Burmese Chicken Braised in Coconut Milk & Turmeric with Sweet Potato

October  5, 2016
97 Ratings
Photo by Ty Mecham
  • Prep time 8 hours 20 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Serves 4 to 6
Author Notes

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. —Sara Jenkins

What You'll Need
  • 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
  1. For the soup
  2. Cut the chicken thighs into about 1-inch pieces and marinate overnight with the dried ginger, turmeric, coriander, and 1 tablespoon of neutral oil. I like the overnight marinade, but if you forget, simply toss the chicken pieces with the spices before you start cooking.
  3. In a food processor, mince the garlic, ginger, shallot, dried chile, and the roots and/or stems of the bunch of cilantro.
  4. In the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, heat the coconut oil. Then add the cubed sweet potato. Fry until golden brown on at least 2 sides of each cube. Scoop out of the pan, leaving the oil, and set aside. Add the chicken pieces (a few at a time so you can brown them without having them cool the pan down) and let them begin to brown. Season with a pinch of salt. When they are mostly browned, add the minced shallot-ginger-garlic-cilantro stem mixture and let cook out a little. Add a couple tablespoons of the chicken stock and let reduce until the mixture is soft and cooked. Add the rest of the chicken stock and the reserved sweet potatoes and bring to a simmer.
  5. Meanwhile use the method below to fry the crispy shallots (this can also be done as much as a week ahead of time, as the shallots will keep in a closed container at room temperature for a week at least).
  6. Simmer the soup for about half an hour, until the chicken and sweet potatoes are close to tender. Stir in the fish sauce, lime juice, and coconut milk and bring up to a simmer. Stir in a quarter cup of cilantro leaves and taste for salt. Serve garnished with the crispy shallots, a couple of sprigs of raw cilantro, and the lime wedges
  1. For the crispy shallot topping
  2. In a sauté pan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the shallots and stir frequently. As the oil continues to heat, the shallots will start to color. When they get to golden brown, scoop them out of the oil and drain on a paper towel. You want to pull them out of the oil a little before dark brown, as they'll continue to cook and crisp up on the paper towel.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

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127 Reviews

Achang82 March 24, 2024
An absolute favorite. Warming on winter days with a deep flavor. Our family loves this soup.
Claire H. February 15, 2024
I made this for the second time last night and followed it exactly, but added rice noodles in the last few minutes of simmering, turned off the heat and let them cook as the soup cooled. SO DELICIOUS. It's one of my favorites.
NamasteSF November 18, 2023
Love this recipe! I've shared it with friends and they both loved it too. Last night I doubled the recipe and it turned out great, albeit a little too rich. I left it to simmer maybe a bit too long as the cilantro browned, and the sweet potato disintegrated a bit but it was still delicious. I served it with rice. Will continue to make this regularly.
Alicia C. September 4, 2023
Amazing!! So flavorful!! I didn’t have time to marinate the chicken over night but the flavor was still incredible. I added some extra spices - smoked paprika and cinnamon. I also added some dried currants just because I had them on hand! Yummm!!
Tammi T. July 11, 2023
Really beautiful food. I made it for some friends tonight. Made it slowly with love. Used red pepper flakes for heat. Really lovely and everyone loved it. Thanks for this recipe.
Lisaje7 June 23, 2023
A lot of prep but OMG this is delicious! Added rice on the side and zucchini to the stew - it was a huge hit!
Yiannis P. May 10, 2023
I love this recipe! I was looking for a way to use up some leftover coconut milk & finally found a way to use an ENTIRE bunch of cilantro in the bargain. The recipe was easy to make vegetarian—I swapped the chicken for plant-based chick’n & also added tofu; note, I halved the spice blend since I wasn’t marinating anything. I can only imagine the recipe’s author’s is even more delicious than mine but I am completely satisfied
Mary O. April 14, 2023
This is delicious, what an outstanding recipe! I added some cauliflower and at the end some spinach since I had some in the fridge that needed to be used. Used BS chicken breast since that’s what I had in the freezer. Served with basmati rice and garlic naan. The flavors in this recipe are so delicious, I’ll definitely be making this dinner again! Thanks to Sara Jenkins for sharing her family’s recipe !
Jaxmccaff March 24, 2023
I’ve had this in my “make someday” folder for so long and now that I’ve made it, I don’t know why it took me so long! It’s delicious! Easy to make and the flavours are just amazing. Will absolutely make again.
Danna F. February 24, 2023
Just as good as I had hoped.
Henry S. December 19, 2022
LOVED IT !! the flavors are so good, it literally is a healing soup. I made basmati rice as a side and we added it into the soup good.
mindia October 31, 2022
I have made this time and again. It is so flavorful! Sometimes I add spinach or other veggies I have on hand, but it is amazing as written. (Freezes pretty well too)
megomiles September 16, 2022
This is restaurant quality. So delicious. I added an extra cup of water and 1/4 cup red bell pepper chopped. We loved it!
Goose302 August 7, 2022
I’ve made this twice which is unlike me. I played with the spices a bit—Kampot peppercorns and black garlic. Probably Tony’s. This is an outstanding recipe, Sara!
Jane A. March 29, 2022
Really wonderful healing soup on it's own or as a base. I made a double batch and added kale and mushrooms to one batch, carrots and cauliflower to another. This is a nourishing soup!
NXL December 22, 2021
This is the first recipe I've ever given 5 stars. so delicious, yet easy to make. Definitely going onto my favourites list! Didn't do the fried shallots, but I bet they are wonderful, as well.
Atiya H. September 11, 2021
This recipe is in our regular rotation! I make it with chicken breast and fresh chiles (ideally the little Thai or Hawaiian ones). I've done it with all sorts of sweet potatoes, depending on what I had on hand, and it's nice to be able to use the cilantro stems and roots. I've never made the friend shallots, since I don't have a range hood, but I got a little jar of "crispy garlic in chili oil" that works nicely as a topping.
andrea.muraskin May 2, 2021
So glad I finally tried this recipe! I used chicken breasts, vegetable stock, a combination of full fat and reduced fat coconut milk, and skipped the chili pepper and the fried shallots. It thought it was delicious, and my parents agreed. Next time I'll try doubling the sweet potatoes and maybe adding some greens. A winner!
M February 22, 2021
Such a great recipe, an all time favorite here. I double or triple the sweet potato (technically yams), and add a bunch of chopped kale at the end. I fry the shallots in the microwave which cuts out all of the hassle. It usually thickens up by the time it's done so it's more like a stew or curry than a soup, and we serve it over rice. I add chopped peanuts as a garnish, just because I like the extra crunch. Thanks for such a great addition to my dinner options!
Reed February 13, 2021
Love this one. I've made it many times and I would add a couple notes: turmeric is more beneficial when paired with black pepper, so I add a sprinkle. Also, I add more than a cup of sweet potatoes. Would also agree that the shallots dissolve into the curry and are not worth the extra work. Thanks for the recipe.