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.
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.
For the soup:
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
- 1 tablespoon dried ginger
- 1 tablespoon dried turmeric
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as grapeseed
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 1-inch piece peeled ginger
- 1 peeled shallot
- 1 dried chile, on the hot side (I like de árbol)
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1/4 cup unrefined coconut oil or a neutral cooking oil, such as grapeseed
- 1 cup cubed sweet potato
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 limes, 1 juiced and 1 quartered
- 1 pinch salt, to taste
For the crispy shallot topping:
- 1 peeled shallot, sliced thinly
- 1 cup neutral cooking oil, such as grapeseed
What's your favorite riff on chicken soup? Tell us in the comments below!