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Archive for December, 2011

As someone who makes my own curry powder, I can appreciate the time and care it takes to convert raw spices into a complex, multi-dimensional flavor enhancer capable of transforming meats and vegetables into a sublime dish. Though these ‘spices’ are essentially nothing more than the fruits, seeds, roots, and bark of various trees, bushes, and plants, they are valued as much for their innate properties as for their flavor, especially in India and Sri Lanka, where spices have practical applications in the ancient Ayurvedic system of medicine. In Ayurveda, food may be viewed as medicine, or a means to promote good health.

I was not aware of this fact before I started getting interested in making rice and curry, but it becomes quickly apparent when you learn about the spices from which a curry is made.  Turmeric, for example, is anti-bacterial, while black mustard seed aids in digestion. Goraka (gamboge), a dried fruit that lends its signature tart taste to such dishes as fish ambul thiyal, turns out to be an excellent preservative. In addition to the health benefits of the individual spices, I also became interested in where these spices were sourced, and how they were processed. Grinding mills, where people can purchase raw spices and have them ground and blended, are common all over Sri Lanka, but I wanted to visit a proper spice factory. Going by the brands popular on store shelves, I chose McCurrie Spice, manufactured by Lanka Spice Limited, which runs a processing plant about an hour outside Colombo in the town of Kottava.

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McCurrie Spice, founded in 1985, presently constitutes a large share of the market for prepared spices in Sri Lanka. They export as well to Canada, Australia, and the UK.  Their line has also grown to include a full range of chutneys, pickles, pastes, sambols, and sauces, which save a lot of time and trouble. Now it is possible, for example, to buy a jar of seeni sambol or lime pickle (additive and preservative free) without having to make it yourself.

Before visiting the factory, I had no idea of the various steps involved in actually processing spices and making them ready for the market. Fumigation, for example, is the first step in order to kill bacteria and remove any microscopic eggs from pests like the weevil. The spices are then sorted, washed and dried. In Sri Lanka, they use both roasted and unroasted spices depending on the dish. Unroasted spices are usually used to prepare vegetable curries, while meat and fish curries use a roasted preparation. Roasting helps to release the essential oils stored within the spices as well as giving them a smoky, more complex flavor. After individual spices are roasted they are then ground to a fine powder, and blended according to precise recipes. The final step in production is packaging. All facets of production are handled at this one factory though McCurrie also maintains another facility in Dambulla, which is responsible more for ready-made, bottled goods.

McCurrie's bottled offerings

For someone who loves spices as much as I do, to see each step along the ‘assembly line’ was a very gratifying and illuminating experience. While much of this process is mechanized and involves heavy machinery, I was surprised to find out just how much was done by hand as well. I was also surprised to learn that while most of the spices McCurrie processes are found in Sri Lanka, there is not enough grown domestically to meet the demand–with the growing season also varying from spice to spice. In order to maintain steady production, the company must then import much of its raw materials from India.

In Colombo you may purchase McCurrie spices at any supermarket or at their retail outlet:

McCurrie Spice

93 Maya Avenue

Colombo 6

Open 10:30 am – 6 pm weekdays

9 am – 1 pm Saturdays

Tel. 5556731, fax 5505051

Email: mccurrieshop@hotmail.com

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Skiz on the radio

I had the pleasure of going down to NPR’s main headquarters in DC yesterday to appear on the show “Talk of The Nation,” to discuss what else?–rice and curry. As an old radio hack myself (from my days at WHRB in Cambridge, MA), it was great to get back into the studio and also check out NPR’s grand operation. Shout outs to my friend and former Columbia Journalism classmate Wilma Consul for making it all happen!

You may check out the full audio here:

http://www.npr.org/2011/12/29/144442096/learning-sri-lankan-home-cooking-a-family-affair

overlooking the NPR newsroom

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Whoa! Slow down. Wait a minute! Who forgot to tell me about Burmese food? I did, after all, date a girl from Myanmar once, and I have eaten at at least one Burmese restaurant in New York, but nothing I have experienced up to now could prepare me for my first real Burmese meal at Burma Superstar, Oakland. As an Asian food freak, who has tried practically every cuisine of the continent and subcontinent, I can now say that Burmese ranks up there as some of the best. It’s not quite like Chinese and it’s certainly  not like Indian, but somewhere in the middle–as reflected in the geography of the country of Myanmar itself–there lies the perfect fusion, which is Burmese food.

I  first heard about Burma Superstar through my friends Bill & Gigi. Bill having dined at their San Francisco location only had great things to report. Gigi’s sister Tiyo, managed the place, so when I was looking for places in the Bay Area to have my book party, it was a no brainer. You already heard about how well that event went, but I have a secret confession to make: one reason I wanted to have my book party at Burma Superstar was so that I could try their food. In fact, I had to purposefully abstain from eating the Sri Lankan food that I had prepared for the party in order to have room for a full dinner at the restaurant–a small sacrifice which was well rewarded!

out front at Burma Superstar Oakland

Joining me for dinner were 9 friends from the Bay Area (I didn’t know I even had that many friends in the Bay Area), who were all veterans of Burma Superstar. While  we perused the menu deciding what to have, Tiyo just started sending dishes out to us from the kitchen.  First came the salads–the legendary tea leaf and rainbow salads–both of which were featured on Food Network. I had more than one recommendation to try the tea leaf salad, especially since it was dressed with a unique paste of fermented tea leaves. How do I describe the flavor of this special ingredient other than to say it was…singular…and most delicious! The salad comes with all of it’s individual ingredients–including fried garlic, peanuts,  sunflower seeds, tomatoes, romain lettuce, and dried shrimp–unmixed and the waitperson tosses them together at the table, which also adds a nice touch. The rainbow salad came with a similar presentation, helpful in identifying all 22 ingredients it is composed of, before being quickly devoured.

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The dishes kept coming in such quick succession that all of us were kept very busy, spooning delicious tidbits onto our plates and making room at the table for everything. “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” replaced regular speech as we voiced our collective foodgasm over the great dishes we were tasting. So greedy was I that I forgot to take notes about individual plates, but much of my recollection of that evening is imprinted on my tongue. The curry pork with potatoes was incredibly moist and tender; the fiery tofu with vegetables, spicy/sweet; the sesame beef had a tanginess from the added tamarind; and the tender strips of chili lamb had a serious kick. The mango shrimp, a dish I had seen prepared in the kitchen also had the spicy/sweet combination, which I have come to associate with Burmese food.  No where was there any coconut milk or curry leaves like Sri Lankan food, or kaffir lime leaves and galangal, like Thai. Simply Burmese cuisine in all its glory!

After such a feeding frenzy, I don’t think anyone at the table was in any shape for dessert, but we had to go for it anyway. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen 10 stuffed people share one dessert, the sticky black rice with coconut ice cream, which was, of course, another victory. Eating at Burma made us all feel like superstars.

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For The Love of Food and Heritage

 

S.H. Fernando who lives in the States and has cooked up quite a fan club with his cooking blog, in an email interview with Smriti Daniel discusses his book ‘Rice and Curry’ which he hopes will give young Lankans living abroad a taste of our local flavours

 

S.H. Fernando – Skiz to his friends – has spent years quietly amassing a following on his blog and youtube channel. Online at http://www.riceandcurry.wordpress.com, he serves up an eclectic mix of reviews and recipes. On youtube, this amateur cook stars in the self-produced series ‘Pan Asian’ where he dishes up some of his favourite recipes for an audience. His repertoire covers “every country in Asia” along with other cuisines including Iranian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Japanese and even African. Now with the publication of his cookery book ‘Rice & Curry’ (which earned him an honourable mention in the New York Times last week) and his own line of curry powders, he is closer than ever to being able to do what he loves for a living.

S.H. Fernando

Skiz says he began blogging in 2008, after he spent three months guiding the crew of ‘No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain’ around Sri Lankan cuisine. He first caught Bourdain’s interest when the latter read a cook book Skiz had self published on Blurb.com the year before.

(He lives in Baltimore but is currently on tour, promoting the book which was published by Hippocrene Books in New York. A full colour paperback was released last month.) The experience was an interesting one and when Skiz started his own blog he decided he wanted it to be a tribute to rice and curry. Over the years, it expanded to include the author’s other great passion – travel. “I go all over the world to Europe, Japan, Africa, and I love to check out really local spots in these places – what I like to call ‘Off the Eaten Path,’” he says in an email.

Skiz is careful about identifying himself not as a chef, but as a proud ‘home cook’. “Chefs cook for a living. I cook purely out of love and also because it’s another way to express my creativity, and believe it or not, to relax. For him it all boils down to immediate gratification – I can pour myself into making a dish, and when it’s done, I can sit down and devour it. What can be more satisfying than that?”

He inherited his love of cooking from his mother, and says that as an American immigrant he found that food represented the “main connection to your culture.” The book serves as an introduction to the tastes of the island but for Skiz it’s also an offering that’s intended to help other young Sri Lankans living abroad master the traditional cuisine of their parents. “Second generation kids, like myself, can be proud of their Sri Lankan heritage and share it with those around them through this amazing food we have called rice and curry.”

The 208 recipes in the book are for most part family property, given to Skiz by his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins but there are also a few provided by friends. “I spent several hours a day cooking when I was living here (in 2006), and then taking the finished dishes to various relatives houses for lunch. From people like my 85-year-old Aunty Dora, who is sharp as a tack and not afraid to voice her true opinion, I was able to get good criticism and thereby develop the recipes in the book,” he tells me. His cooking philosophy appears to be anchored in simplicity. His menu is composed of dishes from many different cultures – not just Sri Lankan – but they’re all straightforward in preparation as well as ingredients. “Why make things complicated?” he asks.

In keeping with this philosophy, he’s also created ‘Skiz’s Original Spice Blends’. ”I realized that most Americans would not have the patience to make their own roasted curry powder, which is used to make many of the dishes in the book, so using a family recipe, I decided to make my own and market it.” He actually began by selling it to friends and family, and their positive feedback gave him the courage to turn it into a commercial operation. He currently sells his powders through two gourmet food sites in the U.S., but is hoping to begin supplying some retail outfits as well.

The whole business represents a professional sea change for Skiz. After graduating from Harvard and the Columbia University School of Journalism, he worked as a music journalist. He was the author of ‘The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture & Attitudes of Hip-Hop’ (Anchor/Doubleday, 1994). He followed his foray into writing by starting his own label WordSound Recordings, in December 1994. He describes the WordSound catalogue as composed of 64 “diverse and eclectic” releases which run the gamut from dub and hip-hop to drum ‘n’ bass and electronica.

As a filmmaker, Skiz wrote, produced and directed the ‘Crooked’ in 2001, a behind the scenes docudrama about the music industry, and in 2004, he released ‘The Greatest Thing You Never Heard’ a ‘dubumentary’ about WordSound, to coincide with the label’s 10th anniversary. His latest, ‘Made in Brasil,’ about the music of Brazil, is touring the international film festival circuit.

Skiz is now gunning for television stardom. He hopes to take his youtube videos up a notch and to actually star in his own show on cable T.V – he’ll settle “either for The Food Network, Cooking Channel, or Travel Channel.” While he’s very much the one man act with the Pan Asian – he’d love to get the backing of a reputable studio. “I do everything myself – write, produce, shoot, edit – in my very own kitchen. I also use just a tiny Flip camera. Can you imagine if I had a real budget and a crew to help out? I could produce some top notch TV.” Skiz has filmed around 30 episodes over the two years since he began and the series now boasts a modest fanbase – the episode on chicken curry, his most popular, has over 14,000 hits. The demand for spicy food aside, Skiz thinks that American T.V with its all-white host of celebrity chefs could use “some colour in the mix.”

In the meantime, he’s intent on leveraging the full might of each of his platforms: “I’ve set everything up to cross-promote everything else. For example, the book will promote the website, and the website will promote the curry powder, etc. etc. I’ve united all my interests into this food thing and hopefully something will come out of it because up to now I’ve put everything I’ve got into it and have been operating out of pure love,” he says, keeping his fingers crossed.

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I originally started making my own curry powder just for fun. As someone who’s always been interested in spices, it was a way to recreate the flavors I’ve known since childhood when my mother used to make rice and curry. Then I started to get really positive feedback from family, and then friends about my spice blends (Sri Lankans use a roasted blend for meat and fish curries and raw blend for vegetables). Why not package it and sell it, I thought.

Now with my cookbook released, this is the perfect opportunity to take advantage of my pre-made spice blends, which are hand-crafted in small batches, salt-free, and gluten-free, and sold through two online gourmet food sites:

www.foodzie.com

www.foodoro.com

Since most of the recipes in the book use these blends, my spices will save you a lot of time when you actually get down to cooking some rice and curry in your very own kitchen.

Maryland Public TV got a whiff of my curry powder at a local store where I sell it. They contacted me soon afterwards to do a small piece about it in their show “Your Money And Business.” My segment starts at around 19:40.

http://video.mpt.tv/video/2172993846

 

Skiz's Original, available online at Foodoro.com or Foodzie.com

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Beneath the awning of Old Mandarin Islamic

 

I had not been to San Francisco since the first annual FoodBuzz convention in November 2009, and I was ready to get my grub on. Thanks to all the food TV these days, I had in my mind an image of a place that seemed eerily familiar–an Asian restaurant, off the beaten path, with some very spicy and delicious dishes. Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern or one of those TV hosts had eaten there, and it looked to be right up my alley. My friend Gabe and his Chinese-American wife Kelly had already chosen a spot for our dinner that night, and as we rolled up to it from dark, nearly deserted surroundings, I could see that this was the place I had pictured in my mind’s eye: “Islamic Old Mandarin,” as its lighted sign proclaimed in English sandwiched between Mandarin and Arabic characters. If there was any place I wanted to eat at tonight, this was the one. I just smiled at my hosts and said, “Great minds think alike.”

Inside the well-lit interior, there were only a few tables. At a large round one, a group of elderly Chinese men shared a Beijing Style hot pot–one similar to what I had just had in Sri Lanka at Juchunyaun Restaurant. Thinly sliced meats and plates of veggies and noodles, which were meant to be cooked in soup broth in the punch-bowl shaped object in the center of the table, gave their meal the air of a real feast.  A couple of Chinese girls picked at some stir-fry dishes at another table. The smells were, of course, tremendous, and my  mouth was already watering before I even opened the menu.

 

I must say, I have never seen so much lamb on a Chinese menu, and this must have been the Islamic influence. We ended up getting the stir fried lamb with scallion as well as the boiled lamb with preserved vegetables in a warm pot. We also ordered  an onion pancake, the egg plant in spicy garlic sauce, and one of the chef’s specials, a dish that definitely had my interest piqued, the “extremely hot pepper.”

 

for starters: a scallion pancake and boiled lamb w/ preserved vegetables in warm pot

 

stir-fried lamb with scallion

Chef's Special: "Extremely Hot Peppers"

Eggplant in spicy garlic sauce

 

I have not eaten such tasty and flavorful Chinese food in a long time. From the first bite into the layered pancake, which was crunchy 0n the outside and moist within, this was a meal to savor and remember. The lamb warm pot was rich and soothing, and the preserved vegetables gave it a nice sour flavor–almost like sauerkraut. The tender slices of lamb in the lamb with scallions dish practically melted in my mouth, as did the eggplant. And the extremely hot pepper, a dish of different kinds of chilies, chopped up and stir-fried with pieces of egg and slivers of chicken, certainly lived up to its name. As spicy as it was, however, it had a depth of flavor that you do not find in dishes that are meant to scorch your mouth. I think it was the addition of the sichuan peppercorns, which slowly numb your mouth to the capsiacin (i.e. active ingredient) in the peppers, and which also allows you to eat more of the dish. Washed down with a cold Tsing Tao beer, this was a perfect first meal for San Francisco.

 

the aftermath

Gabe checks out the next table

Gabe and Kelly, who live in the predominantly Asian enclave of Innersunset, pointed out a lot of great places to eat as we drove to Old Mandarin. But Old Mandarin itself has a pretty extensive menu as well, so there will be plenty of new dishes to try the next time around. And there definitely will be a next time!

 

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The author with Tiyo, manager of Burma Superstar Oakland

While California grows much of the produce we consume in the U.S., the Bay Area (i.e. Oakland, San Francisco) in particular is a food mecca. What might be considered trendy elsewhere–terms like, ‘organic,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘seasonal’–is really taken to heart here because people take their eating very seriously. Due to a dearth of Sri Lankan restaurants on the left coast, I knew I had to represent fully–especially in the Bay–so I planned two events here, a book party and a Sri Lankan supper club.

The book party was held at my new favorite restaurant in Oakland–Burma Superstar. I would never have heard of the place if not for my friend Gigi in New York, whose sister Tiyo is manager of the Superstar franchise. I believe they have 3 locations in SF proper, one in Oakland and, one in Alameda. When I was discussing plans for my book party with Tiyo, she advised me to have it at the Oakland location, their flagship restaurant. No problems there, for as many times as I’ve been out to SF, I never made it across the Bay Bridge to Oakland. At long last, here was my chance. After all, the way people in the Bay area explain it, Oakland is to SF as Brooklyn is to Manhattan. Being a long-time Brooklyn resident, I looked forward to checking out her sister city, long known for Raiders and Panthers. I was ready to leave my own mark on Oaktown with a little rice and curry.

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I did not make anything fancy for the book party–simply a selection of Sri Lankan “short-eats” or small bites including fish cutlets, turkey patties, and devilled pork. For one, I did not have much time to cook, and secondly, I did not want to eat too much of my food, so that I would be able to try some Burmese food after the party. Thanks goes out to Tiyo, who came and picked me up in San Francisco, took me to Oakland to shop for my ingredients, and then donned an apron and helped me all day in the kitchen. I have not cooked in too many commercial kitchens, and it was a pleasure to use the woks at Burma Superstar, where they have a lot of time-saving equipment such as a serious deep-fryer to cook the cutlets.

Tiyo in the kitchen of Burma Superstar, Oakland

It was an eclectic crowd–including a lot of musicians–that showed up to try some Sri Lankan food at a Burmese restaurant run by an Ethiopian. Call it true fusion, in every sense of the word–if ‘fusion’ applies to my music, then why shouldn’t it apply to food? Shouts out to Dub Gabriel, Sean Leonard, and Dan The Automator (producer of Dr. Octogon and Gorillaz). Also big up Tamara Palmer, a former music writer, who now writes about food.

The author gets crunk with Dan The Automator

Of course, the restaurant was in full blaze during the time of the book party making things feel even more festive. As soon as the event officially ‘ended’ at 8pm, myself and a party of 9 friends took over a long table in the corner to enjoy some amazing Burmese food. But that’s a whole different blog post (coming soon!).

*     *       *

Following a late night in Oakland, there was no rest for the weary as I had to make the move to Napa Valley to prepare for my next event–The Sonoma Sri Lankan Supper Club, hosted by my college buddy Graham and his lovely wife Sarah. Within the heart of wine country, Sonoma is known to be beautiful, but you just never know how beautiful until you see it yourself. My friend’s house overlooks the valley from a high hill, and so mesmerized was I by the view that I had to keep pinching myself to believe that it was real.

My buddy Graham's house, site of The Sonoma Sri Lankan Supper Club

Graham & Sarah Edwards with the author

I couldn’t have come up with a better place to host the Supper Club if I was a location scout, and after shopping for fresh produce and meats in the quaint town of Sonoma, I set about preparing for the huge feast I was about to throw down. I marinated the pork, for black pork curry, and also made the dessert, caramel pudding or flan, which needs several hours of refrigeration in order to set. The next day, I started on all the other dishes which included rice, dhal, shrimp varauval, tempered leeks, carrot curry, mallun, and a Sri Lankan salad.

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I started cooking at about 9:30 on the morning of the dinner and worked right through the day until the first guests started arriving about 7pm. By then, I was on my last dish, mallun, which is pretty quick to prepare. After serving the fish cutlets as an appetizer and delivering some introductory remarks to the crowd of about 20, I laid out the buffet and the guests filled up their plates with a meal that hardly anyone in the house had eaten before.

guests mingle at the Sonoma Sri Lankan Supper Club

the buffet line

enough wine was consumed that night in Sonoma

Graham had done his research pairing wines with the spicy Sri Lankan food, and I believe over 40 bottles of wine were consumed that evening. I got so many great comments about the food and people genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves. Of course, it wouldn’t be California without some of the guests heading outside for a late night dip in the hot tub. Not me, however. After being on my feet all day, I was ready for bed.

And, as if my west coast food odyssey was not over, my friends Dave & Holly Tambling took me out to a very special meal at The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, to cap a week of serious feasting!

Holly & Dave at French Laundry

Thanks to Graham & Sara, Dave & Holly, Gabe & Kelly, Sean, Tom, and Tiyo for making my west coast excursion a very  memorable one!

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