No place like home

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I am a true believer in the phrase ‘a blessing in disguise’. My passport was nearing expiry and I had to make a quick trip to Sri Lanka to get it renewed (the express service is only available in Sri Lanka). While complaining to my husband about the dreaded visit to Colombo (when in Sri Lanka I try to avoid going to the capital city at all costs), in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Four glorious days of tropical bliss, not bad…not bad at all!’. Any excuse to go back home.

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It’s a long four hour drive from the airport to my mom’s hometown, Matale, which is situated in the hilly Central province. But the beautiful scenery along the way makes up for it (as did the constant chatter between me, my sister, my eleven year old niece and their adorable septuagenarian driver, Karunaratne).
It’s fascinating to watch the landscape change from groves of palm trees to misty blue mountains as you make the ascent to the hills.

Something magical happens when the sun sets in Sri Lanka. I have always observed this, even as a child. It’s one of those things that cannot be described in words. The mellow golden rays of the setting sun transforms everything it touches – from trees covered in frothy pink blossoms to paddy fields stretching out into the distance, from the way side tea shops with bunches of bananas hanging from their tin roofs to people walking back home with stray dogs barking at their heel. It’s so beautiful it makes your heart ache…

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Teak trees casting shadows in the evening sun…

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Lonesome souls – a little hut on a paddy field and a crane looking for its supper.

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A limestone kiln by the road.

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Villagers threshing paddy.

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An old Hindu temple and and a quaint ice cream shop.

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Farmers’ market – the real deal!

Colombo (the capital) was as always, chaotic. Horns blaring, people rushing about everywhere including the middle of the roads, carbon fumes delicately perfuming the air, and the heat! it can even penetrate an air-conditioned car – utter bliss! (now you know why I stick to the hills)

After getting the passport done, I was to meet one of my dear friends in front of the passport office (we were later supposed to go for a tamarind mojito). He did turn up – on the opposite side of the road – BIG mistake! He was saying something with his arms and legs and trying to make himself heard above the noise of the stream of traffic and people and dogs and whistle-blowing traffic cops flowing in between. A few minutes into this mime, a cop marches up to him and yells at him to get a ‘move-on’ as his taxi is blocking the road and the next thing I see he gets into the car and disappears into the madness. That’s all I saw of my friend and the elusive tamarind mojito he promised. He later told me it was like a scene from a movie – yeah, like a Woody Allen…

A quick stop at the Barefoot Café provided a much needed respite from the chaos of the city.

IMG00980-20140320-1424The Barefoot Gallery and Café is the brainchild of Barbara Sansoni, a celebrated Sri Lankan artist and textile designer. She started Barefoot 40 years ago as a rehabilitation programme for rural women where they were taught the art of weaving and creating handloom fabrics. Barefoot is famous for its beautifully designed, vibrantly coloured stuffed toys, bags, clothes, jewellery and home accessories, mostly made out of hand-woven, naturally dyed fabrics.

The café is built around an open courtyard and the gallery is in an extension of the building. Two monstrous wooden statues of Hindu Gods guard the entrance and there is a cool deep green pond at the far end of the courtyard – it was lovely to sit outside and sip on a long icy lime and mint while we waited for our food (nothing great to write about, unfortunately).

Picture10DSCN8153DSC_2019After a few bites of chewy, cold grilled pork wraps, we popped into the adjacent gallery. I completely lost track of time once inside  – beautiful hand woven napkins in rainbow hues, hand-crocheted doilies and table runners; delicate and cobweb-like, quirky wooden candle stands shaped and painted like dolls in udarata (traditional Sinhalese) dress, forks and spoons made from Kitul wood, rolls and rolls of cloth in eye-popping colours and abstract geometrical patterns, patchwork wall-hangings – all made by hand. Sri Lankans have truly gifted hands, their workmanship is just exquisite.
I greedily bought everything that caught my eye, all the while wishing  I had taken a bigger suitcase!

Picture1And four days just flew by…

Back in Dubai and it’s the weekend. I made a special Sri Lankan lunch to nurse my homesick heart – yellow rice, chicken curry, pappodams and a lovely brinjal (eggplant) salad which is so simple to make but complements the rice and curry perfectly.

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Purple beauties – fresh brinjals sold at a wayside veg shop in Matale and the ones I had to settle for back in Dubai 😦

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Brinjal (aubergine) Salad
Serves 4

4 large brinjals (aubergines)
1 large red onion, cut into rings
2 green chillies, sliced finely
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsp vinegar
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
oil for deep frying

Slice the brinjals into 1/2 cm thick slices. Sprinkle over the turmeric and 1/2 tsp of salt and toss well, coating the slices evenly. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan and fry the brinjal slices in batches, till golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper and set aside.

Put the mustard seeds and vinegar into a mortar and give it a good grind till it forms a grainy paste. Combine the sliced onions and green chillies in a serving dish and add the mustard paste and the remaining salt. Give it a good toss. Add the fried brinjal and toss gently.

Serve as an accompaniment to rice and curry.

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Say it with flowers or a Thai beef salad.

A post Valentine’s Day post.

Picture1Roses are red, violets are blue…and blue is exactly what I’m feeling this Valentine’s. My husband has gone away for three weeks to the North Pole – OK not exactly the North Pole but it’s around -20°C where he is at the moment. While he is freezing away in icy cold Canada I’m basking in the warmth of the beautiful winter sun in Dubai, and as a virtual Valentine’s Day surprise, I thought of making one of his favourite dishes – a Thai beef salad. 

I love Thai salads. They fall into 4 main categories based on the way they are prepared, which are Yam, Tam, Lap and Phla (trust me, I didn’t know this till I started writing this post. Follow this link to Wikipedia to read more about it). I particularly like the Lap salads – crunchy veg and morsels of juicy, tender meat tossed in a perfectly balanced sweet-sour-salty dressing, light and refreshing yet bursting with flavour. I won’t call myself a connoisseur of Thai food (my interest in the subject hasn’t gone beyond shovelling the delicious stuff into my mouth) but I do make two killer Thai salads, if I do say so myself – the beef salad and a chicken salad in peanut dressing. I have my doubts about the origins of the latter but it doesn’t really matter because it tastes so good.

And here’s my Thai beef salad, in pictures…

DSC_1905It all starts with fresh ingredients…

DSC_1868And my five year old who insisted I put this pic in my post.

DSC_1870Mise en place…shredding fresh papaya. There’s an easy way to do this, all you need is a sharp knife and a vegetable peeler (check out this video on how to get perfect, crisp papaya strips).

DSC_1901A beautiful sirloin steak which has been marinating overnight…

Picture9Freshly roasted peanuts and fresh mint from my balcony garden…

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Picture8After some shredding, chopping, pounding, grilling and mixing…voilà!

DSC_1947My Thai beef salad, bursting with colour, flavour and freshness! This one’s for you honey! x

Celebrating Valentine’s Day is not at the top of my To-Do list but I do miss my husband. After the first couple of years of your marriage your spouse becomes very much a part of you. I wish I had a better reference, but it’s like your favourite sweater – familiar and comforting and something you simply cannot live without. We are on our ninth year now so I do feel his absence, even though he’s gone for only three weeks.

Well…here’s to our ninth Valentine’s together and many more to come! Chin-chinOh, and hubs please don’t be offended by the favourite sweater reference – the one I’m talking about is gorgeously luxurious and cashmere xx

PS: Valentine’s Day was not so bad after all as I still had my other Valentine to celebrate it with. And boy did we celebrate…we made heart shaped cards and went out for Italian and had his first taste of lasagna (he’s been pestering me for lasagna after watching Garfield wolf down copious amounts of it on TV). The day ended with my Valentine saying ‘Mummy I want to give you a ‘Balentime’s Day’ kiss’ and planting a big sloppy one on my cheek.

PPS: Hubs came back from the cold bearing loads of maple syrupy goodies and something quite unusual – Icewine tea (more on that later). Happy days!


Thai Beef Salad
adapted from a recipe by Darlene Schmidt

1 to 2 sirloin steaks, depending on the amount of meat you prefer.
Marinade:
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp lime or lemon juice
2 tbsp brown sugar

For the salad:
1 large bowl salad greens
1 cup bean sprouts
handful of fresh mint or basil leaves, lightly chopped or torn
1 cup fresh coriander
1 cup fresh papaya, cubed or cut into spears (see video above on how to shred papaya)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, left whole or sliced in half

Dressing:
1-2 tbsp fish sauce (available at Asian food stores)
3 tbsp lime or lemon juice
1+1/2 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp brown sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1-2 fresh red chillies, chopped
2 tbsp toasted and ground sticky rice,or 2 tbsp roasted, ground peanuts (I used peanuts)

Mix marinade ingredients together in a cup or bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the steak(s), turning meat to coat. Set in the refrigerator to marinate (you can leave it overnight).

For the ground sticky rice (if using, instead of peanuts): Place 2 tbsp uncooked sticky rice in a dry frying pan over medium-high heat. Stirring continuously, dry-fry the rice until it starts to pop and is lightly toasted. Remove rice from the pan and allow to cool slightly before grinding it up with a coffee grinder, or pounding into a powder with pestle & mortar.

Combine all dressing ingredients together in a cup or mixing bowl, stirring until sugar dissolves (adjust fish sauce and lime juice according to your desired taste). Then prepare the bowl of greens and other salad ingredients.

Grill the steak over a hot grill, turning only once or twice to retain the juices (meat should still be pink in the centre).

While steak is cooking, toss the salad with the dressing. Taste-test for salt, adding more fish sauce if not salty enough, or more lime juice if too salty for your taste.

When ready to serve, portion out salad onto serving plates or bowls. Slice the steak as thinly as possible and top each portion with a generous amount of sliced sirloin and a sprinkling of ground rice or peanuts.

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A delightful discovery and a bunch of radishes.

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Having been born and raised in Sri Lanka, a country abundant in all things green (think of lush verdant forests, tree-canopied foot paths, blue mountains, endless paddy fields… I can go on forever..) it took me a while to get used to the flat, sand-hued landscape of Dubai. I love the green stuff, so much so that when I was a kid I used to imagine myself living in a flower-bed. For someone with this kind of ‘green’ obsession, like me, a visit to the local park is always a treat, especially when there is a bonus thrown in (which you shall soon find out)!

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The parks in Dubai are beautiful – little emerald oases where one can escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The mercury drops towards November (it used to be as early as August – effects of global warming methinks?) and the temperatures remain a pleasant 18-23 degrees till mid-April. The moment Dubai bids goodbye to the hot desert sun, out come the BBQ grills, the beach towels, the bicycles, the picnic blankets and my most recent finding – farmers’ markets. They sprout all over the city in various places – from parks to hotel gardens to more spectacular spots like the Dubai fountains. From delicious baked goods from artisan bakers to fresh veg and fruit from local farms, these markets have something for everyone and are a foodie’s paradise.

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Last weekend I paid a visit to the Foodie Friday Market in Safa park (it’s hosted by Ripe, an organic food store in Dubai). The park itself is one of the most beautiful in Dubai, complete with sprawling lawns, a pine grove and even a duck pond! For those who live here, the market is near Gate No. 5 and is held every Friday from 9 in the morning till 2 in the afternoon.

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A mélange of delightful sights, sounds and smells welcome you as you walk towards the market…the aroma of sizzling burgers and pancakes wafts through the air making your mouth water and breezy tunes from a solo guitar dance their way into your ears while little orange, green and white flags flutter overhead.

We spent hours browsing around the stalls sampling delicious titbits – from juicy sausages and crusty bread to freshly squeezed lemonade and gooey brownies.

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I also bought this beautiful bunch of organic and locally grown radishes from the Ripe stall (they were so gorgeous that I wrote them a little poem). For lunch that day I made a simple radish salad which tasted amazing and oh-so-fresh! They say food tastes better when you know where it came from and who grew it, well I couldn’t agree more.

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Arugula & Radish Salad with Lemon and Parmesan
adapted from Lemon Tart Recipes by Tami Moritz
Serves 4

8-10 radishes, sliced
1 green apple, cut into matchsticks
Arugula, washed, spun and dried (I couldn’t find arugula so used baby lettuce instead )
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp + 2 tsp olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
4 pinches coarse salt
Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano)
Crispy fried shallots

Add the lemon zest into a large bowl. Pour olive oil over the top. Leave to sit about 15 minutes or up to 2 hours for the lemon zest to infuse the oil.

Just before serving toss arugula into the oil and zest mixture and toss gently with your hands. Allow each leaf to become coated with the oil. Add more oil if necessary, do not overdress. A coating is all that’s needed. Sprinkle on the lemon juice, gently tossing. Season with salt and pepper. Give another toss and then pick up a leaf and taste. Add more lemon juice if required.

Scatter over the radishes and apple. Using a vegetable peeler shave off curls of Parmesan and scatter liberally over the top of the salad and sprinkle over the crispy fried shallots. Serve at once.

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