Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Sri Lankan Scattering

Sri Lanka really is the damndest of places. It's a remarkably diverse island but you could generally describe it as 'lush' and perhaps, if you were feeling a little naughty, 'moist'. It has an incredible depth of culture, a lovely people (apart from the threateningly insistent touts on the big green in the Colombo Fort area and various other sneaky bastards who thrive on the margins of tourist crime in the major tourist spots) and a breathtaking range of sceneries from the green sweep of tea-planted highlands through the rainforests and the stunning vistas of palm-lined beaches. And it hits you right between the eyes from the second you walk out onto the street until the second you find shelter in a quiet room or secluded spot. Sri Lanka, whatever else it is, is a full-on experience.

Sri Lankan food is wickedly spicy and you'll frequently find yourself being hit a triple lemon grass, chili and coconut whammy. We're basically talking curry and rice here, although you'll find foods cooked in banana leaves and many Sri Lankan recipes also use pandan leaf, a set of ingredients that immediately makes a connection across to Malay and Indonesian food. And, in fact, a Sri Lankan curry wouldn't surprise a Sumatran or terrify a Thai – Sri Lankan food, along with its close cousins in the Malabar and Tamil Nadu, is part of a geographical connection that sits in the middle of a curry-laced path that crosses from the spiced kebabs and rich, hearty curries of Pakistan and Northern India, the coconut-dominated Malabar, the lacto-vegetarian Tamilian and then the infused, citrus and fish-paste complexities of the the Asian curries that HalfManHalfBeer is so passionate about. A passion, incidentally, that I wholeheartedly share.

Rice provides something like 45% of the calorific intake of the average Sri Lankan, so it features big in everyday eating. Basmati rice is popular: the Sri Lankans have a variety that has extra 'old sockiness' and which is pretty strong for the average palate. Further up on the Sock Scale is red rice, which is really strongly flavoured.

A unique and typically idiosyncratic Sri Lankan rice concoction is 'string hoppers' (or idiyappam, if you want to be complicated): a rice flour and water paste is extruded through a vermicelli press to make small round cakes of stringed rice and these are then steamed, a little like birds nests that a truck has run over. If you know what I mean. String hoppers are really nice when served up with a curry: a good string hopper is dry to the touch, not sticky or starchy.

There are also 'hoppers', which are basically pancakes made from fermented rice flour and flavoured with coconut and palm toddy.

For some reason, in common with their Indian neighbours to the North, Sri Lankans have an amazing weakness for Chinese food. You haven't lived until you've eaten a Sri Lankan Chinese meal. It's bloody odd and fiercely hot, with evil lumps of chili lurking in every mouthful.

All of the recipes below have been stolen, without a single shred of guilt, from our pal Deepika. She came round one day for a big cook-in and I just got in her way and took notes. I've eaten all of these in restaurants and this stuff is better. By the way, the names of these dishes are distinctly unromantic, but they're the only names I could get for them. I asked around, describing each dish, but always got the same answer: a shrug and 'We just call it potato curry'. So be it.

These recipes, cooked up together with a nice big bowl of freshly fluffed basmati rice, will happily serve a table of 6-8 people: any one recipe served with rice will do two nicely. If you feel fancy, chop up a few sambals and serve them alongside the curry.

Dessert would traditionally be something simple, some fruit or 'curds' (yoghurt) with palm syrup poured over it. Like Southern India, Sri Lanka is rich in coconut palms and coconuts, coconut arrak (the national tipple and wickedly potent, at that) and palm syrup are big staples. Palm syrup has a lovely caramel richness to it.

A Note On Sri Lankan Ingredients

Curry leaves should be available in specialist shops, but you can use dried ones if you can’t find fresh. Sri Lankans don't bother stripping the leaves from the branches, just give the stem of leaves a rinse, fold it up and pop it into the curry.

Roasted curry powder, a dark and fragrant yet burnt and nutty mixture, is a uniquely Sri Lankan ingredient and it’s not much use trying to toast off ordinary curry powder. My next best suggestion would be to make a given ‘masala’ and toast the spices until they’re really blackened, then whiz these in a spice grinder.

Cassia is a close relative to cinnamon, but used more commonly in the 'everyday' cookery of India and Sri Lanka. It's rougher in look, texture and flavour than cinnamon, which can be used as a substitute without fear of invoking the wrath of the Foodie Police.

Green chilis are, again, a Sri Lankan thing: they’re fat little things - about 5-8 centimetres long and a pale, almost translucent, green. Smaller, darker, thinner and longer are the broad chilis. As usual, the small ones are more powerful.

Crushed red chilis look like the crushed paprika you get in some pizza joints, but there the resemblance ends. They’re a damn sight hotter, for a start. Crush dried red chilis for the same effect.

Pandan leaf The leaf of the Pandanus, or screw pine and known elsewhere (Indonesia, Thailand) as toey. Specialist vendors should have it in stock, but you'll probably find yourself just omitting the ingredient if you’re living outside curry-land. And, to be honest, it won't kill you or the food if you do - although pandan does have, and lend, a highly distinctive flavour.

Sri Lankan Curry Recipes

Chicken Curry

Lamb Curry

Yellow Potato Curry

Dal Curry

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