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Lunch is served at my Uncle Wilson's place in Kandy

Lunch is served at my Uncle Wilson’s place in Kandy

Despite Sri Lanka’s compact size (roughly about the area of West Virginia), there are definite regional variations in its cuisine. The food from the south is said to be spicier and more fish-based, as is exemplified by one of my favorite dishes from that region, fish ambul thiyal; whereas Tamil cuisine from the northern city of Jaffna  tends towards using a lot of tomato and tamarind as the basis for their spicy curries. Upcountry cooking, on the other hand, focuses largely on the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables that grow in this mountainous central region of the country; while coastal cooking relies heavily on the use of the ubiquitous coconut.

Located in the central highlands, Kandy was the last Sinhala holdout against British colonial rule. As the seat of Sri Lankan kings and the site of one of Buddhism’s most important shrines, the Dalida Mahligawa (or Temple of The Tooth), which supposedly holds one of Lord Buddha’s teeth, Kandyans are proud of their heritage, and equally as proud of their cuisine, which is largely vegetarian. It’s probably got as much to do with what’s available in the proximity as much as an adherence to Buddhist doctrine, which eschews meat.

Some of the vegetables from my uncle's garden

Some of the vegetables from my uncle’s garden

At his modest house overlooking the migthy Mahavelli River in Kandy, my Uncle Wilson has always taken great pride in his garden, which is flush with all kinds of produce. Mango, papaw and king coconut trees share space with spiky green jackfruit, pumpkin, and plantains. Greens such as gotu kola and koakka grow in the backyard. Under the ground, he’s got tubers like manioc and sweet potatoes growing. He even used to have a paddy field in his front yard until he gave up the land so that one of his sons could build a house there.

King Coconut growing in Uncle Wilson's yard

King Coconut growing in Uncle Wilson’s yard

His garden, in fact, is almost a microcosm of these central highlands, well-known as the center of tea production in the country, but a veritable Garden of Eden as well. I took a trip to the central Kandy market to get a better idea of this region and all it has to offer.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Uncle Wilson’s cooks Kumari and Saroja were busy preparing lunch, which proved to be a veritable vegetarian feast including such dishes as red rice, white rice, jackfruit curry (kos), boiled manioc (battala), coconut sambol, dry fish curry (karola), banana blossom curry (keselmuwa), young jackfruit curry (polos), and egglant (ela batu). Most of the produce came straight from the garden, and anything that didn’t was from close by. Lunch was symphony of different tastes and textures, and even though I’m no vegetarian, I would have no qualms about eating food like that everyday.

a righteous spread!

a righteous spread!

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For all the fuss about restaurants, everyone knows the best meal you can ever eat is at someone’s home—especially if that someone is Leela. If you’ve ever checked out my blog before, or saw the Sri Lanka episode of No Reservations, you’ll be familiar with this diminutive lady, who was my Aunty Dora’s cook for 40-some years. Practically every middle class family in Sri Lanka has a “Leela,” who cooks and cleans, and helps raise the children of the household on her way to becoming an actual member of the family.

Leela whips up a pot of her signature dish

Leela whips up a pot of her signature dish

When Leela retired after so many years of faithful service, my aunt and cousin Sam and his children (who are now grown up themselves), took it upon themselves to look after her. This usually involves frequent visits to Leela’s village outside the town of Chilaw, bringing her provisions and money. In keeping with the unwritten rules of Sri Lankan hospitality, Leela and her nieces, who live with her on a small plot of land where they grow everything they need to survive, make lunch.

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My favorite dish of Leela’s is her crab curry, which also happens to be a regional specialty in Chilaw, known for its large lagoon crabs.  Though I recreated the recipe in my book, Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking (Hippocrene Books, 2011), there’s nothing like having Leela herself make it, and this is exactly what she did on a recent trip to visit her. Being a good Buddhist Leela will not kill live crabs, so we brought some sea crabs from the fish market in Colombo. Sea crabs are usually sold dead, but you have to eat them immediately, so we packed them on ice and drove up to Chilaw so Leela and her nieces could prepare them in the traditional manner. They also put up a whole spread of other tasty dishes—just like they did when I brought Tony Bourdain here, and he proclaimed it his best meal in Sri Lanka.

Leela with Tony B.

Leela with Tony B.

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cleaning the crabs

cleaning the crabs

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Leela cooks with her nieces

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Leela with her nieces and grand niece

Leela with her nieces and grand niece

 

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Whenever I’m in Colombo, a city I’ve eaten my way around quite often, I’m always eager to go off the eaten path and discover a place that I’ve never dined at before. A special favorite of mine is Jaffna food, the spicy Tamil cuisine of the northern part of the island, and when in search of a new spot, it’s wise to take a well-informed guide like my friend, filmmaker T. Arjuna, who has a nose that knows since he himself hails from Jaffna. We meet at my Aunt’s place in Slave Island on a stiflingly hot day, and after downing a cold beer and making a few phone calls, Arjuna has just the spot in mind in nearby Wellawatte, a predominantly Tamil enclave in Colombo. He’s never eaten at Nalapaham Restaurant located just off the Galle Road on E.S Fernando Mawatha, so we are both in for a surprise.

fried fish

fried fish

What I’ve learned about the differences between ordinary rice and curry and Jaffna cuisine comes down to subtleties in spicing and flavoring. Jaffna curries tend to use more tamarind and tomato as their base, but there are also just as many “frys” or dry curries without gravy. Seafood and mutton are the main proteins, but plenty of vegetables make it to the table as well. Of course the use of chilies is abundant, which makes this particular regional cuisine among my favorites.

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Arriving just short of noon, we are the first customers in Nalapaham, and I’m immediately impressed with the cleanliness of the place. This is clearly not your ordinary “hole-in-the-wall.” A large menu in English dominates an entire wall, and they are just bringing out all of the days dishes onto the steam table.

They’ve got nandu (crab) curry; iral pooriyal (dry fry prawns); kanawa pooriyal (cuttlefish dry fry); varutha koli (dry fry chicken); attuirachi (mutton) curry; jillameen (fish) curry; and fried fish. They also offer a whole host of vegetables including katharika kootu (eggplant tamarind curry); gotu kola salad; pineapple/cucumber/onion salad; dhal, long beans, and wing beans. We order one of everything except the crabs (since I had been ODing on crabs this trip). Served first, the rice, dhal, and vegetables are all-you-can- eat. But pretty soon our table is covered with a colorful, mouth-watering palette of different dishes, and we dig in—using out fingers, or course.

my lunch plate

my lunch plate

After filling my plate with a bit of everything—Sri Lankan style—I douse my mound of red rice with a few spoonfuls of the crab gravy, which is one of the spicier things we ordered. I dive right into the curries and pretty soon my lips are pleasantly on fire. This is how Jaffna food is supposed to taste! The dry curries—prawns and chicken—remind me of a spicy stir-fry with sliced capsicums and onions. The mutton curry has a proper gravy, thickened by coconut milk, and the tender eggplant has the tangy taste of tamarind. I eat the fried fish, which has been marinated in spices, bones and all, since it is so crispy good. Everything has a little bite to it–even the gotu kola salad, which is laced with slices of fresh green chilies. Following the meal, we sip a cup of the traditional rasam, which is a digestive made of ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, black pepper and some other spices I can’t quite identify. But good to last drop! The meal was amazing save for the cuttlefish, which was a little overcooked and rubbery. When I got the bill, however, I couldn’t be mad: 1430 rupees, which comes to about US $11.34 or $3.78 per person since Arjuna’s driver also joined us. For its fast, friendly service; cleanliness; cheap prices, and excellent eats, Nalapaham proved to be a great find, and a definite keeper.

dry fry prawns and chicken(w/ the pineapple salad in the background)

dry fry prawns and chicken
(w/ the pineapple salad in the background)

cuttlefish dry fry with papadum and fried sardines

cuttlefish dry fry with papadum and fried sardines

mutton (goat) curry

mutton (goat) curry

fish curry

fish curry

brinjal (eggplant) curry

brinjal (eggplant) curry

Washed down with a cup of spicy rasam

Washed down with a cup of spicy rasam

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I recently had the pleasure of visiting the picturesque Napa Valley for the CIA’s 15th Annual World’s of Flavor Conference. No, I’m not a spy, and I’m not talking about that CIA, but rather The Culinary Institute of America, one of the country’s most well regarded cooking schools. Each year they assemble top chefs and culinary professionals from around the world at their beautiful campus in St. Helena, CA for a summit on food without parallel. This year’s theme was “Arc of Flavor: Re-imagining culinary exchange from the Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia.”

The teaching kitchens at CIA

It was no small honor to attend the conference, and to represent Sri Lankan food for the very first time here, joined by my esteemed colleague, Chef Koluu, who traveled all the way from Colombo for the event.  Koluu was extremely helpful when I went to Sri Lanka to research my cookbook, and I made sure he was featured when I returned to shoot No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. As one of Sri Lanka’s most well-known and respected chefs, his attendance at the conference was a must.

 

Chef Koluu outside CIA Greystone, St. Helena, CA

Having just barely escaped the east coast and the wrath of Hurricane Sandy, I arrived in the Bay Area at night, so it was not until morning that I got a good look at the CIA itself. Occupying the former hilltop mansion of The Christian Brothers’ winery and overlooking acres of quaint vineyards, the school’s substantial facilities cut quite an impressive sight. The third floor teaching kitchens alone occupy a space about half the size of a football field, filled with every modern convenience you can imagine. What a joy it must be going to school in such an environment, much less cooking there for three days. This massive kitchen is where all the action was happening as chefs from across the arc of flavor prepared countless dishes for the various seminars, demo sessions, lunch, and, of course, the formidable World Marketplace, probably the best food court going on planet earth.

It was encouraging and inspiring to see so many foreign chefs interacting with CIA staff and students, and introducing so many new ingredients and techniques. Koluu made his famous pork kalupol or “black” pork curry, fish ambul thiyal, and crab curry, along with other Sri Lankan specialties like hoppers, sambol, and coconut roti. Like the other chefs, we had a whole crew of students working with us–none of whom had ever even tried Sri Lankan food before. But they picked things up very quickly as they took care of most of the prep. For everyone involved, however, the opening day proved to be an exchange of cultures, ingredients, ideas, and good vibes.

 

 

baby back ribs

 

 

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Dub Gabe gets busy in the SF Bay

Having just returned from a very enjoyable trip to the West Coast—specifically the Bay Area—my belly is plumper, my face more tan, and I have a noticeable smile on my face—probably due to all the good food I ate. Though I need no excuse to visit SF and its environs, The CIA (as in Culinary Institute of America) brought me out this time to speak at their 15th World’s of Flavor Conference, where I presented Sri Lankan food along with Colombo’s own Chef Koluu. I also hosted my first Sri Lankan Supper Club in in the city, and even found time to check out some amazing Asian spots in my new favorite dining district, Inner Sunset. I did not have a bad meal during my entire trip, but if I had to single out the most memorable one, I would have to say it was Bay crabs steamed in Old Bay.

nets and some simple bait, like chicken parts, are all you need

Now, being a Baltimore cat, I’ve had steamed crabs more times than I can count, but what made this meal indelibly imprinted in my mind was the fact that we caught these crabs ourselves—a first for me. My buddy Gabe, who lives in SF, has been taking advantage of his town’s proximity to nature and recently bought some crabbing nets. Gabe, like myself, is a serious DIY guy, who loves to eat, and having sampled his simple but divine crab bisque on my first night visiting, I had to have him take me to the source.

And that’s exactly what we did. On election day, which was a balmy 80 degrees in the Bay Area, we spent most of the afternoon on a little pier overlooking the iconic Golden Gate, tossing in crab nets, sipping brews, and waiting for the nets to fill up with delicious crustaceans. There are three kinds of crab in the San Francisco Bay—rock crabs, red crabs, and the popular Dungeness, which you are actually not allowed to catch in the Bay, but rather only in the Ocean. We actually trapped quite a few of these beauties, but had to throw them back in along with the red crabs that are less than 4 inches wide.

But crabbing is hella fun! All it takes are some nets, some bait, and a little patience as you wait about 10 minutes before hauling in your catch. It’s a bit like playing the slots—you never know what you’re going to get (or if you’ll get anything at all). And the whole concept of catching your own food, puts a whole new spin on dinner. It just tastes that much better because of all the effort you put into it, and the excitement of pulling in a load of keepers is even better than winning at slots.

Gabe  himself  cuts quite a character. He makes his own bread, his own pickles, and even his own kombucha. He also makes his own music, and that is, in fact, how I know him. Dub Gabriel, as he is known worldwide and outernational, was into dub music long before the hype, and he will be doing it long after everyone else has gone on to greener pastures. In fact, he is just getting another album ready as we speak, and you have a chance to support him in these efforts by following the link below and making a donation to his Kickstarter campaign, which has only a few days left.

http://kck.st/RS7K3p

Help Gabe reach his goal before time runs out!

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The Best Sri Lankan Restaurants in Toronto

by Pira Pathmanathan

Sri Lankan restaurants Toronto

The best Sri Lankan restaurants in Toronto are often overshadowed by those serving up food from its neighbor to the north. But as good as Indian food is in Toronto, cuisine from this beautiful island nation shouldn’t be missed. In its most traditional form, Sri Lankan food brings to mind a plate of rice served with several curries served on a banana leaf. Popular dishes include string hoppers, roti, pittu, and appum. Kothu roti–a seasoned blend of thinly sliced roti served with chicken, mutton or vegetables–can be nothing short of life-altering if prepared right.

With its large Sri Lankan community, Scarborough is home to the greatest concentration of Sri Lankan restaurants in Toronto although it is possible to find the cuisine in Cabbagetown and other areas of the city.

Here are the best Sri Lankan restaurants in Toronto.

 

Babu Catering

Babu Catering

You can’t talk about Sri Lankan food without bringing up this Toronto gem. Established two decades ago, Babu now has locations in both Scarborough and Markham. With a wide array of tasty Sri Lankan fare, lineups tend to be perpetually long but the efficient staff ensures swift service. Be sure to pick up some patties and sweets from their bakery section too.MORE »

Hopper Hut

Hopper Hut

Located at Kennedy and Ellesmere, Hopper Hut is a go-to for Sri Lankan Torontonians. Their kothu roti is something to write home about and for a special dessert treat, try their appam, a crepe-like dish with a soft, sweet centre made from coconut milk. For an incredibly cost-effective meal, simply pick up a heaping box of string hoppers served with spicy sambul for about five bucks. Don’t forget to also order a few delicious samosa and crunchy vadais. Unlike many other pickup counter-style Sri Lankan restaurants, Hopper Hut has a seating area. MORE »

Rashnaa

Rashnaa

Found in Cabbagetown, Rashnaa feels slightly more formal than most spots on this list. With many entrees listed under $10, Rashnaa offers an inexpensive entry to the world of Sri Lankan eats for those wanting to dine south of Eglinton. Be sure to order the masala thosai, a popular Sri Lankan dish (similar to South India’s masala dosa) consisting of a lentil rice and wheat flour crepe filled with potato curry. Rashnaa also offers take-out and delivery. MORE »

Gasa

Gasa

Known for its spicy kothu roti, Gasa is another east Toronto mainstay for Sri Lankan cuisine. Gasa has two locations. One at Kennedy and Finch in Scarborough and the other on New Delhi Drive in Markham. Be sure to try their nandu (crab) curry but also be prepared to sweat! If you aren’t gunning for a spicy feast, ask the staff to recommend a few milder options. MORE »

Suvaiyakam

Suvaiyakam

Located at Birchmount and Finch, Suvaiyakam is another Sri Lankan takeout joint that offers the usual fare. Like many of its rivals, Suvaiyakam serves up a great variety of roti, string hoppers, curries, noodles, and short eats like mutton rolls, patties and the like. MORE »

Amma Take Out and Catering

Amma Take Out and Catering

Amma Take Out and Catering at Markham and Steeles is fairly new to the Sri Lankan scene but it has quickly gained a loyal following. Try their variety of lamprais or just some basic rice and curry. Amma also offers a variety of snacks including the ever-popular mutton roll. As the name suggests, be prepared to accept your food in a plastic bag. MORE »

Araliya Takeout and Catering

Araliya Takeout and Catering

Relatively new to the scene and located on Markham Road in the Woburn area of Scarborough, Araliya delivers with tasty Sri Lankan fare. Araliya has already established a following, with diners coming back for rice and spicy curries. MORE »

Abbirami Catering

Abbirami Catering

At Brimley and Eglinton, Abbirami is your best bet for lamprais, a traditional dish that consists of rice and various curries baked inside a banana leaf. For about $7, this dish can easily serve two. Be prepared to be adventurous as Abbirami lacks menus. Luckily, as with most Sri Lankan takeout counters, food is readily available in front of you so simply point to what you want to order. MORE »

Ceylon Flavor

Ceylon Flavor

Ceylon Flavor is not your typical Sri Lankan takeout-counter-style restaurant. Located at Markham and Steeles just a few steps from Amma, Ceylon Flavor is also relatively new and boasts a sleek design and comfortable seating area. They offer a large selection of vegetarian and meat dishes including mutton rolls and chicken curry. MORE »

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Pachamama, the fertility god of the indigenous people of the Andes

As I often judge a place by its street food, I was pleased to find Cusco with a vibrant tradition of the latter. In addition to anticucho, grilled beef heart on a stick served with a potato; and chicharrones, fried pork rinds, which surprisingly boasted a greater ratio of meat to fat; I also found hard-boiled quail eggs, choclo (giant corn on the cob) smothered with white cheese; chili rellenos (a chili stuffed inside a deep fried potato croquette ); baked sweet potatoes and plantains; and enough exotic fruit to keep me happy for days.

anticucho -- beefheart on a stick

chicharrones

choclo

chili rellenos

baked yams and plantains

soursop for sale on the street

fresh OJ vendor

Cusco’s central market also made a very favorable impression. This “Walmart” of the Andes is a one-stop shopping mecca that stocks everything from souvenirs to staples, which make up most of the huge mercado’s front section. But the back half is entirely dedicated to food–most of it prepared right in front of you. Two whole rows of vendors special in chicken noodle soup and escabeche topped with chopped cilantro and a spicy salsa picante. Other vendors specialize in lomo saltado, fried fish, beef ribs, ceviche, and more. You know everything is super fresh because the stalls selling meat and fish are right next door to all of these cheap eateries.

Nothing like some chicken noodle soup!

salsa picante

escabeche

beef ribs

The market is pulsing with the sights, sounds, and smells of Andean Peru. Piles of vibrant textiles next to stacks of fruit, wheels of cheese, and the wafting aromas of dozens of food stalls serving lunch. Pork products occupy their own special aisle within the market, and Peruvians obviously go for the whole hog.

After a huge feed, you can relax with a cup of herba mate tea right outside the market. I also discovered a great cold drink called chicha morada, which is made from black corn. It’s sweet, hard to place taste lies somewhere between licorice and cinnamon, while it’s fermented cousin, chicha, made of regular corn, is known to pack quite a wallop.

herbe mate vendor

chicha & chicha morado

black corn, the raw material of chicha morada

Speaking of drinks, I was not about to leave Peru without trying  their home-grown liquor, pisco, a type of grape brandy. The drink of choice, a pisco sour made with lime juice, sugar, and topped with a foam of egg whites, is certainly potent, but also very tasty, and it reminded me of one of my favorite cocktails, the Caipirinha ( a brazilian drink made from sugar cane liquor).

The potent Pisco Sour

I feel like I got a good taste of Peru on my 10 day excursion, but I also feel like there’s much more to see and do here. As different as Lima and Cusco are to one another, I’m sure there are other corners of the country that are just as unique. I liked pretty much everything I tried except for one thing: coca leaves. In Cusco, especially, all the locals chew the leaf (or drink it in tea), from which the drug cocaine is distilled, as a means to deal with the effects of the high altitude. While the strong bitterness of the leaf is obviously an acquired taste, I would never have known that it actually does help with the altitude had I not tried it. I also credit it  for giving me the energy to climb Machu Picchu in just under an hour.

coca leaves

High plains drifter

 

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