Memoni style Khausa from Memon Dardar restaurant. Image Credit: Falah Gulzar

Historic ties

  • Memons have made their own version of the Myanmarese delicacy 
  • Members of the Memon community travelled to Myanmar in the past for trade
  • The dish tells the story of the migration patterns between the two groups

Dubai: From a cultural perspective, one wouldn’t think that Pakistanis and the Myanmarese have much in common. But they do, they both love their Khao Suey.

Whether one calls it ‘Khausa’, like the South Asians like to or Khao Suey, which is what the dish is traditionally called, the delicacy has travelled across Pakistan from Myanmar.

Looking at some of the ingredients that go into the soupy dish, like coconut milk and egg noodles, Pakistani cuisine doesn’t come to one’s mind. And that’s what began Gulf News’ quest to find the root of the dish’s popularity within Pakistan’s Memon community.

With hundreds of different ethnic and cultural groups residing in Karachi, Pakistan, the Memons are one of its most vibrant group. Traditionally known to be a group of business owners hailing from Gujarat, India, through time, the group has scattered all over the world. But one of their biggest diaspora is currently settled in Karachi.

Whether it be shared at the Friday prayer feast, the weekend lunch table with extended family or at a dinner party, Memons have taken pride in making and serving their version of Khao Suey for decades.

Hashim Noor, a Dubai-based Memon said: “I don’t know of any Memons who don’t regularly have Khao Suey, or at least know about it.”

Moreover, the Memons have altered the dish to their taste, combining South Asian ingredients with elements from the original East Asian version.

While some Memons are aware of the connections their community has with Myanmar, others aren’t.

Memons and Myanmarese living in the UAE share their thoughts on the dish.

“I actually had no idea that one of my favourite dishes that I thought is so specifically Memon, comes from Burma [now known as Myanmar],” said Noor.

Upon more thought, the 23-year-old computer scientist added, “Actually our community has a lot of ties to Myanmar if I think about it, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. My great-grandfather spent most of his life in the country. He moved there from Jetpur, Gujarat, India for work.”

Asifun Ayaz and her husband, run a family-owned restaurant called Memon Darbar, dedicated to authentic Memoni cuisine in Ajman, UAE.

The family started their business once they noticed a gap in the market for an eatery dedicated specifically to serving traditional dishes. They claim to be one of the few authentic Memoni restaurants in the UAE and they are proud of the version of Khao Suey they serve.

Khausa...

“Memons have made a fusion out of the traditional Myanmarese dish. They have added their own spicy touch. We even changed the name from Khao Suey to ‘Khausa’,” said Ayaz.

The Pakistani variation uses spaghetti as the dish’s base, topped with curry made up of coconut milk, gram flour and curried chicken cubes. For a layer of crunchiness, fried spaghetti and samosa dough is added to the mix and the delicacy is garnished with green chilli, ginger slivers and chaat masala (a spice mix of pepper, cumin, rock salt and dried mango powder) for extra punch.

Memoni style Khausa made at Memon Darbar restaurant.

“It’s every Memon’s favourite dish. It requires too much time to prepare so if one presents it to guests, they are very honoured,” said Ayaz.

When asked about the dish’s origin, Ayaz said that she was well aware of its Myanmarese roots. Her grandfather had moved to Myanmar for a long time and informed her about its influences on Memoni cuisine.

Many Memoni dishes are a result of cultural fusion, beautifully telling the story of the group’s migration pattern. “We come from Gujarat, so many of our dishes are a blend of Gujarati and Memoni style cooking,” added Ayaz.

It’s every Memon’s favourite dish. It requires too much time to prepare so if one presents it to guests, they are very honoured.

- Asifun Ayaz

From India to Myanmar

During the partition of India, in 1947, a large number of Memons decided to migrate from the country. With a substantial number of people moving to the newly established state of Pakistan, a considerable number also travelled to Myanmar, namely to the city of Yangon.

The community went on to having extensive trading ties that have had an effect till this day.

However, some prominent members of the community had established themselves in Myanmar long before the partition of India.

Memons were known as the “sailor businessmen of India” and they had made their way deep into East Asia. They were mainly involved in textile companies, oil mills, and cotton and chemical plants.

Dubai-based Hashim Noor said, “Living in Myanmar, my great-grandfather and other relatives were involved with paper production, printing and vehicle spare parts. Occasionally dabbling into clothing. Most Memons at the time and even today, are involved with the textile trade.”

Currently, some Memons living in Myanmar, who trace their ancestral roots back to Pakistan and India are related to those soldiers who were deployed in Burma during World War II.

These historical events have led to a thriving population of Myanmarese people with Memon origins.

Introducing Khao Suey to Pakistan

If the Memons tried the dish in Myanmar, how did it make its way back into South Asia? There are a number of possibilities.

At the time, many Memons would set up trade in the state and return back to their homeland once done or to visit for a short duration.

Some also moved back to India and Pakistan after the Myanmarese military regime, known to be intolerant of foreigners, came into power during the 1960’s.

Myanmarese in Karachi

Notably, the migration was not a one-way flow. Hundreds of Myanmarese have come into Pakistan as well.

While there’s no official count, Karachi is said to be home to thousands of Myanmarese people. So much so that areas such as Karachi’s “Burmee Colony” and “Rohingyabad” are named after the group.

“Growing up in Karachi, I had a number of friends of Myanmarese origin. I often tried the food that their parents prepared, I even had Khao Suey. However, it was quite different from what we currently serve in Pakistan,” said Gulzar Ahmad a banker based in Sharjah.

The Myanmarese community based in Karachi mostly practice Islam, speak fluent Urdu and even participate in local politics and national sports, like cricket. “They call Karachi their home,” said Ahmad.

Ahmad also said that he believes his friends’ families fled Myanmar because of their religion. Some Myanmarese Muslims, like the Rohingya had to leave the country due to persecution against the religious group that started in the 1960s.

Khao Suey – Myanmarese style

When people migrate, they bring along their culture and food, which is an integral part of a community’s identity. The way that the Memons adapted to eating and changed Khao Suey according to their likings, tells their story.

But what really is the authentic version of the Myanmarese delicacy?

A light soupy meal, fit for having at any time of the day is what Thiha Kyaw, manager at Innlay Asia, one of the very few Myanmarese restaurants in the UAE, likes to describe it as.

“Khao Suey is one of our traditional dishes. It’s eaten almost every day, as breakfast or dinner,” Kyaw said.

Claiming to have stuck to the traditional recipes from back home, the Myanmar national said that it’s one of the most popular dishes at the Dubai eatery.

Myanmarese style Khao Suey from Innlay Asia restaurant. Image Credit: Falah Gulzar

First, a slow-cooked chicken broth is prepared as the base of the soup. Next, chilli paste and chilli oil are added for flavour and colour. Once that is simmered, gram flour, coconut milk and sautéed chicken is added to the soup.

Once thickened, the liquid is poured over a bed of egg noodles and garnished with crispy noodles, fresh onions, chilli powder and lemon juice.

Myanmarese style Khao Suey made at Innlay Asia restaurant.

“We have plenty of customers from India and Pakistan. They mostly come for our Khao Suey. Any family that comes in, places at least one order of the dish,” said a smiling Kyaw.

“I was so surprised when I first found out that they knew about and loved Myanmarese food,” added Kyaw.

The Indian and Pakistani customers Kyaw interacts with, have told him about the type of Khao Suey that they eat back home. He said, “They tell me that it’s available in their countries but the ingredients in the soup are quite different.”

Speaking about how the dish might have reached India and Pakistan, Kyaw said: “I think that around a few decades ago, expats from the region worked in our country [Myanmar] and that’s how they got introduced to the dish.”

Also, Kyaw noted that if he hadn’t moved to the UAE, he wouldn’t have known that the dish is so popular amongst Pakistanis.