Wednesday, April 2, 2008

It's all in the Spices

It took me a long time to figure out the importance of curry powders. I knew there were two kinds - the roasted and the unroasted. The roasted is blackish-brown and when added gives a similar shade to the dishes. The unroasted curry powder is a mix of green, yellow and light brown and I just used to add a sprinkling to any curry that I didn't already put the roasted curry powder.

I used to buy whatever ready-made packet available on the shelf, put into any old container and use it for months on end. Needless to say, my curries lacked life. I just couldn't figure it out... I followed the exact recipe, I changed the recipe, I modified the recipe, I added a pinch of curry powder, I added a spoonful of curry powder, I omitted the curry powder, I increased and decreased other base ingredients like onion and coconut milk, I asked Shiranthi to show me how she does it... I tried everything, but still my curries lacked life. At best my curries were alright, but never great. Eventually I gave up using unroasted curry powder as it really had no effect on my cooking.

Life thus went on with my lackluster cooking until my mother gave me a jar of home-made roasted curry powder. It may look the same as the shop bought curry powders, but its fragrance was awesome. When I opened the air-tight jar, the wonderful smells of the spices took my breath away and had my appetite already on gear and I've not even started cooking!!!

Like a thunderbolt strike, I suddenly understood the purpose of curry powders. Curry powders are not some arbitary base ingredient - it is both the perfume and the makeup of the dish. After I understood that this was not just any powder, I began to find out more about curry powders and what I found really amazed me.

Actually, curry powders had never been used in cooking proper Asian food. We had used all these wonderful spices that grew in our backyard like cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, pepper and so on. It is the wily British who came in the guise of friends and ended up colonizing Sri Lanka that came up with the idea of curry powders.

They were totally fascinated by our curries and wanted to replicate it back home. However, been fasidious about efficiency they instead of grinding various spices as required for each dish, grounded it into a powder and mixed it all up. For a long time, even for the British, curry powders were nothing more than ground turmeric, which made the curries yellow, but did nothing for the flavor. As time went by, Sri Lankans as they got married more and more to Western influences got into the habit of using a mix of spice powders than properly preparing the spices as required for the dish, though thankfully were never duped into using only turmeric powder.

This lesson on spices and curry powders was another reminder that I'm just a colonized product, but luckily with enough curiosity-dominated genes to look for my roots!!!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What a Gravy it was

There are so many different curries in Sri Lankan food - some are mild and creamy, while others can be scathing and yet others spicy enough for the tongue to start dancing, but so aromatic that it's hard to resist. The poor novice I was, it was a daunting task to figure out how to cook these different dishes.

I remember I used to sneak calls to my mom's home and get instructions from her kind and comely maid, Shiranthi. Shiranthi is such a gentle creature and never allowed her ability to cook superbly ever make me feel small. She understood my predicament and was full of empathy. She asked me to master one curry - the kiri hodda, which translates as milk gravy.

Sri Lankan food, like Thai food, is mostly coconut based. This kiri hodda is made entirely of thick coconut milk. Into this, an onion or two is chopped, couple of green chilies is sliced, a sprig of curry leaves and 3 inches or so of pandan leaf is added with salt to taste and a quarter teaspoon of fenugreek. This is allowed to boil and thicken. (Do visit for the exact measurements and recipe.) The important thing to remember is that it must be continuously stirred. There's an old Sinhala idiom which states that the result of an unstirred kiri hodda and an un-punished child is the same - they both end up spoilt.

Indeed, if the kiri hodda is not stirred, the coconut milk separates and curdles and become a lumpy mess. It is easy enough to leave this gravy alone as it looks very innocent as it sits quietly on the fire, but if proper attention is not paid, the curdling happens almost suddenly.

This milky white gravy is fantastic with the Sri Lankan rice-based dish, pittu. Pittu is a little bit like cous cous - soft and grainy, but made out of rice flour and finely grated fresh coconut, is steamed into a cylindrical shape. (Do visit for the exact measurements and recipe.) The pittu is drenched with kiri hoddi and mixed with a fiery sambol like lunu miris (a near liquid paste of salt and chili mixed into well crushed shallots and drizzled generously with lime) or katta sambol (lunu miris mixed with sun-dried fish flakes called maldive fish). The maldive fish absorbs the moisture of the sambol, making this a drier mixture than lunu miris. (Do visit for the exact measurements and recipe.)

However, this kiri hodda in its pure form is good only to eat pittu - for nearly everything else, it's too bland. Yet the beauty of the kiri hodda is that with the addition of few more ingredients, it gets more and more interesting. For instance, with just a pinch or so of turmeric, this becomes yellow and is good even with string-hoppers - another rice-based dish of Sri Lankan cuisine. (Do visit for the recipe.) Chop a tomato and perhaps add a 3 inch or so cinnamon stick, this becomes great even to sop up bread.

Or add a couple of potatoes and allow the potatoes to boil with the hodda, but instead of adding the thick coconut milk, first add a diluted cup of coconut milk and then after the potato boils add a cup or so of thick coconut milk - one of the best potato curries you are ever going to taste - light and creamy, great with just about anything. You could easily replace potatoes with just about any vegetable - you can add beans, carrot, drumstick (a long, hardy bean-like vegetable), tomatoes... just about anything. (Do visit for these coconut milk recipes.) The thing you need to take care is to remove from fire the minute the vegetable becomes tender and still retain its texture and color. This not only ensures that the curry taste great, but is still with its natural nutrient value.

If you want to, you can kick in a bit of life to these very mild curries by adding a teaspoon or so of roasted curry powder and some chili powder after the thick coconut milk has been added. However, as I was to discover, curry powders are not something you can just take for granted. Curry powders were another experience for me. It took me a while to figure out how to manipulate curry powders to give me their best and until then my poor mom-in-law had to endure my very creamy and very mild curries and that's not what Sri Lankan food is about.

A proper Sri Lankan meal is a multitude of flavors and textures that has the taste buds purring with delight and at the same time dancing with flames, enjoying the soft textures of cooked curries while at the same time biting into crunchy freshness of sambols and the like.

No wonder my poor mom-in-law is scarred for life when it comes to my cooking!!!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Maiden Voyage to the Kitchen

Before I got married I cooked now and then, but never long enough to master the intricacies of Sri Lankan curries. I could of course follow a recipe book to the letter, but that was as far as my culinary talent stretched.

Then I got married and got into serious cooking. My mom-in-law wasn't impressed with my fumbling efforts. My husband took pity on me and gently pushed me to try out some of the recipes from a Thai cook book I had in my possession. My mom-in-law tsked and sniffed and started cooking her own dinner (which broke my heart), but this helped me get familiar around the kitchen and the use of the many spices and condiments.

As time went by I ventured into more Thai food and to Indian curries to Malaysian food and timidly back to Sri Lankan - I really, really wanted to impress my husband with my own culinary skills. As I slowly made my way back to Sri Lankan food, I noticed that all these food, may it be Thai, Indian, Malaysian or Sri Lankan, used more or less the same condiments and all can be quite cumbersome to cook. Yet, Sri Lankan food remains unknown whilst the other cuisines have become the culinary fashion.

This piqued me and I wanted the world to know how great an Asian food Sri Lankan food is. This led me to create and 4 years later, has evolved to be the most informative food and drink web-portal in Sri Lanka. Partnering with food experts, brings free recipes, tips on cooking, cooking classes with top chefs, culinary history and so much more.

The more popular gets the more I get noted as an authority on Sri Lankan food - though I've only chipped the tip of the ice burg for Sri Lankan food is so fascinating and revolves around so many customs, traditions, ceremonies and is heavily based on the ancient alternate medicine, auyrvedhic principles.

Does my mom-in-law like my cooking now? Not at all! When invited for dinner she pointedly asks who cooked what and been the perverse devil I am, I'd point to all the dishes that my husband cooked and pass them off as mine and all what I cooked as his and watch with wicked satisfaction as she eats the food she thinks her son has made with relish!!!