20. Sri Lanka and The Maldives

I grouped Sri Lanka and The Maldives together because both are, to varying degrees, lost in the great expanse of the Indian Ocean, and their cuisines have influenced each other, as well as having been influenced by similar external forces, over the centuries. Sri Lanka has taken cues from the cuisines of neighbouring Southern India, as well as various migrants/invaders over the years, notably Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Britain, The Netherlands and Portugal. The standout flavours/ingredients that pervade Sri Lankan cooking include fresh fish, often in curries, steaming white rice, flatbreads, dals, fresh coconut and coconut milk, lime, chillies (often flavouring various “sambols”; describing all sorts of spicy pastes/dips/accompaniments) dried Maldive fish and curry leaves. This latter component formed one of my favourite culinary revelations of adulthood, in which my parents planted a curry leaf tree in their beautiful garden, and on one of my many tours to assess the horticultural progress, I realised I didn’t know what curry leaves were like, and pinched one between my fingers to smell it. Instantly, I was transported back to my childhood, where lovely Sri Lankan friends would bring us leftover curries from big events, always insisting “no no, it’s not spicy at all”. If you’ve ever been friends with a Sri Lankan family, you will already know that they were obviously lying, but the food was so good that I persisted eating it through tears of pain as it burned my 8 year old mouth. Most of the dishes had a very distinct taste that I had never identified until that moment – curry leaves! I was so pleased to finally understand that long-remembered flavour, and even happier to include the fresh leaves in many dishes since that moment, as well as this week, and so relive my childhood discovery of these exotic tastes.  The Maldives are a small group of islands in the Indian ocean, south-west of Sri Lanka. It’s become a highly touristic area, and a quick google of The Maldives will instantly assault you with gorgeous white beaches and turquoise waters. Being the world’s lowest country, The Maldives is one of the most threatened places by climate change, so if you’ve ever had a yearning to visit, there’s no time like the present. As for many island nations, the major economy stems from fishing, and the traditional dishes are therefore predominantly based around seafood. There are other influences from India and Sri Lanka to the north, but the ready availability of fish, coconut and starchy tubers has perhaps most strongly shaped the cuisine.


Lamprais

lamprais.jpgLamprais is a Sri Lankan dish with clear influences from the country’s Dutch occupation during the 17th and 18th centuries, with the name arising from the Dutch word for “food/rice packet”: “lomprijst”. This was a relief to me, as I had no idea where to even begin sourcing meat from the animal “lamprey”, as I first assumed was etymological origin of the meal! During the Dutch rule of Sri Lanka, an ethnic group arose which is still known as “Dutch Burghers”, (with “burgher” meaning “citizen” in Dutch), who are a population of mixed Dutch, Portuguese (who ruled before the Dutch) and Sri Lankan heritage. There is also a separate population of people who identify as “Portuguese Burghers”, purportedly lacking Dutch family history, who have their own cultural traditions, cuisines and even hybrid languages! I am particularly familiar with the customs of the Sri Lankan Dutch and Portuguese Burghers, because after the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which replaced English as the national language, many lost of these citizens lost employment and social status, and therefore migrated to new lands, with Australia being the predominant destination. I therefore grew up with first, second and third generations of these migrants, some of whom contributed to the fond childhood memories I relayed in my introduction. Lamprais, as the original Dutch name suggests, is a packet of rice and assorted accoutrement wrapped up in a banana leaf (the original gangster of biodegradable takeaway containers). The components of a lamprais are listed by many internet cooks (who I am quite frankly a little frightened of) as “non-negotiable”. I therefore stuck to the most authentic lamprais I could manage, and beg forgiveness for any heretical deviations I might have committed (including the addition of the deep fried boiled egg… sorry!). First, the curry, which traditionally combined three different meats (lamb beef and pork), flavoured with sweet spices like cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, as well as chilli powder and curry leaves, thickened with coconut milk. Next (moving clockwise) comes the blachan, a spicy paste made of pounded chillies and dry shrimps. Then the frikkadels, which have the clearest dutch influence, being breaded meatballs flavoured with a few native spices. Next is seeni sambol, a delicious concoction of caramelised red onion with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, chilli powder, curry leaves and tamarind. This is followed by deep-fried ash plantain bananas, then brinjal moju: a mix of fried eggplant, red onion, mustard seeds, green chillies and spices, and finally, my potentially heretical deep fried boiled egg. In the middle is the star attraction: short grained rice cooked in a style that is suspiciously reminiscent of an Italian risotto, using a large quantity of ghee (clarified butter) to first sauté the onions and spices (chilli powder, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric etc), then frying the raw rice grains in this oil for a couple of minutes to coat, then adding stock progressively to form a delicious creamy and non-sticky consistency. I have to say, the concept of a South-Asian flavoured risotto is frankly genius, and I don’t know why this dish isn’t more internationally popular, as it ticks all the boxes of variety in flavours and textures, as well as warm comforting stodgy deliciousness. Once all of these individual components are cooked separately, they are combined inside the banana leaf and baked for a few minutes in a hot oven, to allow some of the flavours to meld, and for the distinctive taste and smell of banana leaf to infuse the meal. This is a typical “Sunday Lunch” dish for Dutch Burgher families, with the useful property that each component can be cooked separately ahead of time by a different member of a large extended family, then quickly assembled and reheated in their banana leaves just prior to lunch. I hope that my lamprais was sufficiently authentic and that I wouldn’t be the hopeless family member kindly tasked with the culinarily simple job of cleaning the banana leaves!


Mas huni and roshi

mas huni and roshi.jpg

Mas means “fish” and huni means “coconut”, and therefore the more discerning of you will have already surmised the major ingredients of this dish. It is a typical Maldivian breakfast, the simplest variant made with smoked tuna, chilli, onions, shredded fresh coconut, and lime juice. My Dad has a handy little smoker, so he kindly smoked the tuna for me. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had freshly smoked fish, but it’s by far the most delicious preparation in my opinion. Everyone who has come into contact with his smoked salmon fillets has become instantly addicted. Oily fish tends to smoke best, perhaps because the smokey flavours get absorbed into the oil, and the fish doesn’t dry out. Tuna, being quite oily, therefore smoked deliciously, and had a very meaty flavour and texture. The sweetness of the coconut and onion, acidity of the limes and heat of the chilli with the savoury umami of the smoked tuna created the magical sort of flavour balance that made me want to start cooking the food of the world in the first place. Anyone can use 100 different ingredients to create a masterpiece, but there’s something special about balancing well-chosen simple ingredients to make a meal that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Suffice to say, I would be happy to eat this for breakfast every day. In addition to the plain mas huni, I made two other variations, one with added leafy green vegetable (I used kale) called copyfathu mas huni and one with mashed pumpkin called baraboa mas huni. I particularly liked the sweetness added by the pumpkin, so I think this was my favourite of the three. Mas huni is typically served with freshly made roshi, an unleavened flatbread similar to chapatis/rotis of the Indian subcontinent that I cooked by first forming a dough of plain flour, hot water, salt and oil, then kneading it until smooth. Next, I rolled out thin sheets of the dough and fried it in a low dry pan. This is one of the simplest types of bread to make, as it doesn’t require any waiting time to rise, or even an oven. Also, there’s nothing like biting into a soft piece straight off the stove!


Egg hopper

egg hopper.jpgGather around, dear readers, as I tell the sorry tale that preceded the creation of this egg hopper, with plagues, pestilence and fires presenting biblical blockades to my journey. Never before have I had so many unfortunate events impede a particular dish, beginning with my (wrongly) optimistic search for a “hopper pan”. A hopper pan is a frying pan shaped like a rounded bowl that imparts the characteristic bowl shape to the fried pancake (hopper), made of a fermented batter of yeast, rice flour, water and coconut milk. Hoppers are part of a larger, ultima family of fermented rice flour pancakes known as “appam” in Sri Lanka, Southern India, and many surrounding countries, the preparation of which is so ancient that it is mentioned in “Perumpanatruppadai”, an ancient Tamil book of poetry dating back to 100 BC. Although other types of appam do not call for the bowl shape, Sri Lankan hoppers absolutely require it, so in my quest for the elusive hopper pan, I first visited a few regular kitchen supply shops without luck, then drove all over town to various specialist Asian and Indian grocery stores, ultimately unsuccessful. I then turned to ordering online, and quickly found out that this option would be very expensive, and, what’s more, the three sellers I contacted didn’t even have any hopper pans in stock! Disheartened but not yet defeated, I set out to make the batter, intending to let it ferment overnight and cook it in a regular saucepan the next morning, but alas! My rice flour was infested with a plague of pantry moths! Quickly feeling that this endeavour was cursed, I tried to order a hopper from a restaurant, so that I could at least try this mythical food, even if I would clearly not be able to cook it. The first Sri Lankan restaurant I called did not pick up the phone, and a later visit would reveal that a recent fire had forced its closure. The website of the second restaurant informed me that it was closed due to a sudden family illness. Finally, I was able to get a hold of the only remaining Sri Lankan restaurant in Brisbane, situated more than a 40 minute drive from my house, and, at last, joy of joys! They answered the phone and agreed to make me a hopper! I drove over on a miserably rainy evening, only to find an even more miserable chef who proffered his hopper pan at me, bemoaning that the batter was sticking and he didn’t know why, so there would be no hoppers tonight… This dish was now reaching  “white whale” proportions in my mind, so with a new resolve fanned by indignation at the injustices that the universe had thrown at me, I went to buy new rice flour, followed one of the many different batter recipes, and went to bed with a single worry eating away at me: “if a professional Sri Lankan chef in possession of an authentic hopper pan couldn’t make a hopper, how the hell am I going to do it?”. I awoke before dawn to the disheartening finding that my dough had not doubled in size as the recipe predicted, but it smelled yeasty and looked mildly aerated, so nevertheless I persisted in adding the coconut milk to create a thin batter. I then made countless attempts to fry it in almost every vessel I owned, adding water, sugar or more batter in an attempt to achieve a consistency that would crisp up thinly and not break or stick to the pan. Finally, I landed on a winning combination, and was able to create an intact hopper with crispy (but not burnt) raised sides in a small saucepan. Not wanting to tempt fate any further, I fried an egg separately and placed it inside, rather than cooking the egg directly into the batter as the hopper cooks, as is traditional. And lo, behold my completed hopper in all its glory! Granted, it is not the most beautiful I have seen, but given the dire circumstances that befell its creation, I felt indescribably proud and pleased with the result. It even tasted delicious! I served my hopper with sides that were comparatively a breeze to prepare: seeni sambol (spiced caramelised onions), parippu (red lentil dal) and pol sambol (a paste of grated coconut, chilli and lime). Although I enjoyed the meal, I think I’m still too traumatised to declare all of my efforts worthy of the eventual reward, maybe ask me in a few months whether I’m ready to try to make hoppers again (and send me a proper hopper pan please!?).


Garudhiya

Garudhiya.jpgGarudhiya is generally regarded as the national dish of The Maldives, consisting of a clear fish broth. It is one of countless Maldivian dishes that commonly feature tuna, which is indisputably the foundation of the country’s cuisine. In fairness to the Maldivians, if there were bountiful supplies of skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna or frigate tuna swimming a few hundred metres from my house, it would surely form the foundation of my diet as well. The most basic version of garudhiya involves boiling tuna fillets in salted water, skimming off the scum that forms at the surface, and then serving with steamed rice or roshi (flatbread). However, upon this a cook can add many other ingredients depending on preference and availability, including boiled taro or breadfruit, grated coconut, lime, chillies, onions or curry leaves. I can see why this dish is still eaten daily by Maldivians: it’s incredibly quick and easy to prepare, delicious, filling and healthy. However, if you had more time and patience on your hands, you could continue the boiling process of the fish broth until achieving a thick brown paste, called rihaakuru. This is a prized ingredient in Maldivian cuisine, and was also introduced to Sri Lanka, where it now features in many dishes. It can be eaten along with other aforementioned staples (rice, roshi, taro, breadfruit) as well as cooked with spiced and/or coconut to create new flavour combinations. I’ve even read reports of rihaakuru being spread on toast, with some comparing it to Australian Vegemite! As excited as I was to try this Vegemite facsimile, apparently its histamine concentration exceeds the levels thought to be safe for human consumption, so, lacking the genetic and/or acquired immunities to these high histamine levels possessed by native Maldivians, I felt it safest to just make the garudhiya.

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