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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The perfect pol sambol

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Whenever I think of Sri Lankan food the first thing that comes to my mind is pol sambol –  a coconut relish made with freshly grated coconut, dried red chillies, red onions, salt, lime juice and umbalakada (also known as Maldive fish) which is cured fish traditionally produced in the Maldives and commonly used in Sri Lankan dishes. Pol sambol is served as an accompaniment to rice, iddi appa – string hoppers (stringy rice pancakes), appa – hoppers (a sort of rice flour pancake) roti and even plain bread and butter (look out for a post on Sri Lankan food later). It goes well with everything but I prefer to eat it with steaming hot rice.

This dish reminds me of picnics we used to have in a place called Riverston in Sri Lanka. It’s an isolated little mountain range where you find grass growing in the middle of the road and tall fragrant pine trees growing thick on either side. Our picnic spot used to be next to a beautiful little stream. We would take a dip in the icy cold water before tucking into little parcels of rice, pol sambol and other gorgeous curries all wrapped in banana leaves. The aroma of the banana leaf and the rich curries combined with the fresh mountain air and the tinkle of the stream was just divine…

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Harsha Matarage

Back to pol sambol.

Sri Lankan cuisine is a lot similar to South Indian food, especially that of Kerala (I have had the wonderful opportunity to experience authentic Keralite dishes as my husband is from Kerala and his mom and sisters are brilliant cooks). Our iddi appa is known to them as iddi appam, appa is appam, and pittu (a breakfast dish made out of rice flour and coconut) – puttu. We often argue over the origins of these dishes but the differences between the two cuisines are so fine that it is difficult to say who invented what. Fortunately no claims have yet been made on our humble pol sambol.

The authentic way of preparing a pol sambol is by grinding it on a rectangular block of granite with a granite rolling-pin of sorts which is known as a miris-gala in Sinhalese (literally translated to chilli-stone). These grinding stones are used for grinding all sorts of pastes used in Sri Lankan curries. Not everyone living outside Sri Lanka owns a miris-gala and the one I have is a spare from my sister-in-law. A good old stone mortar and pestle works just fine.

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Pol sambol is best prepared with fresh ingredients but I have given substitutes in the recipe as some of the ingredients can be difficult to get hold of.

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First, throw in the dried red chillies and salt on to the grinding-stone (or into the mortar and pestle) and grind into a fine paste – this requires a lot of elbow grease but don’t be disheartened because the paste is the backbone of the entire dish, you need to get it right. If the mixture gets too dry and difficult to grind add a teaspoon of water (no more than a teaspoon otherwise it will be too wet). You know it’s ready when there are no chilli seeds visible in the paste. Add the Maldive fish flakes (if using) and give it a little grind – don’t overdo it, you want to have little flecks of fish in the sambol to give it texture.

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Next, add the coconut and combine with the paste. Use the pestle to push the paste into the coconut so it absorbs the flavour and colour of the chilli paste. Throw in the red onions. Give these little rubies a good bash with the pestle and mix it with the coconut. Do not grind the onion too finely; we are looking for little chunks, not a slimy mush.

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That’s your basic pol sambol, done. You can make a variation of this by sautéing the pol sambol in mustard seeds, curry leaves and sliced onion (it’s called badapu (sautéed) pol sambol and I absolutely love it!). If you are tempted to try both, divide the coconut mixture into two parts.

To finish off the basic version, add a generous squeeze of lime juice and give it a good mix (best done using your bare hands. It may seem a bit repulsive but somehow the flavour intensifies when mixed with your fingers).

Lime juice

Now for the tempered version. Get a nice frying pan (the one I have used is another typical South Asian cooking utensil used for making hoppers and doubles as a frying pan).

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Heat some oil on high heat. When the oil is nice and hot throw in the mustard seeds and when they start to splutter add the curry leaves and sliced onions. Sauté well till the onion turns brown and add the pol sambol (the one without the lime juice). Give it a good mix and let the mixture dry out a bit before taking it off the fire.

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The perfect Sri Lankan pol sambol – two ways!

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Pol Sambol

1 freshly grated coconut
(substitute – desiccated coconut. Before using, sprinkle some water over the coconut and microwave for a minute to moisten the coconut).
5 whole dried red chillies
(substitute – 1/2 tsp of red chilli flakes and 1 tsp of red chilli powder, adjust depending on the amount of heat you can handle!)
6 red button onions / small pink shallots
(substitute – 2 tbsp roughly chopped red onion)
1 tbsp Maldive fish
(optional, unfortunately there’s no substitute for this)
1 tsp salt
Juice of one lime

Throw in the whole chillies (or chilli flakes and chili powder) and salt into a mortar and pestle and grind till it turns into a fine paste (there should be no visible chilli seeds). Next, add the Maldive fish and mix in with the paste. Add the onions. Using the pestle crush the onions and combine with the chilli paste. Finally add the grated coconut and give it a good mix with the pestle till the paste is completely mixed in with the coconut.

For the basic pol sambol, add a generous squeeze of lime and mix well, ideally using your hands – yes! Using a squeaky clean hand, mix the sambol using gentle pressure for about 15 seconds, this intensifies the flavour of the sambol. Serve immediately with rice, string hoppers, hoppers, roti, bread and butter or just about anything you fancy.

Sautéed pol sambol
Do not add lime juice to the final coconut mixture. Heat around 1 tbsp of oil in a frying pan until very hot. Throw in 1 tsp of mustard seeds. When they start to pop and splutter, add around 2 tbsp of finely sliced red onion and 5-6 curry leaves. Sauté until onions turn golden brown. Add the coconut mixture and give it a good mix. Sauté the sambol until the coconut turns slightly dry (around 2-3 minutes).  Serve immediately or let it cool down completely and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator (keeps well for 2-3 weeks).

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