February 2007: London and Sri Lanka
In February I was asked to join a small group of culinary professionals on a tour of Sri Lanka sponsored by the Competitiveness Program of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The group was put together by Ann Wilder, founder and former owner of Vann’s Spices, and included the two us; the food writer, David Rosengarten; Anna Wolfe, editor of Gourmet News; Peter Timmins, Executive Chef at The Greenbrier resort; Tom Head, a food and travel writer and former food editor of Washington; and Peter Furth, a third generation spice merchant who is a consultant to the food industry.
En route to Sri Lanka, I went to London to visit my friend David Evans, who, as Lord Evans of Watford, is member of the House of Lords, and who owns several businesses, including the specialty publishing company, Evans Mitchell Books. David is one of the brightest and most successful people I know, and we had a grand time dining in some of the posher spots in town, shopping in Borough Market, touring Parliament, and simply enjoying scones on his balcony!
I also ate at Fergus Henderson’s St John Bread & Wine, across the street from Spitalfields Market, with Jeremy Trevathan, the Publishing Director of Pan Macmillan, and Christian Banfield, the filmmaker and photograher who filmed “On Authenticity,” about Henderson, which was conceived for the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery by my friend Daphne Derven, who is now with the Northwest Youth Corps. Henderson is best known for his use of offal and underused cuts of meat. Considered the leader of the burgeoning whole-hog movement, he has inspired celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali. At St John we had Brawn (head cheese) with piccalilli, crispy pig skin with dandelion and mustard, steamed mussels with cider and thyme, a succulent roast Middlewhite (a heritage breed of local pork) with celeriac, and langoustines.
Here are Ann Wilder and I on our personal tour of Parliament with David, the day before we left for Sri Lanka. It may look gray, but, in fact, it was mostly sunny, clear, and in the 50s the entire time we were in London!
I’m going to back England the last two weeks of September with my partner, Mikel. More stories and photos to come!
It’s called both the Isle of Smiles and the Isle of Gems, and it’s true that the people are among the friendliest you will ever meet and that the island produces some of the world’s most precious stones. But what struck me most on this island nation was its vast array of foodstuffs. A cornucopia of tropical fruits, as I’d expected, such as the myriad bananas, but also many foods that I did not think I would be encountering a mere 8 degrees north of the equator, such as the beets and carrots that are grown at the more temperate, higher elevations of this unique country.
The political strife in Sri Lanka continues to manifest itself in conflicts in the north of the island, but, if you are an epicure with the time to get to this tropical paradise on the other side of the world, I highly encourage you to go.
It’s also true that Sri Lanka shares many of the Third World problems of poverty, exacerbated by the devastating tsunami of 2004. At the same time, the island offers some of the world’s finest hotels, many designed by or inspired by Sri Lanka’s own Geoffrey Bawa, one of the great figures of 20th century design. If Bawa did not invent the infinity edge pool, as some claim, then he certainly perfected it, along with his brilliant designs that often blur other boundaries, such as what is indoors and what is out.
Travel on the clogged and sometimes bumpy roads of Sri Lanka can be grueling, but the cultural and natural rewards are astounding once you have reached your destinations. After a 12-hour flight from London, we arrived in Colombo and immediately boarded a bus that tooks us into the night through 4 hours of rolling hills and plains, rice paddies, and banana and coconut plantations. As the sun rose, we traveled up the old road, let by a horseman, to arrive at Bawa’s stunning Kandalama resort perched on a hilltop overlooking the Kandalama Tank, built by a king of Ceylon some 1700 years ago. Begun in the third century B.C., the tanks are interconnected irrigation lakes all over the island (the Northern Province alone has 11,2000!). Many of them, such as Kandalama, now host abundant wildlife. I saw more birds in several hours there than I’ve seen in years back home — eagles, kites, gorgeous bee-eaters, and lots of egrets, herons, storks, and kingfishers. Around Kandy Lake, I saw a spoonbill, another species of stork, more herons, and several ducks.
“Rice and curry” is the national dish of this spice island, but forget what you think you know about either while here. Over 15 varieties of rice are grown on the island, and I was able to taste 12 of them while on this culinary adventure. Like elsewhere, some of the heirloom varieties have been in danger of disappearing as land is planted in more profitable crops or given up for development. Part of the reason for our tour was to spread awareness of the cultural diversity of Sri Lanka. At breakfast, you might be offered some 30 different curries. Though not as fiery hot as the vindaloo of India, the Lankan curries are brighter, lighter, and more elegant. And every dish is accompanied by innumerable condiments, such as this mallum of kathurumurunga and this pineapple sambol that we were served at the ancestral home of Ena de Silva, whose Matale Heritage Center strives to preserve traditional Sri Lankan crafts and cooking. As in lowcountry cooking, which was always influenced by dishes from other ports, Lankan side dishes complement the curries and bring out flavors you might not notice without them, the way a piece of cheese points to the fruit in a glass of wine. (See the recipe for Ats Jaar Pickles, a Charleston favorite, below. A nearly identical “mustard pickle”in Sri Lanka is called Abba Achcharu.) Mallums are mixtures of shredded green leaves. They usually contain shredded coconut as well. Mallum, or mallung, means “mix-up” in Sinhalese; katkhurumurunga means agati, which are West Indian pea leaves.
De Silva, herself one of Sri Lanka’s greatest natural resources, is not only a world-renowned batik artist, but has spent her 80-odd years promoting all things Sri Lankan. At her family estate, the Aluvihare Kitchens offer over two dozen Kandyan dishes overlooking the jungle brimming with exotic orchids and spices.
De Silva was a personal friend of Geoffrey Bawa, who designed her stunning home in Colombo.
At Bawa’s country estate, Lunuganga, now operated as a hotel from November to April, we were served a dozen mallums and sambols, several with wild plants gathered from the property, such as a type of water spinach, watercress, kathurumurunga, and fiddlehead ferns.The mallum here also contains red onions, green chilies, powdered Maldive fish, lime juice, curry leaves, and salt and peppper. The seasoned travelers and cookbook authors Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford have defined Sri Lankan sambols as “flavorful inventive chile pastes that are freshly ground and based on hot chiles and onions.” They serve, along with the many other sauces, dips, and chutneys of the cuisine, to heighten tastes by adding a bit of hot, sweet, sour, or saltiness to main dishes.
The food can be surprising and amazingly refreshing in the heat and humidity. Here are two versions of one of my favorite dishes I had while there, a soup of mixed herbs served at breakfast. On the left, the kolakenda, as it is known, was presented at Earl’s Regency in one of the small, sweet, local coconuts. At Kandalama, it was offered in a banana-leaf-wrapped cup. Made with brown rice and coconut cream, it is flavored with several green herbs and served hot with a piece of jaggery, a brown sugar made from the crystallized sap of the kitul palm.
Coconuts — often referred to as the “tree of life” in Sri Lanka – are ubiquitous, and are used not only as food, but to provide shelter and medicine as well. In the 19th century, coconuts were at the center of the nation’s economy. Ropes, drinking cups, serving ladles, beads, rafts, furniture, doormats, brushes, canvas, and mattress fillings are among the many products made from coconuts. The sap, known as toddy, is tapped by daredevil toddy tappers who climb the trees, wearing nothing but loincloths, and cross on tightropes from one tree to another, bleeding the sap of the flowers into pots. Fresh toddy, full of yeast, quickly ferments, and is drunk as a light, fruity, beer-like beverage, but when distilled the toddy becomes coconut arrack, the national drink.
Here I am with my first taste of an arrack cocktail, of which I became inordinately fond. Coconut arrack is not unlike rum, but it has a unique, sweet hint of coconut to it. It is generally served in an ice cold drink not unlike a margarita, with lots of fresh lime juice. One of the best versions we had was at the elegant Kandy House, where the charming innkeepers Ashleigh and Yves Ogier shared the recipe that Mendis, their Head of Household, prepares. Unfortunately, coconut arrack is not imported into the United States! You can, however, get it in Canada, so for those of you who have access, here’s Mendis’s recipe for an Arrack Sour:
60 ml (2 oz) coconut arrack (Old Reserve is the best clear arrack for sours)
30 ml (1 oz) fresh lime juice
20 ml (4 tsp) sugar syrup
lots of ice cubes
Mix all of the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and serve in a cocktail glass rimmed with sugar, with a slice of lime.
Lampries at Amangalla
Lampries is the festive dish of Sri Lanka, a banana-leaf wrapped dish of rice cooked in stock, Dutch-style meatballs, and Sri Lankan curries and sambols — a truly Creole dish that points to the many flags that have flown over the island. Amangalla is a grand old colonial hotel reimagined as a deluxe modern spa in the heart of the old fortified part of this Dutch port, an oasis just blocks away from the hustle and bustle of modern Galle. It’s one of Asia’s most majestic hotels, refurbished as an elegant villa, with an arched portico, teak floors, high ceilings, and shuttered windows. It is run by the inimitable Olivia Richli, who charmed us all with her wit and grace. Our meal was further enriched by the presence of Ashley Devos, a Sri Lankan architect and historian who talked to us about the colonial history of Galle and Ceylon.
Spices in Sri Lanka
These elegant hotels are doing a wonderful job of promoting traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, but for centuries, the real basis of the economy has been the spice trade. Here at left a worker peels the inner bark of True Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum (Ceylon cinnamon). Most of the cinnamon that you buy is actually cassia bark. There’s nothing wrong with cassia cinnamon, but the heady aroma of freshly ground true cinnamon is something you should treat yourself to. Shop for it in specialty stores and in Mexican bodegas, the Mexicans for centuries having preferred the real thing!
are also of the highest quality due to the unique micro-climates where they are grown and produced. Tests have shown them to have more of the volatile oils that give them their flavor and potency.
When the Portuguese arrived in the beginning of the 16th century, it was Ceylon cinnamon that fueled the European economy. Clove and nutmeg trees (which also produce mace) were planted by the Dutch. The Sri Lankan economy relies heavily on these spices, but Sri Lanka cooking also makes use of cashews, chilies, corinader, cumin, curry leaves, fennel, fenugreek, gamboge, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, mustard, pandanus, tamarind, turmeric, and cacao.
Ironically, the food is not as “spicy” as you might imagine, because the real emphasis is on fresh vegetables. In fact, I don’t know a “greener” cuisine. And you won’t find overstewed vegetables like those in southern India.
My trip there has changed my cooking forever!
The South Carolina Encyclopedia
I wrote 8 entries for The South Carolina Encyclopedia, which was several years in the making and finally published in the fall of 2006 by the University of South Carolina Press. The project was the largest ever in the history of the South Carolina Humanities Council, consisting of some 2500 entries and thousands of illustrations. Edited by Dr. Walter B. Edgar, who is the Claude Henry Neuffer Professor of Southern Studies at USC and Director of the Institute for Southern Studies, the book covers just about anything about the Palmetto State, from the Lords Proprietors to Hootie and the Blowfish. I wrote the entries on Food in South Carolina, Atzjar, Carolina Gold Rice, Charleston Tea Plantation, Cornbread, Hoppin’ John, Punches, and Rice Dishes. The following is typical of the research involved in my work:
ATS JAAR PICKLES IN THE COLONIAL CAROLINA KITCHEN
When George Washington visited Hampton Plantation north of Charleston in 1791, there is little doubt that he would have been served these mustard pickles, which early on had become popular on lowcountry and remained so well into the twentieth century. At the time, Harriott Pinckney Horry and her mother Eliza Lucas Pinckney, both widowed, were living at Hampton. Washington stopped there for breakfast, but stayed on for dinner. It is thought that he was there to honor the courageous roles that Harriott’s two brothers had played in the war.
Recipes for ats jaar appear in Horry’s personal collection of recipes which was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1984 as A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770. The historian Richard Hooker was unable to trace the receipt, but it is a straightforward mixed pickle in the oriental manner, one of the most traditional methods of using herbs. The double “a” gives us a clue to its origin, as do the ingredients. Garlic, for example, was rare in English cookery at the time, and the mustard seeds and turmeric, which are common in India and native to Java, are keys to culinary pathways.
Achar is a generic term for both oil and brine pickles that are served alongside breads as a first course in Indian restaurants even today. Imported into South Carolina with the spice and slave trades, these pickles were often exotically flavored and highly valued; eventually, they were copied by Carolinians such as the Pinckneys and Horrys. The most popular of these were the mango pickles from Madagascar and India. Recipes for mock pickled mangoes abounded as early as 1699. All sorts of small fruits were brined in imitation of that tropical pickle, to the extent that as late as the mid-19th century, Francis Holmes was describing mangoes on a vine (he meant muskmelons) in his marvelous Southern Gardener and Market Farmer, published in Charleston in 1842. Achar also appears in the cuisine of South Africa, where the Dutch (of the double “ a“) had imported Malaysian slaves; also in India and Sri Lanka; and in Java, where it originated and where each district had its own recipe.
And so from Java we can trace the receipt, as recipes are often still called in the lowcountry, via the spice and slave trade through India, South Africa, and up the coast to western Africa, whence came the slaves who staffed the lowcountry kitchens.
When I was growing up, before the FDA and DHEC had so many rules, all the old Charleston restaurants set their tables with a tray of the bright ochre vegetables, cured in a bath of salt, turmeric, and vinegar, as a matter of course. I make the pickles today according to the ancient formula. All sorts of vegetables not included below may be added to the pickle, including green beans, asparagus, and bell peppers. Some cucumbers, if too ripe, will become soft in the mixture, but when served as a condiment alongside complex rice dishes such as Country Captain, they are delightful nonetheless.
The first day (preparing the vegetables):
1 cup salt
1 gallon cold water
1/2 lb. fresh young green beans, trimmed
1 lb. cabbage (about 1/2 head), cut up into small pieces
1-1/2 lbs. small cucumbers, cut into 1″ slices
1 head cauliflower, about 2 lbs., broken into small flowerets
1/2 lb. peeled carrots, cut into 2″pieces
1/2 lb. radishes, cut into 1/2″ dice
1 lb. celery, about 7 ribs, cut into 2″ pieces
1 lb. small onions, about 8 the size of an egg, peeled and halved, or left whole if smaller
1/2 lb., about 5 heads, garlic cloves
Dissolve the salt in the water, then pour over the prepared vegetables in a nonreactive pot (unchipped enamel, glazed crockery, or stainless steel). Let stand overnight, at least 12 hours.
The next day (pickling):
1/4 lb. (about 5″) fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tbs. ground turmeric
3 tbs. mustard seed
3 or 4 fresh or pickled chile peppers (1 for every other jar)
1/2 gallon white vinegar
Drain the vegetables well and pack into hot sterile jars. Bring the pickling solution to a boil and pour over the pickles,leaving 1/4″ headroom in the jars. Seal and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes or refrigerate for a few days before eating.
Yield: 6 quarts