  2. Meanwhile, cook 4 noodle nests for 3 minutes in plenty of boiling water. Set aside and cook the remaining noodles al dente. Drain and toss with sesame oil.
  3. Toss the 4 nests of noodles around in cornstarch, fry them in a pan of oil over medium heat until golden brown and set aside. 
  4. Hard-boil the eggs, slice them in quarters and set aside.
  5. In a mortar, finely grind cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric. Add the red chilies, ginger and 8 cloves of garlic and continue to pound until you have a fine, smooth paste.
  6. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok and fry the onion and spice paste for about 4 minutes on medium heat until it spreads its fragrance. Then add chickpea flour and keep stirring so that the flour does not burn.
  7. While stirring, add chicken stock, chicken and salt or fish sauce to taste. Let this boil for 8 to 10 minutes.
  8. Meanwhile, put all the garnishes on the table in separate bowls: the eggs, peanuts, fried noodles, lime wedges, chili flakes, cilantro, spring onion and the caramelized shallots and garlic.
  9. Add the coconut milk to the curry and simmer for about 5 minutes on low heat until it has the desired thickness.
  10. Divide the noodles among the bowls, ladle over the curry and add the garnishes to taste.

For vegetarians:
Replace chicken with 2 ounce of your favorite mushrooms (diced), 2 ounce bok choy, 2 ounce baby corn, 1 carrot (in strips) and 1 capsicum (in strips), and add these together with the coconut milk.