Sunday, September 18, 2011

He comes from Sri Lanka

Sunday Times Sep 18 2011

Cooking up a taste of Jaffna

Devanshi Mody checks out the Yaal virundu Jaffna food festival
A “pottu” the hostess dots you with and ushers you into Yaal Virundu hosted by the Ramada. Attesting to its immense popularity, the annual Jaffna food festival is now in its seventh successive year. If you haven’t been before, do avail yourself of this opportunity over the next three weekends to get a taste of Jaffna.

Curious about cooking traditions particular to Jaffna, I request to meet the chefs whom one expects were brought down from the peninsula. It transpires, however, that the food has been made by in-house chefs. In-house chefs from Jaffna? There seems to be no consensus for someone says a team of Sinhalese chefs has admirably recreated flavours from the northern territory, someone else says the chef is Tamil but from Hatton and yet someone else says the creations are courtesy of their North Indian Chef Santosh Chaniyalal.

Too many cooks might spoil the soup. But they make a superb kool (famous Jaffna seafood soup) and piquant parippu rasam. I am impressed. I am told, but of course, they have called a Tamil amman as consultant. “Is she from Jaffna?” I ask excitedly. I am told, “Eh no, from Wellawatta….” Admittedly, costs of transportation are rather astronomical nowadays.

I find myself soon distracted by a live station where two chefs prepare hoppers and thosais. Thosais are plump and come with an especially good coconut chutney. The hoppers, crisp, porous, served with stunner seeni sambol and lunu miris, are quite possibly the best in Colombo currently. As methods of preparation of dosas vary erratically across Tamil Nadu, I ask if the technique used to prepare these lovely hoppers is particular to Jaffna. I am told somewhat cryptically, “This is a Sri Lankan technique.” But paal appam made with milk and jaggery hoppers are quintessential Jaffna specialities.

After an indulgence of three delicate hoppers I think I should be making an effort with other items on a buffet that perhaps comprises a hundred dishes including titbits like fried banana chips, jak fruit seed etc. Expect countless Jaffna salads, enticingly displayed in indigenous baskets and exotic paraphernalia, cradled on banana leaves and adorned in vibrant vegetable and beautiful floral sculptures. Nobody quite explains to me the difference between varais, poriyals and pachchadis but the salad counter undulates with varais of murunga leaves, bitter gourd, snake gourd and for more bite shark varai (yes!), multifarious poriyals (long beans, cabbage, plantain flower) and pachchadis like mango or ingi (whatever that is is excellent.

The salads, of course, are accompaniments to enhance or modulate robustly flavoured curries to which I next attach myself. Clay and brass pots lain on striking straw mats fume with fragrant preparations. Not having been to Jaffna I cannot vouch for their authenticity but I have travelled extensively around Tamil Nadu the cooking traditions of which one hears influence Jaffna cuisine. However, had I anticipated the explosive spices and teasing tanginess of Chettinad, they aren’t replicated on this buffet. On the other hand, tongue-tickling red brinjal curry in a lightly textured gravy juxtaposed by white brinjal curry thick and heavy with coconut milk, exemplify strains from Tamil Nadu and Southern Sri Lanka that perhaps fashion Jaffna’s unique culinary culture. Again, the fantastic sambaru throbbing with vegetables evokes Tamil Nadu whilst the dhal is as elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

Jaffna’s cuisine is renowned for its seafood and this buffet presents favourites like nandu sodhi (crab and gravy) or variations on prawns (prawns with drumsticks, shallow fried prawns etc) and several fish curries. However, the unexpectedly large variety of vegetarian dishes arrests. Convened for the first time on a single buffet are potato (here made with an unusual red gravy), ash plantain, pumpkin, manioc and bread fruit curries. Nice, firm textures (unlike soggy or undercooked yams often found on buffets).
Preparations are flavoursome, ingredients balanced and certain combinations interest: Beads of fenugreek with enormous pearls of garlic cloves merge in an extraordinary creation. For once I decide to ignore the sheets of oil under which curries are oppressed and oleaginous rivulets running amuck on my plate. My only protest is that the buffet is enormous and worse, everything is delicious. So when the waiter comes to clear my plate for the third time, I say I wish to sample yet something else.

And then I must queue. You would be well advised to reach early or patiently await access to the food as guests before you pile up pyramids of pittu, uppma, string hopper biriyani and tamarind rice (here, a mild approximation of what I’ve had in Tamil Nadu).

The Jaffna Food Festival certainly seems to have captured the tourist imagination for the Alhambra restaurant is packed, predominantly with tourists. One even accosts me to ask if I’ll do a “reportage” about him, “A Saudi tourist in Sri Lanka.”

I quickly extricate myself explaining I must get some fresh mangoes before they are all gone, which they are. But the brisk and obliging steward Lakmal winks, “I’ll get you some from inside.” Desserts on the buffet are many but the jalebis, muscats, halwas and such like are too vigorously hued for me.

The milk toffee, however, looks gorgeous and what looks good generally tastes good. Wonderfully chunky, without the Milkmaid overdose, it melts in the mouth- maybe the only milk toffee I’ve actually eaten in its entirety. You might lose a tooth biting into the thala balls, but it’s worth it for that taste. The pongal is studded with swollen raisins and generous in enormous king cashew nuts, contrasting starkly with buffets at grand hotels where cashews have disappeared or been reduced to shavings.

Amazed by the fare, I am persistent about meeting the chef. Mr Dian (Assistant F&B Manager) presents Chef Asoka. I ask, “Is he from Jaffna?” Mr Dian says, “No he is Sri Lankan.” An averment as colourful as the buffet!
The writer is a freelance travel writer who has contributed to international magazines and newspapers including Tatler, Conde Nast Traveller, Harper's Bazaar, Wallpaper, Elle, The Telegraph, The Evening Standard and The Independent.