Jay Anderson's Ohn-No Khao Swè
It's true when they say that food brings friends and family together. This series of stories about food focuses on young people and their favourite dishes passed down from their mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles and grandparents. It celebrates the connection between food and culture, and how food can often act as a gateway to stories of yesteryear. The dishes in this series are particularly special to our storytellers; all of whom have migrant parents or grandparents, and use food as a firm foundation for their understanding of their family's history and culture, and connects them to foreign yet familiar lands.
My name is Jay Anderson, I am 23 years old. I was born in Perth, but I moved to Kalgoorlie where I grew up for a majority of my life. The dish I’m talking about is called ohn-no khao swè (which I pronounce as oh-no-cow-sway), a Burmese curry. I’ll explain how good it makes me feel, not just because it tastes good, but because of all the memories it evokes as well for me personally. Every time I cook it for somebody that’s never had it before I have to explain that it’s a curry, but it’s also like noodles and soup and dry noodles are on top and all these other extras. It’s quite unusual, but very tasty.
My dad’s parents are from Myanmar. They emigrated here in their 20s and this is that one curry that my family has eaten our whole lives. When I was growing up in Perth I ate curries as a baby. My mum didn’t really give us baby food, weirdly enough, she would just make regular adult dishes and blend them and just feed us food paste, so for as long as I can remember I’ve been eating curries. My mum is actually white, she never grew up making curries, but when she married my dad, his mum taught her how to make all of the curries, but Ohn-No Khao Swè is the curry.
My mum taught me to make ohn-no khao swè so she learned from my nan before I was born, I assume. It wasn’t until my nan passed away that I decided that I wanted to learn how to make it myself. It was about the same time that I had to leave the family nest anyways, so I wanted to learn how to make a few different dishes, but ohn-no khao swè was the one I really wanted to learn how to make because it is so special to my family and because I love it the most out of everything that I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Ohn-No Khao Swè makes me think of my family first and foremost, and it’s also the dish that we use to introduce white people to our family. That sounds really weird, but this is how my family talks about it because we have all been eating curries forever, but all of my siblings and all my aunts and uncles, when they got partners, they all happened to be white, so this was their introduction to our family. When you cook it, you can choose how much spice you put in. You always put in a little bit of spice and when you are eating it later you can add more spice as you like. This is how it is for the white people who enter our family.
We have it at all big family events, like when we have the memorial for my nan every year and now my Auntie Barbara cooks it for our whole family. When I feel sad I make it as well, because my mum and dad and siblings don’t live in Perth with me, so when I get homesick I always cook it. Special occasions as well and when I have lots of friends coming over I have to cook for, because this isn’t particularly easy to cook, but I’ve been cooking it for so long now that I’m confident it will impress people, so this is that recipe.
Here is the key for ohn-no khao swè: when you start you have to basically put in an entire jar of minced garlic –my family and my mum has always been obsessed with way too much garlic, and it turns out my nan was the same. When I first learnt to make this recipe, I asked my mum how much garlic to put in and she said, “oh, I don’t know, like 2 or 3 big teaspoons”. When I made it recently I asked her again because the recipe I have is super vague about the measurements, and she said “well, if you ask your nan it is like the whole jar”. So, that’s how you start the recipe, with a whole jar of minced garlic. There’s a lot of spices, 8 or so different ones, and then onion, chicken, a lot of stock and then coconut milk. This also takes about 3 hours. I feel like I should have mentioned that earlier cause it cooks on the stove for a long time. When you get it this very yellow, creamy, soupy curry, then you cook 2-minute noodles and put the 2-minute noodles with the soup and then on top you put dried noodles for crunch. You are meant to cook eggs as well, so cooked eggs go on top with coriander and then you add your extra spices you need. So that’s basically what you are in for.
Oh No Khowswe (in Jay's own words)
Look, I’d say you need about three hours. But I like to take my time when I cook. In a beat, you could probably do this in two hours (it’s gotta simmer for forty minutes, and then simmer for another forty minutes, so be aware of that).
Who can say? Let’s say this is enough for six to eight people. But when I make this I eat like, three bowls. And you’re gonna want leftovers. Factor accordingly.
- 2 tbsp of peanut oil (or olive oil if you have a nut allergy)
- 1 brown onion (chopped super fine)
- 1 tablespoon of jarred minced garlic (my family uses a whole jar—hence the jarred stuff over the fresh stuff, nobody has time to prep the fresh stuff. It’s up to you though, it’s your breath, after all)
- 1 tsp minced ginger
- 3 tsp of curry powder (get Malay or Indian curry powder, if you can)
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp chilli powder
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp chicken stock powder
- A splash of fish sauce (to this day, I don’t know what this measurement is; just turn the bottle upside down and give it four or five pumps)
- 3 chicken breasts (cut into halves)
- 2 cans coconut milk
- 1/2 cup chickpea flour
- 500g thin egg noodles
- 2 lemons
- 6 eggs
- Chilli flakes (to serve)
- 250 g crispy dried noodles (you know those packets of crispy-noodle-nut-mix that people dish up at parties? You’re looking for that, but without the nuts. I go to Kong’s Oriental Supermarket—best I’ve found and they’re dead cheap)
- 1 bunch of coriander
1. Heat a pot (there’s a specific Asian pan-pot thing that is perfect for this but I can’t help you if you’re white and don’t own one. Just do your best!) and chuck in the oil, onions, ginger and garlic. Fry it up.
2. Add the curry powder, paprika, turmeric, chilli powder, cumin, brown sugar and fish sauce. If it’s a bit dry, add a splash of water too, to prevent the spices from burning.
3. Add the chicken breast halves and brown them.
4. Add 1 cup of water, or two, or three. This depends on your pan, you need to add enough water to cover the chicken breasts (just covered though, not swimming). Leave covered for 40 minutes on a low heat. Keep checking it though, you don’t want to boil your gravy down to nothing, so add more water as needed.
5. Remove the chicken breasts from the pot and set them aside to rest.
6. Beat the chickpea flour into the coconut milk. This is important. If the chickpea flour isn’t fully incorporated into the coconut milk before you add it to the pot, then you’ll have all of these weird lumps of chickpea flour, and they’re gross.
7. Slowly add the coconut-chickpea milk to the gravy in the pot while beating it in.
8. Shred the chicken breasts and add them back to the pot along with the chicken stock, 1 cup of water, and the juice of one lemon.
9. Cover and cook on low for another 40 minutes. This is important. Chickpea flour tastes funny, and you need to cook that flavour out over a long period of time. Keep checking it as you don’t want it to reduce too much. Add another cup of water if need be (this curry is meant to be somewhat soupy, but in a thick way, if that helps)
10. While you’re waiting, cook the egg noodles and set them aside. Hard-boil your eggs and slice them. Chop up your coriander and lemons. Do some dishes. Taste the curry. This is where I decide if it needs longer to meld that chickpea flour in (I often make a double batch, so it sometimes needs longer). I might also add more of ingredients (like fish sauce). I know what it’s meant to taste like so this is easy for me, but you might struggle here, so just go with your instinct!
11. It probably tastes great, so you can dish it up! Put the egg noodles on the bottom of your bowl and spoon the curry on top. Everyone likes it different, but I think it’s best when the noodles are swimming, but only just swimming. Not drowning, not dry, but in the middle somewhere. Add your crispy dried noodles to the top, then your sliced eggs, and then your coriander. Add a slice of lemon, if you like extra citrus. Add chilli flakes if you like a bit of extra kick. Enjoy!
The beautiful illustrations in our Soul Food series are courtesy of Emmi Kerkham at Elks. Emmi loves to create beautiful things that share her ideas and experiences with others. If she's not at her desk, you’ll probably find her exploring new places, whether it’s roaming through her own back yard or wandering around on the side of a mountain 7580kms away from home. She's always on the hunt for new inspiration and experiences that she can share with others through her practice. Follow her adventures on Instagram: @hello.elks
Copyright © 2018 Jay Anderson
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.