Kaukswe: Mari’s traditional Christmas dinner
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] love Christmas. Nowadays I have begun to make Christmas food in October, starting with the elaborate Burmese Kaukswe which is one of our family’s traditional Christmas meals. Every household in our family makes Kaukswe so there are as many versions of it as there are households.Kaukswe is chicken sautéed in an onion, garlic and ginger base and left to simmer in coconut milk. It is eaten with several side dishes such as fresh coconut flakes, chilli oil, green chilli in soya sauce, fried garlic, chopped hard boiled eggs and fresh coriander and sliced limes. Fried onions are also a welcome side dish. Kaukswe is eaten with boiled noodles which you scoop into a bowl, and cover liberally with the sauce of the chicken broth. After that, simply add all the other ingredients from the side dishes, such as fried garlic and onions, coriander, chopped boiled eggs and the rest of it. The lime halves are squeezed over the mixture. For a veteran, the experience is not the same if any of the side dishes are missing. Lime is a very important ingredient as it adds some tang to the mild broth which borders on sweet because of the coconut milk.
When we were children, Aunt Mari’s cook used fresh coconut milk. Cook returning from the market with five or six coconuts tied to his bicycle was a sure sign he was getting ready to make Kaukswe. Our mouths would water at the mere sight of the green coconuts that he set down outside the kitchen while he carried the bag of groceries inside and set them on the table for Aunt Mari to inspect. She was very particular with the chilli and all vegetables, and everything had to be firm and freshly plucked. Luckily for Cook, the vegetables in the market always came the same day from nearby farms or villages. Aunt Mari would set aside the exact amount of chillies she was going to use. She took all the coriander that Cook brought and washed them very thoroughly, rinsing the green herbs in a basin of water. Aunt Mari always washed uncooked vegetables carefully. Everyone in her house had to wash their hands before they made food. She herself washed her hands after every task.
The tradition of celebrating Christmas with Kaukswe came via Mari’s husband Patrick Kenneth who we all called Uncle Pat. He fled war-torn Burma in the 1940s as a young man with his father and mother and siblings. Their destination was Digboi in Assam, then a part of the British Empire. His father found a job with the Burma Oil Company and young Patrick followed in his father’s footsteps. The family settled down in Digboi, living in a big bungalow where they could hear the train hurtling past in the night. A jackfruit tree grew with the family and, ten years later, it gave fruit abundantly to the family and their neighbours. Uncle Pat loved the Burmese chicken Kaukswe which his grandmother used to make for them. Aunt Mari learned to make it and passed on the recipe to her sisters and daughters.
The wondrous thing about Kaukswe is that it changes from cook to cook. No Kaukswe is the same. Poor Uncle Pat had the unenviable job of being served Kaukswe from household to household and having to judge who made the best Kaukswe. Diplomatically he gave the verdict that they were all equally good, though each cook gave it her own touch. Perhaps one cook favoured a thick soup and perhaps the other one was partial to chilli. He declared that each dinner was wonderful in its own way and none was inferior to the other.
We children were free from the politics of grading the different cooks. So we enjoyed each meal, each time feeling we would never get tired of eating Kaukswe. Today, sitting here far from home, many years away from those childhood dinners, and making my own version of Kaukswe, I am feeling overwhelmingly nostalgic. I am trying to remember all the ingredients that go into making a memorable Kaukswe. The lady making it on you tube uses fish oil and fish paste. Fish paste is Ngahpi, a tangent paste made of fermented crab and fish, and goes surprisingly well with Kaukswe. We sometimes used it but if it was not available, it was not missed. The thick chicken curry with the spices that are Indian inspired is most commonly eaten with noodles. I have met some Burmese friends who eat it with rice. The beauty of Kaukswe is that all the side dishes add their own particular flavours to the dish, and are real palate teasers. It is a dinner eaten in company. It is a feast that takes a great deal of time to prepare and needs to be served with meticulous attention to detail to do it the honour it deserves. At home we always served water with it, but it also goes quite well with coke or soda.
The smell of lime and fresh coriander fills my kitchen, as pungent as the memories that they bring up. Childhood revisited. One Christmas we gathered round my grandfather’s house and Cook made Kaukswe in the kitchen. All the grown women helped him to chop onions and prepare the different condiments. The fresh coconuts and coriander came from Dimapur. In the sixties, no fresh coconuts or coriander were available in the vegetable market in Kohima. When the chickens were slaughtered, cleaned and chopped, the meat went into the biggest pot in the house, because there were at least thirty of us, both children and grown-ups. Cook set up the table in the courtyard and covered it with a white tablecloth. We still have that photograph of him. Every time I see it, I can feel the sunshine on my cheek from that long ago warm Christmas afternoon.
If I had never tasted Kaukswe before, and were introduced to it today, I may not have waxed poetic over it. In a simpler time and age, it was heaven to be having it on the Christmas menu. I’m putting the final touches to my Kaukswe. Canned coconut milk has replaced fresh coconuts, but all the other ingredients remain the same. Who cares that Christmas is still two months away? I can always make Kaukswe again!
From this week we will regularly feature the writings of Easterine Kire in her column ‘Mullings’ every Saturday. Easterine is a poet, a storyteller and a novelist, from Nagaland and regarded as one of the finest in her field from Northeast India. She has to her credit four English novels, including best selling novel ‘Mari’ published by Harper Collins.She has also produced three volumes of poetry and short stories. She is founder partner of the publishing house called Barkweaver, which publishes Naga folktales, children’s stories and real stirring stories of ordinary people