Cuisine by Design
Editor's note: Lonely Planet's new anthology, "A Fork in the Road," presents 34 stories that explore the intersection of travel, food, and cultural revelation. Each of the pieces in the book, writes editor James Oseland in his introduction, "says something ineffable about how we process and remember tastes and sensations, and about how they alter our view of the world." Below we excerpt a learned and loving celebration of Sri Lankan cuisine by Madhur Jaffrey, regarded by many as the world’s foremost authority on Indian food. Jaffrey is an award-winning actress and bestselling cookery author. She has appeared in over 20 films and written numerous cookery books, including the seminal “An Invitation to Indian Cookery,” published in 1973.
By Madhur Jaffrey
The balmy, consoling air has been entirely shut out by my hired car’s fierce air conditioning. We are driving up Sri Lanka’s west coast on a road that slithers along sluggishly, hugging the shore. Palms lean forgivingly towards waters blasted recently by a cruel tsunami. Bananas and papayas continue to produce, beguiled by the smiling sun. Uniformed children, their dark hair gleaming with massages of coconut oil, walk to school, books and sometimes cricket bats in hand.
I am headed towards my final stop in the country, the town of Bentota, where Sri Lanka’s renowned twentieth-century architect and designer, Geoffrey Bawa, had built, perhaps sculpted is a better word, his country house and garden, Lunuganga. I am going there for a reason.
After returning from my last trip to Sri Lanka I had found that the glorious foods I had eaten were seamlessly linked in my memory to the places where I had eaten them and that some of the best of these were boutique hotels in old colonial houses or newer houses, restaurants and hotels, redone or freshly built with such a sense of Sri Lankan style, such a unique feel of Bawa-influenced, timeless modernity as to remain unmatched in all of Asia, indeed in the world. The combination of food and setting had been idyllic, a paean to a single, ’60s architect. No other country in the world pays obeisance to a single architect (and now his disciples) with offerings of the country’s best food or, in other words, no country offers its best foods in halls influenced by the modernist thinking of a single designer.
I have traveled over much of the world and eaten some wonderful food in great-looking restaurants. It is only in Sri Lanka that one constantly senses the benign, cohesive presence of one single master, who, with his disciples, has set the tone for what temples of hospitality should look like— spare, well proportioned and as allied to nature as possible. One has only to look at his erstwhile Colombo office, with its sleek water tank in front, which has now been converted to one of the city’s most popular restaurants, The Gallery Café on Paradise Road. It was handed over to chef and designer Shanth Fernando on the condition that he always display art. Today it houses a hot restaurant and a tiny shop selling some of Sri Lanka’s most exquisite handicraft s (I buy dozens of rice straw tablemats here). Trendily dressed diners who seem to know each other table-hop from the first course to the last, creating the buzz of a successful party. You may dine on beef smore, the spicy, coconut-sauced pot roast, or on the more eclectic mullet served with a green papaya salad or the Dutch burgher dish of deep-fried eggplant batons dressed with vinegar and coconut palm sugar.
On this trip, I had started out in Colombo, in the home of Sunela Jayewardene, a post-Bawa architect but one not untouched by the prescient master’s love of nature and ecologically informed design.
Sunela Jayewardene lives in a top corner of her mother’s grand colonial house. Young and already renowned, she has taken advantage of its very high ceilings to fashion an airy nest of her own in its upper reaches—a private, flowing, modern, multi-leveled, adobe-walled apartment. The highest perch of all has been reserved for dining and it is here that we are seated around an ornate antique rosewood table enjoying breakfast.
We have already sipped our king coconut in the living room a few steps below. These large orange coconuts, sold at street corners, burst with nutrients. As my driver explained to me earlier, ‘They are very healthy, madam. You could survive six months on just their juice. We never use them for cooking. The green ones are good enough for that.’ The filtered morning light dances, almost by design, on the bluish-purple water lilies, Sri Lanka’s national flower, massed in the center of the table, as we are offered kola kanda, a national porridge. We ladle this into our nineteenth-century Dutch-trade bowls. The porridge, made of red-hulled rice, coconut milk and varying foraged herbs—here it is the crawling green, iramusu, ‘good for the kidneys’, as everyone agrees—is served with pieces of raw brown sugar (palm jaggery) which we are meant to suck on with each spoonful. It is addictively good.
The next course consists of glorious egg hoppers. Common to both the South Indian state of Kerala and to all of Sri Lanka, hoppers (appa in Sri Lanka, appam in India) are crisply filigree-edged but spongy-in-the-center, bowl-shaped (because they are made in small, high-sided woks), rice flour and coconut milk pancakes. With an egg dropped in the center, they become egg hoppers. This can be done with such perfect timing that soft, medium or well-done eggs may be requested. To accompany the hopper, and to give it its Sri Lankan edge, are two relishes: seeni sambol, made with caramelized onions and tomatoes, aromatic pandan leaf, smoked and dried ‘Maldive’ fish bits, cinnamon, sugar and chilies; and kuni mallung, a lightly cooked dish of tiny shrimp and freshly grated coconut.
When we have scraped the last traces of egg yolk off our plates, we are offered, among other things, string hoppers, idi appa, fresh rice flour noodles, which appear as little red nests, made with red-hulled rice dough squeezed out of molds and steamed. String hoppers are generally served with the scrumptious, slightly tart kiri hodi, a curry leaf and fenugreek-flavored coconut sauce, but here potatoes have been added to it to make a more substantial variation, ala hodi.
In these few dishes are many of the salient features of Sri Lanka’s way of eating. The population (and main religion, Buddhism) of this tropical island nation came mainly from India some millennia ago, bringing with it a tradition of herbal remedies incorporated into everyday foods. As only a narrow channel of water separates Sri Lanka from southeastern India, its cuisine shares many recipes and traditions with the Indian states closest to it, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and rice remains the heart of the meal.
But while Sri Lanka stretches out one hand to India, it stretches out the other to Indonesia and Malaysia, with which it has primeval links. Hence the aromatic seasonings that lend a special je ne sais quoi to its cuisine include pandan leaves, lemongrass and the beloved dried ‘Maldive’ fish, umbalakada.
‘Maldive’ fish is dried bonito. It dries as hard as wood and is lovingly used in some form all along the arc that stretches from Japan to the Maldives. Small, kindling-like pieces, pounded before use, become the black gold that give Sri Lankan sambols and sauces their gloriously dark, smoky base notes. The Sri Lankans once bought theirs from neighboring Maldivians—hence the name—but now the curing is done in Sri Lanka.
Adding a different slant to Sri Lanka’s cuisines are the influences of its early traders and settlers, the Arabs for one, who added basmati rice biriyanis and tripe curries to its culinary repertoire. Then came a succession of partial and total Western colonizers, the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British, whose combined cuisine—with Dutch influence predominating and Sri Lankan spices playing a provocative role—is known as Burgher food. The most famous Burgher may well be the deceased, mixed-race Bawa himself and the most famous Burgher dish might be lampries.
I attend a Burgher ladies lunch at the dazzling, modern Colombo home of Anitra Pieris, whose family introduced the now ubiquitous Bajaj, a motorized, three-wheeled rickshaw, to the country. As Sri Lankan beauties gather and gossip, ginger beer—a cooling, restorative drink of lemongrass-flavored syrup mixed with ginger and lime juice—is served. Lunch starts with the pièce de résistance, lampries, from the Dutch word lomprijst or ‘a packet of rice’. A banana leaf–wrapped package of food based on the traditional Sri Lankan meal of rice and curry with hints of Indonesia, where the Dutch had also ruled, this is so loved that it is frequently frozen and sent to relatives around the world.
I open my baked packet. There is the rice, perfumed with cardamom, cloves and pandan leaves and cooked in stock. There is a dryish, tamarind-tart and chili-hot curry made with diced pork, beef and chicken. There are frikkadels, beef meatballs, a sweet, hot and sour eggplant and green pepper pahe, the seeni sambol made with shallots, and a marble-sized ball of blachang, very similar to the belacans of Indonesia and Thailand but here made at home with pounded dried shrimp, garlic, ginger, chilies, sugar and lime juice. Even the gods in the heavens must love lampries. I barely have room left for the beef smore, a curried pot roast soured with lime pickle or, indeed, the cashew-dotted semolina love cake with its haunting smell of nutmeg.
For most Sri Lankans, meals generally consist of a simpler ‘rice and curry’. Where is a traveler to find the very best? I am told to head straight to Ena de Silva’s house in Matale, just outside Kandy. Ena is among the last surviving members of the Bawa pack. A stunning beauty in her time, she did all the large batiks that decorated Bawa’s buildings. She serves lunches upon request only. They must be ordered at least a week in advance.
A stop for dinner and sleep along the way at Kandy House in Kandy is suggested. Kandy is in the cooler hills, an ancient city built around a lake where the British deposed the last Kandyan king and took power in 1815. In 2005 Kandy House, a two-hundred-year-old mansion, was magically transformed into a gleaming, spare boutique hotel by Channa Daswatte, a disciple of Bawa and now a renowned architect himself. As I enter I notice two long Ena de Silva batiks displayed like banners. The superb, free-form, modernist food here, served on a back verandah overlooking a lush garden and prepared with fresh, local ingredients, could include goat brain on toast with ash gourd sambol or ravioli filled with jackfruit seeds and water spinach. For breakfast, fresh hoppers are always available.
At Kandy House, they know the short cut to Ena De Silva’s residence in Matale, north of Kandy, useful information as Ena expects you on time. Matale, still in the hills, is the center of the spice trade. There are spice gardens all along the road eager to show visitors their wealth of black pepper vines, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon trees. It was the cinnamon— and gems like rubies—that drew the early traders, the Phoenicians and the Arabs, and then the Europeans here in the first place.
A sign for Ena’s Uluwihare Kitchen points uphill. We leave the main road, winding our way up to a private estate. A long stone house sits on a ledge overlooking the valley and the Kandyan hills beyond. I am seated in the narrow front patio, admiring the eastern view, when Ena appears, a theatrical vision in three hats, one on top of the other, yellow walking stick, shiny sneakers, sparkling lips and a sequined, jeweled jeans outfit worthy of Elvis. She is a woman of style. Her own style. She was eighty-four at the time.
With a heart and talent larger than life, the Ena de Silva style starts with herself, goes on to her patio, over-laden with garden bric-a-brac, enters her living-dining room, bedrooms and bathrooms, where every surface is covered with patterns and cloths and where valuable ebony and mahogany furniture holds equal place with paper flowers, brightly painted chairs and an eclectic collection of tchotchkes. It even goes into her small, sooty kitchen, where the walls are painted with primitive figures. Her style might be considered anti-Bawa Bawa-ist, very personal and anti-elitist.
The kitchen is sooty for good reason. The mouth-watering food that it sends forth is all cooked over wood, as that is deemed the best fuel. At her rice and curry lunch there are at least twenty dishes, some laid out on trolleys and side tables, others served directly by Ena’s manservant. The rice, as she is entertaining, is green coriander rice, a basmati perfumed with garlic, ginger, lemongrass, pandanus leaves and, of course, lots of green coriander. There is a most delicious red chicken curry for which skinned chicken pieces are marinated overnight in very red chili powder, curry powder, turmeric, vinegar, salt and shallots. The next day, they are cooked with more shallots, garlic, fenugreek, lemongrass, pandan, curry leaves and coconut milk. The tuna curry has hints of cardamom, cinnamon and lemongrass; there is a dal curry made with whole roasted and pounded mung beans and coconut milk; a ridge gourd curry; a carrot, cashew and pea curry; a pumpkin and long bean curry; and an okra curry.
Then, there are all the side dishes needed to complete the meal. The barely cooked mallungs are unique to Sri Lanka. There are two here: for the exquisite tuna and snake gourd mallung, tuna is lightly poached first and shredded. Then a little oil is heated in a pan, a few mustard seeds are allowed to pop in it and the tuna as well as finely diced gourd, grated coconut and green chilies are all packed down and allowed to steam in their own juices for a few minutes. Fresh lime juice is squeezed in at the end. A second mallung is made with thin shreds of a quick-wilted, collard-like green. It is worth the price of a Broadway show just to watch the art of speed-shredding a basketful of greens into hair-thin shreds with a kitchen knife.
Other side dishes offer crunch and spice—fried bitter gourd slices, fried dried Bombay Duck (a fish) and many fiery relishes, the sambols, one made with okra and shallots and the most popular everyday pol sambol, made with grated coconut, crushed red chilies, shallots and lime juice. We end with rich water-buffalo yogurt served with kitul palm honey.
I go south from Matale, heading towards the mountainous Tea Trails to stay on a tea plantation. As the drive is long, I stop for a roadside break of tea and ‘Chinese’ rolls (fish spiced with green chilies and curry leaves, wrapped in a pancake and deep-fried). I also enjoy an equally spicy fish bun and a scrumptious malu cutliss, a spiced fish ball, sometimes served with drinks, belonging to a family of foods that Sri Lankans lovingly call ‘short eats’.
At Nuwara Eliya, 6000 feet above sea level, there are tea plantations as far as the eye can see, neat green mounds on hillsides, poised for a Seurat to paint them. The tea trees have all been kept trimmed as table-top dwarfs for easy picking of the required ‘two leaves and a bud’. This is such a labor-intensive process that Sir Arthur C. Clark, who lived in Sri Lanka, wondered if the tea industry could last much longer. Once this area was home to Sri Lanka’s richest forests, filled with wild bears, leopards and elephants. The forests were cleared at great cost and now Sri Lanka produces, in all, about 700 million pounds of tea annually. The tea planters led luxurious but somewhat lonely lives and now many of their homes have been converted into small hotels.
Castlereigh, on a hill overlooking a reservoir, is one of them. I might as well be in Britain. It is cool, I am surrounded by an English garden and at 5pm there are undistinguished scones and jam for tea. But you can ask for Sri Lankan food at every meal and it is far, far better. I then head to the south coast, to Galle (pronounced Gaul), and its most idyllic section, the Galle Fort, which I just love. Once an important port where Solomon traded for jewels, peacocks and spices, this walled, colonial township was occupied by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the Dutch in the seventeenth and early eighteenth and then the British until Sri Lankan independence. UNESCO has declared it a World Heritage Site as the whole, mostly Dutch, town, with its ochre-washed homes and narrow lanes, has been preserved, not as a museum but as a living township with boutiques, antique shops, jewel shops and cafes in the smaller houses and modern hotels in the larger mansions.
I stop at my favorite hotel, the gracious, exquisitely renovated Galle Fort Hotel. My suite has a four-poster bed with a mosquito netting. The sheets, pillow, the light throw are all luxurious and beautiful. I just want to live here. My dinner on the verandah overlooking an inner garden courtyard and a cool pool is a lazy rice and curry tiffin: a tuna fish curry malu ambullthiyal, soured with goraka, a smoked fruit skin, a kukulmas (chicken) curry flavored with the three fresh aromatics of this land—curry leaves, pandanus leaves and lemongrass—rice, and a salad-like sambol of fried bitter gourd, shallot slivers, tomatoes, chilies, lime juice and pounded Maldive fish. I eat, savor and melt into the warm night.
It is time to leave Galle and start on the coastal road north to my final destination, Bentota. A sign behind a closed gate, barely visible for the tropical greenery leaning over it, reads: LUNUGANGA, The Country Estate of Geoffrey Bawa, Private Property. I have come to pay homage at the shrine, now a part-time boutique hotel where meals may be ordered in advance. This was a cinnamon plantation once, then a rubber estate when Bawa took it over, with a small unprepossessing house on a rise. Bawa proceeded to transform it and the land it was on. Bawa spent most of his time on the back verandah, overlooking a terraced garden and Dedduwa Lake beyond.
His guests today do the same. We sit just where he sat, eating our meals and looking at the views he created, every one of them sculpted to his design. We view the water through a strangely languorous frangipani tree on whose growing boughs he hung weights to induce the curves he desired. Here we lunch on the exotic offerings from the kitchen: shredded raw pumpkin salad with grated coconut, shallots, chilies and lime juice, and a superb, mustard seed-flecked dish of sautéed, crisp, wing beans.
Today, among Sri Lanka’s cognoscenti, design and food are a fixation, part of their modern being. Geoffrey Bawa’s spirit must be so pleased.
This story is adapted from “A Fork in the Road,” (c) Lonely Planet 2013, reproduced with the permission of the publisher.