Friday, May 2, 2014

Serving Ceylon: Cooking Sri Lankan

My 2010 Sri Lanka trip was my first vacation that was not planned as an aside. It was also my first and only vacation with my parents; as a result, I did not indulge in as much culinary adventurism as I'd have liked. For that reason, and mainly because I always try to pay culinary tribute to the places to which I have traveled, I selected Sri Lankan for my latest themed meal project.

I embellished up my centerpieces with fragrant pandan leaves (or rampe, used a lot in Sri Lankan cooking, along with coconut milk, methi/fenugreek, and curry leaves) in preparation for my party of 10. Ingredients are fairly easy to find in the Asian-oriented supermarkets; I got the pandan and plantains at LuLu Hypermarket, and the raw mango and coconut milk from the Filipino section at West Zone (they have different cans for savory and dessert foods), although LuLu turned out to have them too.

The bed for each savory course was the Sri Lankan rice dish called kiri bath. This is basically rice cooked in coconut milk. I prepared it by washing and then cooking on medium about 1.2 kg of matta rice (a brown variety from South India) with 8 cups of water and a couple of pinches of salt. When the water was almost gone, I added 750ml of coconut milk and continued cooking on low until the milk could no longer be pressed out and the rice had become porridge-like. I then transferred the rice into a serving vessel, a couple of ladles at a time, patting down and cooling each layer.

After naturally losing some more moisture, it set into a thick cake that was then cut up into slabs for serving, rendering deliciously creamy any curry mixed into it.

The first curry in the lineup was the Sri Lankan plantain curry. I could not find the original ash plantain (alu kesel), so I bought 14 small Omani green plantains. Unlike dessert bananas/plantains, green plantains are not sweet to taste, and have a potato-like texture when cooked. I scored their skins so I could peel them without wrecking them, and then cut thick slices that I soaked for 15 minutes in 3 cups of water, a teaspoon each of turmeric and salt, and the juice of a lime. After draining the liquid, I then baked the slices at 200C for about 15 minutes, and cooled them. This lets them absorb the spiced juices and coconut milk in which they will later be cooked.

For the curry base, I fried a medium chopped onion, 3 sliced green chiles, a teaspoon of fenugreek/methi seeds, 20 curry leaves, 5 pandan leaves (probably not a good idea to have cut those up into such small strips, as I had to fish them all out later), a half teaspoon of turmeric, 2 teaspoons of curry powder, a dash of salt, and 3 small sticks of cinnamon. Once the onions had softened, I added a cup of water and simmered for 5 minutes, adding the plantain slices for another 5 minutes of simmering, finally followed by 400 ml of coconut milk. I let this cook on low heat until the liquid had mostly evaporated, leaving a creamy sauce, out of which I had to pick dozens of small pandan strips. Bigger strips next time.

Served hot, this was just heavenly: rich, creamy, sweetish and savory.

Next, more fruit, in the form of the Sri Lankan mango curry amba maluwa. This time, raw (green) mango -- again, sour and hard, unlike its dessert counterpart. I got about a kilo, removed the seeds, and cut them into chunks. I fried three sliced onions, 5 chopped cloves of garlic, and about 6 pandan leaves (this time, large strips) until the onion softened a little, then added 10 cloves, 5 cracked pods of cardamom, and 4 medium sticks of cinnamon for a little more cooking.

I then added the mango and 5 tsp of chile powder, 4 tsp of roasted curry powder, and 2 tsp turmeric powder, stirring the mango around in everything. Finally, I added a cup of water, cooking on medium for 10 more minutes, adding 125ml coconut milk, a dash of salt and 3 tsp jaggery (can use sugar too) to cook until the mango became softened, and the smaller bits mashed into the curry.

A lovely tangy-savory-sweet taste, and another hit at the table.

Finally, Sri Lankan Red Chicken Curry. I fried two tbsp chopped ginger, 5 sliced green chiles, and 3 chopped cloves of garlic for a minute, followed by a handful of curry leaves for another minute of frying, then 3 sliced onions for frying until they became golden brown. I then added 2 tsp turmeric powder, 5 tsp roasted curry powder, 3 tsp red chile powder, and a dash of salt, mixing for a bit before stirring in about 10 skinless thighs and chunks of two breasts of chicken.

 I let this all cook for about 10 minutes before adding half a cup of water, and simmering until the chicken was cooked through and the little chicken fat had rendered out to the top.

I let it cook on low for about an hour extra, so it turned out extremely tender. This was the only dish that afternoon that didn't involve coconut milk, but magic happened when it hit the creamy kiri bath.

Finally, a typically Sri Lankan dessert of watalappan, or jaggery pudding. Jaggery is a raw traditional South Asian sweetener, typically sold as 1lb frustrums. I grated about 450g of jaggery for this pudding, mixing it with 10 beaten eggs.

I then added 600ml of coconut milk (the dessert variety is preferable), and generous pinches of powdered cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, along with a teaspoon of powdered cardamom. Finally, I divided the well-stirred mixture into oiled steaming bowls, and steamed them for a bit over an hour. After cooling and flipping over onto a serving plate, one can see the bigger jaggery bits that sank to the bottom of the serving bowl have melted to now form the darker top of the custard/pudding.

I stuck some split cashews into the top for serving. A perfect saccharine end to the meal.

Along with, of course, the mango tea I purchased in Sri Lanka, to wash everything down. Finally got to use that in context.

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