The Comforting, Turmeric-Spiked Chicken Soup I’ve Been Obsessed with for Decades

October  6, 2016

My aunt’s family lived in Burma in the ‘60s and when they came back to the U.S., they brought a recipe for “kaukswe,” a coconut-chicken-curry dish from the southern part of the country. It became our family’s celebratory dish for every big get-together.

Gathered around a large round table in a corner of a rather overcrowded room, we filled our bowls from the communal pot and garnished individually according to preferences, choosing from limes, cilantro sprigs, cut chiles, fried noodles, and so on.

The dish was amazing and delicious and all of us who had a seat around that table lusted after the flavors and the dish for ever after.

First, I pestered my uncle for the recipe; then I made it; next I played around with it; and finally, I took off! Kaukswe has specific components—Chinese egg noodles, fried crispy noodles, lime juice, chiles, coconut milk—but over the years I have played around with the chicken-coconut milk braise and simplified the dish into a quick, satisfying meal that’s fairly easy to whip up.

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I use fried shallots, that ubiquitous southeast Asian condiment, in place of the fried noodles and cubes of sweet potato in place of the egg noodles, but in the end, I think it comes close to the flavor profile of my aunt and uncle’s far more authentic version.

A little more about the recipe's components:

  • Sweet potatoes are not a common ingredient in Asian food, but they are a vegetable I have grown to love, both for the flavor and their nutritional value. Because want a little bit of a crisp edge to the sweet potato cubes—otherwise, they turn into a sweet mush in the soup—I brown them first. It lets the sugars caramelize, which brings out the flavor complexity, and provides a textural contrast, too. The browning also adds a slight bitter note that dissipates but builds flavor.
  • Turmeric is a delicious ingredient, and one with a lot of buzz these days for its anti-inflammatory properties. For years I dismissed turmeric as a cheap saffron alternative but I have grown to appreciate its distinctive flavor, which is hard to describe in an appealing way, as I think of it as slightly musky. But it adds a subtle flavor note (as well as that dazzling color) that adds up with everything else to a complex dish, one that leaves you thinking about and puzzling over the component parts and how they all came together. Turmeric used to be only sold dried in the U.S. and while that’s still its most common form, but you can now find fresh turmeric in some stores: If you see it, snap it up. I peel the roots and pulverize them finely with the garlic and ginger instead of mixing the dry powder into the marinade. In its fresh form, it’s milder so I would use as much as a 2-inch piece in place of the powdered.
  • I use dried chile here, but if fresh hot chiles are in season, you could use those instead: Choose something small and hot like a bird's eye or a small serrano. I am hopelessly addicted to spice and in the fall when my favorite farmer brings in a tapestry of multicolored chiles in a range of heat, I buy as many as I can and store them in my freezer to use throughout the year.
  • Adding the cilantro stems to the minced shallots, garlic and ginger is a southeast Asian technique I suspect I picked up reading Naomi Duguid’s books on the various cuisines of the region. Combined with the dried coriander in the marinade and the fresh cilantro on top, it adds another layer of cilantro flavor and, in today’s current “no waste” state, makes practical sense. If your cilantro doesn’t have the stems on it, proceed with them: It will still taste just fine.
  • The fish sauce is there to bring a salty note to all the sweetness. But if you hate fish sauce or don’t have it kicking around in your pantry use soy sauce but start out with half the amount and then taste and adjust.

Make this recipe, then make it your own with whatever you crave or have: I’ve made this dish with rich and meaty white fish, shrimp, and even pork. And I can’t wait to appropriate a kauwkswe I recently saw at The Honey Paw in Portland, Maine, made with long braised lamb neck.

What's your favorite riff on chicken soup? Tell us in the comments below!

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M S. January 21, 2019
What would the Burmese have put in the soup since not avid users of sweet potatoes: rice, rice noodles, greens, nothing.
Chris G. January 3, 2017
In answer to your question about Chicken stock, Rob, there are may in the Food52 data base:
Articles matching “homemade chicken stock”
if you have not already found one, good luck. I gave up and searched the Web to find my answer about how freeze fresh chilies!
Ashley January 1, 2017
A very, very good recipe! I made it on a cold night, while at the tail end of a head cold. I increased the arbol chiles to 4 for a sinus-clearing heat level. It was on the thick side, so I served it over brown basmati rice. I'll definitely be making this again (and again)!
Sandi Q. November 26, 2016
This soup is a little time consuming but worth the effort. The flavours and deep and complex and so very satisfying! Make this a one-dish meal - it's very rich. Ok, maybe a salad. Perfect for a cold winter's night.
Emily G. October 24, 2016
Could you use light coconut milk in this recipe? (happen to have it in the pantry at the moment)
Author Comment
Sara J. January 2, 2017
Lisa October 18, 2016
thank you Regine.
Regine October 17, 2016
Dried ginger is the powdered version. Can be found in spice aisle of supermarkets. I used the 1 tbsp asked for in recipe. It is the right amount.
Adrianne B. October 16, 2016
Just made this soup and it's unbelievable. Went with no cilantro, used soy instead of fish sauce, and dried red pepper instead of dried chilies. First I sautéed the ginger, shallots, sweet potatoes, and seasoning for a couple minutes. Then I added the remainder of the ingredients and let it all boil together for 45 minutes. It was phenomenal.
rob W. October 16, 2016
Do you make your chicken stock and if so do you have a recipe to share? Tx
Author Comment
Sara J. January 2, 2017
I do make my own and you can find my recipe in both my cook books, Olives and oranges (Harper 2008) and the four seasons of pasta (Avery 2015) but otherwise I am sure there are great recipes on food52.
Pamela M. October 9, 2016
I have a similar recipe which calls for orange juice to be added at the end. I love it.
Chris G. October 9, 2016
Your article has left me with some questions:
You say that when the chilies are in season you freeze them, what do you do to prep them for freezing? Do just wash them and throw them in the freezer or do you roast them, peel them and remove the seeds or???

Next; The dried ginger, is that whole ginger that has been dried or is it candied ginger or? You might find this article that I found while searching the web to try to figure this one out:
Fresh Ginger vs. Dried Ginger – Know Their Difference
by: Junji Takano
This article tells you how to "Micro-wave dry ginger in "minutes!"
I'm assuming the same process could be used with fresh turmeric as well!?
Chris Glenn
Author Comment
Sara J. January 2, 2017
I just throw whole fresh chilies in a bag in the freezer. For dried ginger and tumeric I buy them from a spice shop
M S. January 21, 2019
Same. Throw them in a plastic box. Last forever. Almost hotter later on-whatever....damn hot and flavorful.
susanm October 9, 2016
I've lately been making what starts out as a pretty traditional chicken soup, then adding in a few more green veggies (broccoli + snow peas) and something for heat (chili garlic sauce). At the end I stir in a can of unsweetened coconut milk. For noodles I'm using ONLY THE NOODLES from a packet of ramen (cooked separately so they don't get mushy). It's warm and comforting and spicy and I cant make it often enough.
Lisa October 9, 2016
Please explain what you use for dried ginger? The powdered ginger bought as a spice seems like 1 tablespoon would be overwhelming.
PHIL October 6, 2016
Great recipe Sara, I will have to try it out. love Asian style soup. Pho, Udon, all good. As for riffs, I like to add an egg to the soup, sometimes I will use whatever is in the fridge when making a soup.