We arrived in Colombo, stepped into the heat and immersed ourselves in the city. Someone told us that Sri Lanka is like ‘Asia Light’ and for sure it’s not as crazy as Bangkok, Saigon or Delhi. The crowds are not as dense and the traffic isn’t driving on the pavements but it’s Asia all the same with the usual mish mash of colonial and more recent buildings and plenty of traffic.
The traffic has it’s own logic. There are zebra crossings — they have yellow stripes, which are really a suggestion of where to cross. We met a dapper old man who told us there was only a four per cent chance of being knocked down on a crossing! There are tuk tuks – three wheeled mechanised taxi/rickshaws aplenty, mostly with metres, which takes the headache out of negotiating a price to get somewhere when you don’t know where you’re going. We’re not accosted with beggars and the tea is very good. Finding a cold beer is the most difficult thing that we encountered in the city.
Apparently it’s illegal to sell alcohol within 500 meters of a school or a place of worship, which in a city populated by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians means there are plenty of temples, churches and Mosques not to mention schools and the heat makes a cold beer quite enticing! Funny how something like that can become obsessive especially as I never drink beer at home!
This beautiful island has been occupied in the past by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British and has recently recovered from a brutal civil war and tsunami but people are friendly and welcoming and tourism is becoming a major source of income.
Although the island is small, weather-wise it has two monsoons. One half of the year it rains on the south and west, and the other in the north and east.
The coast is interspersed with jungle, palm fringed beaches and surf, and the interior is lush and green.
We travelled from Colombo, up into the hill country, using the antiquated but efficient train service (think Thomas the Tank Engine). The trains chug slowly and steadily up the hills past vast tea plantations, rice paddies, beautifully manicured beds of vegetables and spice gardens. Fresh cardamoms, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg grow in abundance. The scenery is stunning and tea is the drink of choice, usually served in beautiful china teacups.
I wouldn’t call Sri Lanka a culinary hotspot but the breakfasts are always interesting with a selection of dhals and vegetables served with coconut rotis, rice or hoppers
Hoppers are a Sri Lankan speciality, there are two types; String Hoppers and Egg Hoppers
String hoppers are a kind of steamed noodle cake. They are made from toasted ground brown rice, which is mixed to a paste and extruded through a gadget into fine wormlike noodles. These are steamed on a bamboo mat and served with dhal.
Egg hoppers are made from rice flour fried in deep little frying pans, which make a bowl shaped lacey pancake. These served with an egg cooked inside and coconut sambal.
The British left behind a fine tradition of white bread so toast features widely at breakfast too. And tea — plenty of tea.
The main meal of the day is rice and curry. It’s served all over the country between twelve and two thirty. It’s always a huge mound of rice served with a selection of dhal and different vegetable curries. And in the evening – well it’s rotis and dhal or, if you are by the coast, maybe some fish. One of the strangest things for me is that the food is not hot. Hot in temperature that is. Most of the rice and curries are eaten tepid or cold.
As in India, dhal is a staple. It’s hundreds of variations always make it interesting and it is one of my favourite dishes, although dhal for breakfast, lunch and dinner does stretch that a little bit!
It’s a dish that keeps you alive and nourished for very little cost — you could feed an army on a shoestring.
Sri Lankan dhal is gently spiced and sweetened with the addition of a little coconut milk. Here’s a recipe, best eaten with a little chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion with a little lemon juice squeezed over on the side or/and a good dollop of unsweetened natural yoghurt.
Sri Lankan Dhal
200g red lentils
1 onion – peeled and finely chopped
5cm piece cinnamon stick
2-3 green cardamoms
1tsp ground turmeric
2tsp ground cumin
1tsp fenugreek seeds – optional
2-3 dried red chillies – moderate if you don’t like hot
200ml coconut milk
2tbs ghee or coconut oil or vegetable oil
1 onion- peeled and finely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic finely chopped
1tsp mustard seeds
1tsp cumin seeds
A handful of fresh curry leaves if you can find some
Put the red lentils into a sauce pan with 500mls water, a finely chopped onion, the turmeric, ground cumin and fenugreeks seeds (if you have some) the piece of cinnamon and cardamom pods — no need to peel, just bash and chillies — only use one if you don’t like hot. Bring to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the lentils have softened and are cooked. Take off the heat and stir in the coconut milk and season with a little salt.
In a small frying pan gently heat the ghee/coconut oil or vegetable oil, add the curry leaves if you have some – difficult to find in Cork, followed by the onion. Cook on a gentle heat until the onion begins to soften then add the garlic, mustard seeds and cumin seeds. Cook for a couple of minutes without browning then pour over the top of the dhal.
Serve with rice, tomato/cucumber salad and a little yoghurt. Delicious!
PS: No need to chomp your way through the cinnamon stick and cardamoms – leave them on one side, they have done their job.
We will be back in Cork at the beginning of March ready to continue cooking. The next cooking class is Thai on the March 19, give us a shout if you fancy some fresh and zippy Thai recipes – I’m looking forward to a change from dhal!
Lettercollum Kitchen Project
22, Connolly Street, Clonakilty
phone 023 8836938