‘I could settle down and live here’
By Madhur Jaffrey
Published: September 22 2006
I am sitting at a long, generous table set this evening to accommodate 14 of Colombo’s movers and shakers. “Koluu”, our host, is a caterer, restaurateur and a high priest of Sri Lankan food, one of those rare geniuses who have a perfect pitch for both design and the culinary graces.
He has already plied us with drinks, served on his cool front verandah, accompanied by what Sri Lankans charmingly call “short eats”, in this case mouth-wateringly scrumptious, crisp fish balls (malu cutliss) and pork curry (ooroomas curry) placed on wedges of a coconut- flavoured flatbread (roti).
For the second act of this meal, we are led into a pillared dining pavilion that is partly open to the elements to catch the evening air. We have a superb fish mulligatawny soup. This is only a start. Parallel to the dining table is another even longer refectory-type table groaning under the weight of the main rice-and-curry course.
The version of this Sri Lankan staple cooked by Koluu (whose real name is Hemalallindre Ranawake) consists of 25 dishes at least, most ensconced in traditional terracotta pots. There are rices (yellow rice, coconut rice) noodles (string hoppers), curries (coconut, jackfruit, cashew, onion and tomato, beef, tripe, mutton ball, fish, prawn), vegetables (okra, wing beans, green beans, eggplant), sambals (coconut, dried fish, onion), pickles and of course the salad-like mallungs. The last, unique to Sri Lanka, generally consist of vitamin-rich greens, chopped, quickly wilted over low heat and seasoned.
Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped tropical island that hangs like an off-centre pendant just below the coastline of south-eastern India, has a cuisine that nods its acknowledgement to the two South Indian states closest to it, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but then veers off in a direction gloriously its own.
One part of the pendant’s chain – in culinary and geographic terms – connects it with India, where many of its inhabitants and its main religion, Buddhism, came from some millennia ago. The other, when you look at its fruit and seasonings, gives evidence of its primeval links to Malaysia and Indonesia. And then there are the influences of its early Arab traders, and its succession of colonial masters anxious for a piece of the spice trade, the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British.
On this, my first visit to Sri Lanka, I land in Colombo in the dead of night and then am whisked off to the south-western port city of Galle (pronounced ‘Gaul’) by car, set to arrive there in time for breakfast.
As the sky lightens, I can see that we are driving down a busy, narrow road that snakes southwards, hugging the west coast. Uniformed children with dark, coconut-oiled hair walk to school in giggling groups. Some play cricket on empty beaches. Bananas and papayas fruit in tropical abundance. I can see thousands of proud coconut palms that withstood the tsunami still leaning generously towards the sea as if they bear it no grudges.
Galle is a large sprawling city but its prettiest part, where I am to stay, is a small, colonial township, set within a thick-walled fortress on a south-facing promontory. Once Sri Lanka’s main port where Solomon is said to have traded in jewels, peacocks and spices, this area, known as the Galle Fort, was occupied by the Portuguese in the late 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th and early 18th centuries, and then by the British, who held it from 1796 until independence in 1948.
Somehow, the whole township – now a Unesco world heritage site – stayed mostly the way the Dutch had built it, with verandah-fronted homes, in ochre and lime wash, standing neatly side by side along narrow streets laid out in a grid formation.
The Galle Fort Hotel, in the heart of the township and once a crumbling Dutch villa, has like many homes here been completely renovated. The present owners, armed with unfailing good taste and culinary skills, came from Australia and despite tribulations, including the tsunami that swept through the Fort, have opened what must be one of South Asia’s most exquisite yet casual boutique hotels.
My room, I should say my suite, has a four-poster bed with mosquito netting. The sheets, the pillows, the light throw are all luxurious. I could just settle down and live here.
Breakfast, offered on the inside verandah, which looks out on the welcoming inner garden with its cool pool and frangipani trees, offers tropical fruit, home-made granola, local yoghurt and honey for the western traveller on a regimen. For the more adventurous, there are appa or hoppers, cup-shaped pancakes of South Indian ancestry with crisp edges and spongy bottoms, served with spicy sambals.
After breakfast, I hasten to the kitchen where the chef is to prepare a traditional rice and curry tiffin for the evening. I want to catalogue the uniqueness of Sri Lankan curries: a tuna fish curry, malu ambulthiyal, is soured with goraka, the skin from a fruit of the mangosteen family that is dried over home hearths giving it a slightly smoky aroma. A chicken curry, kukulmas curry, may be flavoured with the three fresh culinary aromatics of this land, curry leaves, pandanaus or screw-pine leaves (rampe) and lemon grass. These are to be served with rice, of course, and a salad-like sambal of fried slivers of okra tossed with sliced shallots, tomatoes, chillies, lime juice and pounded Maldive fish. The last, mandaka sambal, verges on perfection.
I become obsessed with dried Maldive fish as they flavour so much of the food here. Bonito, a small tuna that dries almost as hard as wood, is used all along the arc that stretches from Japan to Sri Lanka. Here it is cut into batons, blanched in salted water and then squeezed dry with a cloth, after which it is rubbed with coconut wood ash and dried in the sun to make the beloved, kindling-like strips known as umbalakada.
I am equally curious about the cinnamon. A valuable item of trade since antiquity, it flavours almost every Sri Lankan curry. As we set out towards the hill town of Kandy, my driver assures me that he has a friend running a cinnamon plantation along the way. I learn that harvesting starts when cinnamon trees are barely six months old and generally ends at two years when the trees are cut off at the ground. By then, of course, new shoots have already started up another life cycle.
Up a hill, in the shade of a small cottage, a white-haired woman sits on a mat holding a long cinnamon trunk about half an inch in diameter. She scrapes off the outer brown-grey skin to expose a smooth, pale-yellow bark with greenish patches. This is cinnamon. She will rub the trunk with a brass tube to loosen the bark and then cut a slit along the entire length. The bark will then be eased off.
Sometimes a cinnamon stick, all curled up and damp, is over three feet long. For top quality, the sticks need to dry indoors, away from the harsh sun, for at least a week.
After a long drive I finally arrive in Kandy, the hill town on a lake, and am taken to Kandy House, a 200-year-old manor house belonging to local aristocracy but now converted into a new, stunningly designed, gleaming boutique hotel. As soon as I enter, I am offered the juice of a mandarin orange in a martini glass. I feel ready to settle in. The lawn at the back, graced by palms and ginger shrubs and manicured to the last blade of grass, slopes towards a luxurious pool.
Meals, served on the back verandah and prepared by a French chef who shops daily for local ingredients, might include exquisite ravioli stuffed with jackfruit seeds and kangkung (water spinach), Thai grilled chicken with lime rice and okra, and a guava upside-down cake.
I am back in the car and heading to the Horathopola Estate, once a British coconut plantation, now owned by a Sri Lankan family. The food, prepared over a wood fire by a family cook, is earthy and real, with freshly prepared red rice noodles, idi appa, served with kirihodi, a sublime coconut sauce, a curry of green jackfruit, cuttle fish curry and a stunning chutney-like sambal made with curry leaves, curra pincha sambal.
Colombo is not that far away and we make for the Hilton Hotel. Conveniently located, it is the proud owner of Curry Leaf, a superb restaurant offering a wide range of Sri Lankan specialities. You may watch the pancakes, or hoppers, being prepared in small, deep woks, munch on fried whitebait with your drink, walk to the buffet pavilion and pick up coconut rice and a Jaffna (Tamil-style) crab curry cooked with murunga leaves to balance its “heating” properties. Then go and watch the doughnut-like sweet keung, made of coconut honey, coconut milk and rice flour, being fried by experts.
The Gallery Café on Paradise Road is another worthy destination. Designed by Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent architect, the late Geoffrey Bawa, as his city office, it was given to designer Shanth Fernando on the condition that he always display art. It entrances visitors as soon as they enter with an open pavilion graced by a sleek water tank. Today it houses one of the city’s hottest restaurants as well as a small shop with exquisite Sri Lankan crafts (where I buy dozens of rice-stalk table mats). You can dine on beef smore, the spicy, coconut-sauced pot roast, or on the more eclectic mullet served with a green papaya salad, or the Dutch burgher dish of deep-fried aubergine batons dressed with vinegar and coconut palm sugar.
For another popular dining spot, totally washed away by the tsunami but now restored, there is the very casual fish shack Beach Wadiya. Here you may kick off your sandals and bury your feet in the sand.
I decide to have only a first course as I am to dine at Koluu’s home later. I sip my whisky, munch on the most delicious fried sardines (dipped in salt and lime juice first) and let the Indian Ocean breeze blow through my hair.
CHICKEN CURRY (KUKULMAS CURRY)
4lb/1.8kg chicken parts, skinned and cut into smaller serving pieces (legs into 2 pieces and breast into 2 pieces)
3 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
1½ tablespoons whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
½ teaspoon whole fenugreek seeds
5 tablespoons olive or corn oil
½lb shallots (or red onions), peeled and cut into fine slivers
2 tablespoons peeled and very finely chopped fresh ginger
1½ tablespoons peeled and finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons bright red paprika
¼-¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 pound/450g tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1-3 fresh, hot green chillies, cut into fine rings
12 pods whole cardamom, lightly crushed
1 2in stick cinnamon
2 sticks fresh lemon grass (use the bottom 6in/15cm only and lightly crush the bulbous bottoms)
A handful of fresh curry leaves
4-5 pieces of rampe (called bai toey or paandaan leaves in south-east Asian groceries and often available frozen), about 4in/10cm long
Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Spread the pieces out in a single layer and sprinkle 2½ teaspoons of salt on both sides. Refrigerate overnight ideally, or as long as you can. Put the coriander, cumin, fennel and fenugreek seeds in the container of a clean coffee grinder or other spice grinder and grind as finely as possible. Set aside. Put the oil in a large, wide pan and set over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the shallots. Stir and fry until they are medium-brown. Turn heat to medium. Put in the ginger and garlic. Stir for a minute. Add the paprika, cayenne, turmeric and the spices from the spice grinder. Stir once and put in the chicken, tomatoes and 1¼ English pints/750ml water. Now add the chillies, cardamom, cinnamon, lemon grass, curry leaves and rampe. Stir and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, turning the pieces over now and then. Taste for salt. You may need to add another ½ teaspoon. Stir gently and simmer another 10 minutes or until tender.
■ Madhur Jaffrey’s most recent books are a memoir of her childhood, ‘Climbing the Mango Tree’ and ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible’, a compendium of recipes collected from the Indian diaspora. Madhur Jaffrey travelled as a guest of Cazenove+Loyd, tel: +44 (0)20 7384 2332, www.cazloyd.com.
Prices for the eight-night trip to southern and central Sri Lanka, staying at the Galle Fort Hotel, Illuketia, Kandy House and Horatha Pola Estate, start from £1,412 per person. This includes accommodation and breakfast, direct flights to Colombo with Sri Lankan Airways from London Heathrow. Regional add-ons are from £115 return.