Monday, May 28, 2012

Gin and Cinnamon

Gin and Cinnamon: A Journey Through Sri Lanka

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“…you don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings … serendipitously.” John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
Serendip, Serendib, later known as Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, has more names than P. Diddy and is full of the mysticism and miracles of an epic adventure novel. A center of the Spice Trade, both real and fictional sailors endured life-changing transformation here. Recently, I took a cue from those sailors and set out to explore this magical land myself — without time to research before leaving, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what lay ahead of me. Save for the faint idea that Sri Lankan cuisine may be an extension of South Indian, I set off with my beloved to discover where centuries of mystery and inspiration came from.
Save for the faint idea that Sri Lankan cuisine may be an extension of South Indian, I set off with my beloved to discover where centuries of mystery and inspiration came from.
Let it be known that Sri Lanka is in fact, not India, nor an extension. The majority population proudly call themselves Sinhala and are Buddhist. Tamil Hindus make up the next largest group. Though these two groups stem from India, they have each forged their own identity and cuisine. Muslim Arabs, British, Dutch, Portugese Burghurs, and Malay immigrants also contribute to a colorful population with many delicious influences. Spicy lamb, milky tea, meatballs, and sweet and sour noodles can be found on menus alongside a traditional dish like rice and curry, or curry and rice. With so much diversity on an island the size of West Virginia, Sri Lanka  might possibly be the last undiscovered cuisine of Asia.From LA via Dubai, I arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s magnificent coastal capital. Conflicted by wanting to hit the ground running and internalizing how much a 40-hour plane journey considerably shakes up your cells, I strained to find some middle ground between enthusiasm and eyeball-puckering jet lag. The 1980s guide books in my possession were written by old school Brits, who recommend a strong gin cocktail upon arrival. I normally abhor gin; juniper being a forest treasure I only enjoy in a pot of braised game meat. However, in a humid country at a gorgeous colonial hotel like Mt. Lavinia, the allure of a gimlet quickly presented itself. I sipped the earthy herbal cocktail with alkalizing, juicy lime and felt better immediately. As if my tastebuds blossomed, having relished something I usually scoff at, I felt an awareness that I was about to experience an awakening of flavor.
Getting my gimlet on at the Mt. Lavinia hotel.
The Galle Face, like many of Colombo’s hotels, boasts a large selection of traditional curries, sambols (chili-based condiments), fresh fruit, and juices. Egg hoppers — fermented batter thinly crisped on a hot skillet, similar to South Indian dosa — are particularly Sri Lankan, and made in a special bowl-shaped skillet that allows for their distinct shape. String hoppers, on the other hand, are made from dough pushed through an extruder. The 50 or so squarish holes in the extruder make long noodles that are then swirled around on an oiled mesh palm disk to form a pile, then steamed. Most of my favorite foods are in form of an egg nested in greens or starch, so my first instinct was to grab an egg hopper and scoop up curries and sambols with it.
Breakfast at Galle Face Hotel

Curries are stewed in wildly aromatic coconut milk, which keeps better in tropical weather than animal milk and is still made fresh everyday.  What makes the Sri Lankan curry unique is that they use less cumin, more fennel seed, and they roast each ingredient until almost black — similar to a Oaxacan mole negro preparation, giving a smokier flavor. Sri Lanka’s curries stand apart from nearby India’s, where instead of fresh cilantro’s brightness, woodsy curry leaves are used more often than not for principal flavoring. Like all the curries throughout Asia, the fusion of  influences, adjustment of piquancy to reflect cultural taste and garnishing with native essences allowed each country to exhibit their own distinct flavors developed throughout centuries.
True cinnamon, an ingredient in curry and native to Sri Lanka, is unlike anything I have experienced. The holiday staple cinnamon stick we consume here in North America is a toxic corky inner bark of the Cassia tree that contains high levels of a toxic component called coumarin. Coumarin damages the liver and kidneys in high levels while true Ceylon cinnamon contains negligible amounts. Unlike the aggressive and astringent cassia, true cinnamon is a soft bark with subtle vanilla notes. Only in a small area of Chiapas, Mexico can we find cinnamon of a similar quality, whose flavor we associate with Mexican Chocolate.
A 10 minute walk inland from the coast of Colombo is Pettah, the largest outdoor market in Sri Lanka studded with golden mosques and Hindu temples.  It was a bit late in the day and anything edible from a stall was closed up, save for gigantic piles of vegetables and carts of peanuts wrapped in banana leaf. After working up quite an appetite scouting locations for my fiance’s music video, we were lured into an eatery decked out with cell phone company decals and a sign of a pixelated European chef kissing his fingertips. A cramped 12-seat eating area awaited us with piles of  ”Short Eats” — basically fried and stewed snacks tossed into a basket and served with sambol. I pointed to a Maldive fish patty sandwich, samosas, and Chinese rolls. The roll is a pancake made of flour and water stuffed with potatoes, spices, and/or meat, then dipped in breadcrumbs and fried. The stuffing is a versatile mixture used in other Short Eats like patties, roti wraps, and samosas. Because of the different exteriors: gritty, crunchy Chinese roll, flaky samosa, crisp doughy roti, you don’t feel like you’re eating the same thing though the inside flavor is the same. My snacking partner and I dipped and munched our way through the pile of fried goodness. I stared quizzically at a can in the middle of the tables filled with sheets of newspaper and telephone books until locals exposed their purpose: They were napkins, and quite efficient at absorbing grease. We came in hungry and left ten minutes later, grease-free with full tummies and and appreciation for this culture that doesn’t share America’s fragmented view of food as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Short Eats in Pettah
During our guerilla music video shoot at the farmers’ market, the psychedelic buses that bring in the lovely produce from the province served as our background and all the locals amassed to watch, playfully tossing toys and fruit to my fiancĂ© while performing. One man showed me his spice stand where I purchased the famed curry powder, made of maple-scented fenugreek, tumeric, black pepper, and cinnamon. Soon after, we followed him to the wholesale market up the road, where 50-75 sacks of extra-terrestrial looking tubers, edible flowers, and gnarled gourds were being sold to restaurants. The market was a fine display of Sri Lanka’s tropical agriculture.
To market, to market to buy a thousand eggplants.
Finally we ended at the banana market, where men carried one or 2 two gigantic banana bunches at a time. The bunches were almost as tall as they were and significantly wider than their thin frames. I was amazed at their strength. We were introduced to the manager of the market, who rolled us a joint under the watchful gaze of a framed portrait of his father. “In Sri Lanka, fifty kinds of banana can grow in any one yard at any time,” he said expertly, sealing the joint up. The other men smiled proudly in confirmation. Poor as they were, their country seemed to provide a lot to smile about and be proud of. I was able to sample three types of banana: one sweet, one sour, and one super creamy variety. Unlike the monocropped sugar sticks sold in America, one can find the more complex specimens like the apple banana, containing a crunchier bright taste with a smooth and creamy finish. Eating a banana in the tropics is a gift, it is a supernatural experience that lifts the spirits and lives within the mind and body long after the initial taste.
Our homies from the banana market.
Two hours south of Colombo is Beruwela, a beach town with many spa resorts keeping tradition with the ancient, local medicine, Ayurveda. I had the unique pleasure of staying at an Ayurvedic retreat, The Barberyn Reef Resort, where guests are  treated to a program of massage, herbs, special diet, and acupuncture treatments to harmonize governing elements in the body, such as air, fire, and water. As perceived in most Eastern Medicine, certain foods exhibit medicinal properties, creating hot, cold, damp, and dry effects on the body. Chef Dhammika da Silva, one of Sri Lanka’s best known chefs, graciously allowed me into his kitchen at the resort. He explained how Sri Lankan food is innately Ayurvedic, and its ingredients can synergistically work together in dishes like mung bean curry and stewed lentils to harmonize and maintain health in the body. Anti-microbial garlic and spices, high-protein pulses, along with energizing rice and vegetables keep banana farmers, surfers, and health nuts alike strong and vibrant. Seeing food as medicine in practice validates a natural health nerd like myself who tries to use the kitchen as doctor’s office and beauty salon, as well as feeding station. Aside from the fully loaded buffets, da Silva’s plated dinners were beautiful and well-portioned; full of vitality and flavor to soothe the cleansing process as well as the palate.
Chef da Silva's perfectly portioned and beautifully balanced entree at The Barberyn Reef.

A one hour plane ride up to Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka shows a whole new side of the island. The frenetic Hindu culture of the North is a sharp contrast to the laid-back Buddhist Colombo. After a civil war kept Jaffna isolated for 30 years, its recent reopening exposed a fresh market of undeveloped tourism. My mission was to find food spicy enough to make my eyeballs sweat and I was hoping to find it in an untainted area like Jaffna. A kindly, betel nut chewing, alcoholic Canadian Tami at a local beach swooped us up and took us to his cousin’s house where the matriarch graciously served us squid stuffed with chili, onion, and tentacles simmered in its own ink, red rice and fried fish with spicy curry, and sambol. I had only had squid ink as Mediterranean nero di seppia, tossed with gnoochi or spaghetti. Its astringent oceany taste is one of my favorite flavors; trying it Sri Lankan homestyle, bought right out of the water, with Jaffna’s unique curry blend inspired new ideas in approaching this tasty creature.
Observing the technique in Jaffna.
I think I got this.
We sat down with a bottle of palm whisky, shared stories and ate with our hands.  It’s a very unattractive process: all five fingers knuckle-deep mashing rice and curry into a ball, scooping the soaked mass with 4 fingers then finally the thumb popping it all into a wide-open mouth. When human hands touch food, flavors are massaged together, opening up dimensions of enjoyment no fork could achieve. We relished handful after handful, eyes and noses running from the spiciness until we were about to explode. Then thank yous, hugs, and pictures were exchanged, followed by a stroll down the road for sweet Ceylon ginger tea on our host’s auntie’s porch. She and her friends were dressed in elegant saris as chickens pecked around for crumbs and bugs. I silently shouted my gratitude to the Universe as I marveled at the whole experience: a chance encounter with outrageously generous people, mind-bending food, engaging with a culture in the process of reinventing itself. Colombo and Jaffna are worlds apart in energy, language, and flavor. Though neither is superior, Jaffna’s homemade fare, especially in the spontaneous manner in which it was received, fulfilled my wishes for adventure by plate. Sri Lanka is a country that begs to be discovered without pretense, where surprises lie in the kind hearts of its people, ancient traditions, and banana leaf packets.

Author:  Alyssa Noui, the product of parents from Algeria and Japan, is an inventive home chef and Poor Taste's Eating In Editor. She's donned aprons at ice cream parlors, soup kitchens, “just-because” dinner parties, and as an after-school cooking instructor. From an early age she cultivated an appreciation for handmade quality, close contact with food growers, and intuition in place of measuring cups. Inspiration from her travels across America and the globe helped develop a home-cooking style that blends rustic and exotic flavors — she rarely serves the same dish twice. She learned to treat ingredients as though they were her kids by wiping off any dirt and learning through play. When experiments go awry, there are always kosher mini marshmallows. Her last meal would consist of single malt (make it a double) Scotch, Ethiopian steak tartare, and green figs. Follow her on Twitter @suppingood

Friday, May 25, 2012

First Day in Paradise

First Day in ‘Paradise’
Written by Dr. Harold Gunatillake

This article is appropriate to be read by those expatriates the world over, aspiring and dreaming to return to their motherland, at least on a trial basis, to give it a go, thinking of those cherished by-gone memories, most of us experienced in our youth and after.

This article may be perused by those happily settled in other countries, never to return types, but they will be wasting their precious time in reading this article, as inevitably will make wrong prejudiced impressions, perhaps due to   some bitter feelings of some  past episodes.
Display of starchy traditional mouth-watering food in a wayside food outlet in WellawatteThis article may not be beneficial for those intending to visit ‘The Paradise’ on a holiday, as they would return over-fed, enjoying the extravagant hospitalities of well-wishes, friends and relatives, over-feeding with the traditional unhealthy starchy food, such as fried rice, pittus, indiappans, godhas, Nasi Goreng, and among others, not tasted perhaps since they left the ‘sinking ship’, in the sixties.

One would hear the holiday-makers say, “We had a ball, enjoyed thoroughly meeting old friends, relations, and found people being so friendly”.
Those respective lavish hosts would not have indicated the struggle they go through, battling so hard to make ends meet, in this so called ‘paradise Isle’.

You need to live in the country to feel the impulse of the people, assess the cost of living, the merits and hardships of daily living, and whether  compatible with your lifestyle, if you wish to plan in the future to settle in the paradise for an easy going lifestyle. Having a ball on a package tour does not give any impressions of the local conditions when it comes to the ‘nitty gritty’ of survival.

Then, there are the 5 star hotel types holidaying on package tours, spending their time in air-conditioned environments, relaxing in beech hotels, sightseeing the ruins, and invariable a trip to Yala to see the wild elephants and the spotted tigers. They return home quite satisfied with their sojourn, praising the paradise to the hilt, and contemplating on the next tour to the island.

We enplaned in Sydney airport at 4.10pm on a Friday and reached Singapore after 8 flying hours. At the customer counter in Kingsford Smith airport in Sydney, we were told that there was no QF 31 flight scheduled on that day, our itinerated flight, and another plane had been substituted – QF 1, and we were told that our names may not be listed on that plane. That lovely lady in well clad uniform gave us the fright of Moses before even we began our destination. She mumbled so, and fortunately was having been confirmed on this new flight. This is when you thank the Lord, if you believe in him.

I must say that the QF flight was very comfortable with no bad experiences, and parts of the plane never fell off, as did happen on this airline in the recent past. We were transit in Changi Airport for two hours, and then got into EK 349, the worst flight I have got into in my life. The explanation is simple.

 Most airlines schedule the oldest ramshackle little planes on flights to Colombo, from or to Kuala Lumpur, or Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. The services on these flights are presumably substandard, may be that would be the way third world countries are treated. From those respective cities mentioned the international flights to first world countries are of a different efficiency plus, plus, class.

We landed in Katunayaka Airport at 2am. You always get the impression that ‘Bandaranaike airport’ is the most congenial and convenient, well planned airport out of most airports you visit. There is no rush at this airport; everybody walks at his own slow speed, and the distances to walk is just approximately 200 yards and no further to the first Immigration check point .One could hear the soft Sinhala music in your tired ears as you walks through and the ambience with dim lights is pleasing. You look around; any staff member on duty, doing seems to be nothing, will offer you a welcome smile. Even, the odd soldier seen in uniform smiles and welcomes you.

Immigration boys in white uniform give the visitor a welcome smile even during those early tiring hours and the paper work is done quickly to exit fast, and the loud sound emanating from the stamping of your passport makes you feel that the worst barrier is over.

At the custom barrier, if you are the dual type, the officers don't even bother to look at you, even though you may be carrying loads of dutiable and other goods.

One thing that bothers me is that you walk through the liquor section to exit to your baggage collection, reflecting a wrong impression among the religious sort of people, mainly being a Buddhist country where Lord Buddha encouraged people to abstain from alcohol, whenever possible. I wonder what goes through the minds of the Buddhist clergy when they pass through this ‘alcohol not free zone’. My wife even with the tiring, long journey through space becomes so active in purchasing ad lib quota of alcohol, even though she is a TT, no other airport will permit.

Returning to your destination home from the airport is well organised for you, if you do not have private transport, even during early sleepy hours of the morning.

For your  comfort at the first stall on your right as you enter the public visitors area, you could book your air-conditioned van or any other mode of transport just for Rs. 3,000.00 (Au $ 25) to the city and other outstations, may be a bit more.

You would notice the calmness and the few vehicles on Negombo/ Colombo road at this hour. Police do an excellent job by nabbing the reckless drivers and other shady characters.
You reach home or your apartment about 4 o’clock in the morning, and make attempt to get some sleep till sun-rise.

The heat is unbearable, after being used to the colder and less humid climates in Australia.
We get up in the morning, drowsy and exhausted like a drunkard due to lack of sleep, and then the first day in Paradise begins.

 Living in Wellawatte is an advantage, driving down to Colpetty on Marine Drive takes less than 10 minutes. Our favourite super-market is at Cresscat. First hour parking is free, and you purchase all the provisions that are required to last at least two weeks. This includes most of the imported foods you enjoy in Australia, a few cans of local beer, and a full smaller size trolley load will cost you Rs.8,000.00 (Au. $ 70). This is when you begin to appreciate the value of the Aussie dollar (Rs 130.00 B.R.), in the paradise, as no way you could purchase a trolley load of provisions, not even half a load down under for that bill.

After relaxing with a refreshing cup of tea, you drive to the fish market. Again, we are lucky in Wellawatte, as there is an excellent fish market in front of Roxy Cinema, nearing the Dehiwala Bridge.

Our bill on the purchases was as follows:
Large prawns 1.02 k.              Rs. 800.00
Seer head        1.11 k.              Rs.357.76
Paraw             0.626k                Rs.569.00
Seer fish-sliced 1.02 k           Rs.1,418.64
Seer fish cut cubes 1.062    Rs. 1,465.56
Total amount                       Rs. 4627.62 (Aus $ 40)

This lot of vegetables cost Rs.700.00 (Aus. $6) at the Wellawatte New market.Then, we went the same evening to Wellawatte New Market to purchase more fresh vegetables. The market has been opened a few months back costing the government Rs 40 million. The market is in the ground floor. Vehicular parking is on 4 levels, charges Rs 40 per hour, parking fees.

The market is clean, specious, no flies, and stray dogs. The ceiling is very high, quite cool inside, with fans working full blast, and the sea breeze keeping the premises cool even on one of the hottest days we visited.
The whole lot of vegetables seen in the picture were purchased for Rs. 700.00, equivalent to about six Aus. Dollars. Sri Lankan grown vegetables are much smaller than the ones available in Australian markets. Also the Sri Lankan vegetables seem to be more organic, as less fertilizer is used in the plots.

Thus ends our first day in Paradise, quite exhausted.
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