I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent trip to Myanmar lately. It might be that to a South American like me, this Buddhist nation seemed like a different planet. Or perhaps winter is coming and I’m just craving some soup. Whatever the case, I came back from Myanmar determined to make a dish I spent a significant amount of effort trying to learn: coconut noodle soup or, in Burmese, Ohn-Not-kaw-Swe.
Here’s what happened.
After three long flights and with a stiff neck, I made it to Yangon’s international airport just after 2:00 a.m. on a sticky Friday morning. The taxi rolled slowly down a quiet avenue to my colleague’s apartment, where I would spend the next few hours. Stray dogs milled about on every street. I went upstairs, took a quick shower and a nap.
By the time I returned to the airport for my next flight, I was starving. I headed straight for the first restaurant I saw, checking out what the locals were eating as I walked past them. A steaming bowl of noodles in a creamy yellow sauce caught my eye. I sat down and ordered it. It was…what can I say, the best culinary first impression I’ve ever had.
I was headed to Bagan for the weekend because I had a couple of days off and because I had heard it was magical.
I walked around this ancient city of 2,000 temples, watched the sun set over the Irrawaddy River, and ate some delicious Burmese food. But the coconut soup was still on my mind.
Luckily, it didn’t take long until I found a generous soul, a professional chef who was willing not only to give me the recipe, but to invite me into his kitchen and make the soup for me.
Mr. Yemin, executive chef of Amazing Bagan Resort, showed me how to make this velvety curry soup that’s a classic breakfast dish across Myanmar – from the roadside shop, to the family kitchen.
We gathered in the hotel’s dining room with the general manager, who acted as my interpreter. Mr. Yemin – who learned to cook in culinary school and has been with the company for about 25 years – described the recipe as I scrambled to take notes. I asked lots of questions. Eventually, Mr. Yemin said “Why don’t you come to the kitchen in half hour and I’ll show you how to make the dish?”
Music to my ears.
When I arrived in the kitchen, Mr. Yemin was waiting for me with the stove fired up, clean pots on standby, and all the ingredients for the recipe carefully chopped and laid out in ramekins with handwritten cards indicating the name and quantity of each item.
He demonstrated the cooking method.
When he finished, he assembled me a perfect bowl with all the garnishes and stepped back, along with his staff, anxiously waiting for my reaction after the first bite.
It was a perfect bite. Better than any other version I’d tried previously.
Here’s the recipe, directly from a faraway kitchen in Myanmar to your table.
COCONUT NOODLE SOUP
(Makes 4-5 servings)
For the soup
- Egg noodles (fresh or dry)
- 2 cups split yellow peas (also known as Chana Dal)
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 1 cup diced chicken breast
- ½ can coconut milk
- 6 red shallots (or 1.5 red onion)
- 5 cloves fresh garlic
- 2 tbsp peanut oil
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tbsp chicken bouillon mix
For the tempura
- Premixed tempura batter
- Red shallots (or red onion)
- Gourd (or zucchini)
- 2 hard-boiled eggs
- Chopped fresh cilantro
- Red chili flakes
Make the soup:
- Boil split peas in water (no salt) until tender. You may use a pressure cooker to speed up the process (no need to soak overnight). Puree in a blender. This should be runny, not too thick.
- In a saucepan, boil the chicken stock with two shallots (diced). Simmer in low heat.
- In a frying pan, heat up some of the peanut oil (about 4 tbsp.) and add minced garlic, ginger, 2 shallots (chopped). Cook in high heat for two to three minutes, mixing well.
- Add turmeric and chili powder (about 1 tsp each). Mix well.
- Add the diced chicken breast and cook for a few minutes.
- Add fish sauce. Mix well.
- Add pureed yellow peas.
- Add coconut milk. Cook for about five minutes.
- Pour the contents of the frying pan into the saucepan with the stock and mix well.
- Add sugar.
- Add ½ tbsp of chicken bouillon/powder.
- Simmer for 10-15 minutes while you make the tempura.
- After simmering for 10-15 minutes, add evaporated milk. Mix well and taste salt and sugar level.
- Blanch noodles, drain, and set aside.
Tip: the resulting soup should be creamy, but not too thick. If, after simmering, your soup is still too runny, dissolve some split yellow pea flour in a cup of stock and add to your soup. You can either buy the split pea flour or make it yourself by grinding some of the yellow peas in a coffee grinder. I suppose you can go the traditional way of adding a little corn starch, but I haven’t tried that.
Make the tempura:
- Prepare tempura batter following directions on package. Set aside.
- Heat up peanut oil
- Slice one onion and ½ zucchini or gourd (if available. See picture above).
- Season with a little salt, pepper, and chicken bouillon.
- Dip the pieces of vegetables in batter and drop in hot oil.
- Fry until golden brown. Set aside.
Note: to ensure the best experience, one of the most important things is to assemble the bowl properly. So, here’s how I was taught to put together the bowl.
To assemble your bowl:
First, add your noodles to an empty bowl. Then, add the soup, then eggs, then tempura…and the rest (cilantro, chili flakes). You can add a dash of fish sauce and definitely a squeeze of lime juice!