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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 120,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Rice & Curry Cover Final

Only one year ago I opened the New York Times to discover that my humble, little cookbook, Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking, had made that esteemed publication’s list of most notable cookbooks of the year. Such recognition came as icing on the cake, the culmination of a long journey for me as well as the realization of a life-long dream–to learn to cook the cuisine I grew up on and to introduce this food to the world. In the past year, I have done just that, hosting Sri Lankan Supper Clubs in New York, Baltimore, DC, Chicago, Sonoma, and San Francisco; conducting Sri Lankan cooking classes; participating in food seminars and events such as the recent CIA World’s of Flavor Conference in Napa; and spreading the gospel of curry with my own small-batch spice blends, Skiz’s Original. The book has also performed far above my expectations sales-wise, and is well into the second printing. If you haven’t copped your copy yet, it makes a perfect (and cheap) holiday gift, on sale at Amazon right now for only $13.57!!!

http://amzn.to/T112cC

Skiz's original logo

In order to help promote the book, I also started making my own blend of Sri Lankan roasted curry powder, which is essential to many of the recipes in the book (I also do a raw curry powder). Now Skiz’s Original Spice Blends has assumed a life of its own, and sells through word of mouth through the artisanal food site, Foodoro.com. In 2013, I hope to expand the reach of my curry powder and bring it to store shelves. Until then, you can still order it at the link below. (If you live outside the U.S. contact me directly at curryfiend@gmail.com so I can work out international shipping.)

http://bit.ly/IcFlmX

Coming from a media background (journalism, music, film, and TV), I am thankful to have had this opportunity to make a small splash in the world of food, and I hope to continue to do so in the years to come. As someone who is inspired by a passion for what I do, my main aim is not for money, but to spread an appreciation not only for Sri Lankan food, but for the country as well. This land, after all, is where my parents were born, and though I am a hyphenated American, the eastern values that my parents instilled in me make me proud to claim the Sri Lankan part of my heritage. Though we are not Christians, my family here has come to celebrate Christmas, and we often give each other gifts that are hand-made in order to bypass the more crass and commercial aspects of the holiday. So in keeping with that spirit, I offer these things that I have made to all of you–my larger family who have followed me on this blog. And I wish you all a safe, pleasant and peaceful holiday season filled with happiness and cheer!

Packageshot_-_final

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The CIA World’s of Flavor was literally the best place to eat on planet Earth for those three days of the conference as premiere chefs from everywhere were cooking up a storm for the daily World marketplace, which is presented in the video. So I couldn’t leave you folks without some good ole food porn to get your stomach juices churning and your tongues suitably lubricated for that impending Thanksgiving feed! Enjoy!

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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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rice & curry in DC

This past Friday I had the pleasure of hosting another Sri Lankan Supper Club–this time in the nation’s capital at a fairly new space known as Montserrat House on 9th & U Streets (www. montserrathouse.com). Once again, those patrons who plunked down $50 for a full rice & curry meal with appetizers and dessert, went away, I believe, fully satisfied and with a much deeper appreciation of Sri Lankan food. It’s astounding that such a diverse metropolis as DC does not have a Sri Lankan restaurant–especially since there’s quite a few Sri Lankans in the DC/MD/VA area–so that would probably account for the dinner selling out pretty quickly. But aside from a handful of people familiar with the cuisine, few really knew what to expect, so I had to treat them to the typical kind of meal that we are accustomed to on the island. The menu, all of which comes from my book, Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking, was as follows:

Appetizers

fish cutlets

beef patties

masal vadai

Mains

Basmathi rice

black pork curry

fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry)

parippu (lentils stewed in coconut milk)

mallun (sauteed greens)

eggplant moju ( caramelized eggplant)

coconut sambol

Sri Lankan salad

pappadum

mango chutney

mixed pickle

Dessert

Wattalapam (coconut flan)

Since all of the main dishes in a rice & curry meal are served together, Sri Lankans don’t usually eat appetizers, so I used some popular street foods, usually eaten as snacks, to pique peoples’ appetites. Cutlets, patties, and vadai are also, ironically, the most labor intensive part of the menu. With the Montserrat’s deep fryer out of commission for the evening, we also had the fry both the cutlets and vadais in small batches on the stove top. That’s how I usually do it at home, so while more time consuming, it was no big deal in the end.

breading & frying the cutlets is very labor intensive…

…but well worth the effort!

beef patties, fresh out of the oven

Using a kitchen you’re not familiar with presents all kinds of challenges. For example,  I didn’t bother to check and see if an oven I was heating up some dishes in was working. I only found out minutes before we were to begin plating that the food was still cold. Once again, improvisation is key, as we quickly heated up stuff in saute pans on the stove top. Though it did delay the dinner service a little bit, no one complained and, in fact, everyone was very happy with their meal.

I usually like to document everything that I make at these dinners, but because we had to get the food out to the 50 customers in a hurry, I only had time to snap a few shots of the finished plates.

from left to right: pappadum, fish, pork, eggplant, dahl, greens, coconut sambol, and salad–served on a banana leaf as they do in Sri Lanka

I did, however,  manage to get some nice shots of the condiments, which people could help themselves to at the table.

the condiments: mango chutney and mixed pickle

some fresh green and red chilies–only for the brave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, of course, no meal would be complete without a decadent dessert. In Sri Lanka, the overwhelming choice is usually wattalapam, a flan made of coconut milk, eggs, and jaggery (palm sugar).

for dessert, coconut flan

I was able to mingle with guests after the dessert service, and the feedback I received from everyone made it well worth all the effort. I have to send a special shout to my servers, Greg & Gillian, and my sous chef for the evening, Wilma Consul, for all their help. Also shouts out to Eric and Elliot at Montserrat House for having a cool place and making this event possible.

me and sous chef Wilma

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parippu with spinach, basmathi rice, katta sambol, and mango chutney

No Sri Lankan meal would be complete without these high-protein legumes, also called dahl, which soak up the flavors of coconut milk, lemongrass and cinnamon. Smooth and creamy, they comprise a perfect protein when eaten with rice. You can vary the consistency of the lentils from thick as oatmeal to watery as soup, depending on how much water you add. You may also add some fresh greens like spinach to the pot at the end for a healthy, colorful variation.

Tempering is a typically Sri Lankan technique that involves infusing a dish with a burst of flavor right before serving. I have read that it comes from the Portuguese, but I see no evidence of this fact in Portuguese cuisine. When we temper the dahl, we add fried onions, curry leaves, some dried chilies and black mustard seeds (which are considered an anti-flatulent, and therefore perfect for legume dishes). I also like to add a about a teaspoon of raw curry powder, for some added taste. You may purchase both my raw and roasted Sri Lankan curry powder at www.foodoro.com.

 

The Recipe

1/2 lb. (225 g) red lentils

2 cups (500 ml) water

1/2 onion, chopped

2 to 3 green chilies, sliced

2 cloves garlic, sliced

1-inch (2.5 cm) piece pandanus (optional)

1-inch (2.5 cm) stalk lemongrass

1-inch (2.5 cm) stick cinnamon

1 cardamom pod

1 clove

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 cup (125 ml) coconut milk

salt to taste

tempering: 2 tablespoons oil

1/2 onion, sliced

1 sprig curry leaves

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

2 whole dry red chilies

1.)  Wash and drain lentils (removing any stones or chaff).

2.)  Bring water to boil in a medium-sized pot. Add lentils, onion, green chilies, garlic, pandanus, lemon grass, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and turmeric. Cover and simmer until lentils are soft (about 20 minutes).

3.) Add coconut milk and salt. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

4.) In another pan, heat oil. Sauté onions and curry leaves until onions are translucent. Add mustard seeds and dry chilies. Fry until mustard seeds start to pop. Pour over lentils and mix well.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

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Skiz’s Original Sri Lankan Roasted Curry Powder available at Foodoro.com

Once upon a time in America, going off the eaten path meant Chinese food—that is, if you were lucky enough to have a Chinese restaurant near you. Today, according to the trade publication, Chinese Restaurant News, Chinese restaurants outnumber McDonald’s franchises by nearly 3 to 1. This news hardly comes as a surprise when you factor in all of the hole-in-the-wall, wok-and-roll, take-out joints that have become part of this country’s urban fabric. Now that chop suey and General Tso’s chicken have become as assimilated as pizza, and as ubiquitous as the golden arches, people seeking something new are delving deeper into Asia—and loving it.

In their Market Intelligence Report: Asian, food industry research and consulting firm Technomic says that, “Asian cuisine is one of the ‘big three’ ethnic cuisines, along with Mexican and Italian.” The American palate has moved beyond Chinese food to embrace Thai, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese and Korean flavors. The report further states that,The number of Asian concepts is growing in both limited service and full service, and chains large and small are seeing annual sales and unit counts rise.” Meanwhile, a large banner at last years’ Summer Fancy Food Show in DC proclaimed, “Importers identify Mediterranean and Indian as the most influential emerging cuisines.” These so-called trends did not occur overnight, but have been building for years.

What’s behind the interest in Asian flavors? Credit the Internet, which makes it possible to access any cuisine or recipe at a key-click, as well as 24-hour cable outlets like Food Network, The Cooking Channel, and Travel Channel for creating a more educated consumer. National supermarket chains such as Whole Foods are also making hard to find ingredients like fresh curry leaves, coconut milk, lemon grass, and all manner of chilies, handy. Last but not least, successive waves of Asian immigrants, cuisines in tow, are stirring up the melting pot with new flavors.

Take my own case in point: A second-generation Sri Lankan immigrant, I grew up eating  “rice and curry,” as the cuisine of the island is known. I watched intently as my mother used to buy all the raw spices—coriander, cumin, fennel, etc.–as well as fresh curry leaves from a local Indian shop, and grind her own curry powder in order to make our meals. As food represents an important connection to one’s culture, I wanted to learn how to make these dishes myself, so I returned to Sri Lanka for a year and studied Sri Lankan food from the spices on up. Upon returning stateside, I published Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking (Hippocrene Books, 2011), which The New York Times recognized as notable cookbook.

As I’m no celebrity chef, or even someone with culinary credentials, I probably would never have even secured a book deal in the first place without prevailing attitudes towards food—especially the ascendant culture of cooking. American cooks are becoming more adventurous in their outlook and sophisticated in their tastes. People also want to eat healthy, and are more conscious about where their food is sourced. Throw in the pervading economic slump, which is making eating in popular again, and you have a recipe for the success of Asian food. Despite the regional diversity, the cuisines of the sub-continent fulfill all the criteria that people want—they are simple, cheap, delicious, and beneficial.

It’s no coincidence that the theme of this years’ Culinary Institute of America’s 15th Annual Worlds of Flavor Conference and Festival is “Arc of Flavor: Re-imagining Culinary Exchange, From The Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia.” Chefs and culinary professionals from all over the world will participate, exchanging ingredients, techniques, and ideas. Although Pan Asian as a concept became played out, one cannot help but ponder the possibilities of a world fusion cuisine. Whatever the case, it sure is an exciting time to be cooking—and eating.

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La Canta Rana -- currently undergoing renovations

When traveling, it is sometimes advisable to go by the guidebook and follow other peoples’ recommendations, while at other times, it is best to throw the book out the window, and follow your own instincts. I much prefer the latter because it gives you a sense of discovery and makes you feel like a true traveler as opposed to just a tourist. And believe me, there’s a great chasm between the two. A tourist goes places to take pictures of himself/herself in front of the popular sites; buy souvenirs; and get a tan, generally playing it pretty safe, and not straying to far from the herd of other tourists.  A gastronaut like myself, however, is always open to try something new; prefers street food over fine dining; and loves to go off the eaten path in search of his next meal.

Lima is a great city to explore, and after spending a couple of days getting oriented in the ritzy neighborhood of Miraflores, I decided to try out the more liveable, downtempo area known as Barranco. It reminded me Brooklyn, my home for 11 years, and I decided that if I ever moved to Lima, this would be the place. An eclectic mix of casual eateries, mom and pop shops, and run-down casonas (mansions),the neighborhood had a decidedly laid-back appeal, and a plethora of street art. I knew some good eating lay around the way.

Street art in Barranco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since the Lonely Planet Guide only listed 3 restaurants for Barranco–2 of which were on the pricey side–we decided to go for the cheap option, La Canta Rana. “An unpretentious place that packs in the locals…” was all the description I needed, as the book said to look out for the green walls. Unfortunately, when we rolled up to the spot and peeked inside, the dust and scaffolding told us that the place was clearly not open for business. Luckily a man inside said that their sister restaurant was open just a few blocks away. He gestured this way and that, and we vaguely set off in the direction to which he had pointed. We soon stumbled into a small covered mercado with various little stalls, some serving food.  There was some nice chicken and rice going on at one spot, but the place that hooked me was serving huge plates of ceviche. I was almost going to suggest we give up our search and eat here as I reflexively took a seat and snagged a menu. When I saw the words, “La Canta Ranita,” however, I knew we had arrived.

a seafood broth (with a little surprise at the bottom) for starters

No sooner had we sat down, when a kid brought us a complimentary mug of soup–a basic, but delicious seafood broth, with a mussel tucked away at the bottom. I checked out the menu of some 20 offerings–mostly seafood, of course–and ordered the grilled pulpo (octopus). My friend Sue ordered something called Causa de Pescado arrebozado, which the table next door was having.  Despite our humble surroundings, what we got was worthy of a fine-dining establishment.

causa de pescado arrebozado

The Causa was actually pieces of fried fish atop a “pillow” of mashed sweet potato and avocado, all topped with a mayonnaise and tomato relish. Super good! And I loved the vertical presentation. Then, my octopus arrived–three long tentacles smothered in an aji (chili) sauce. Wow! This dish is tailor-made for me, I was thinking as I carved off a bite of tender tentacle, smoky from the grill.

pulpo a la parrilla

washed down with a cold one!

the kitchen at La Canta Ranita

Later that night, we decided to try another one of the book’s picks–this one a more upscale place called Chala. On an interesting ‘street’ (if  you could call it that), Bajada  de Banos, Chala served novoandina cusine, the nouvelle cuisine of Peru, and its prices reflected that. Luckily we arrived some 45 minutes before the restaurant opened, so we had the opportunity to check out the surrounding area, which we soon learned was chock full of interesting eateries. There seemed to be a lot of competition for customers, too, as restaurant hosts, approached us, menues in hand, trying to get us to have a seat inside their place. One place in particular caught my eye because of their colorful, mouth-watering menu, and the low prices of the food. They also offered us a free pisco sour as a pre-dinner cocktail, so who was I to argue? We took a seat overlooking the ocean at the homey Toto’s Restaurant.

Toto's restaurant, Barranco

There was one item on the menu that seemed to good to be true–especially at the low low price of 20 soles (about US $8)– so I had to ask them again about it, and this was the Specialty of the House, a seafood stew featuring crab, fish, octopus, squid, mussels, scallops,  and shrimp. It was indeed available, and though I expected it to look nothing like the picture on the menu, I ordered it anyway. When it arrived, to my surprise, it looked even better.

The Specialty of the House at Toto's ....before....

...and after

All of the seafood I mentioned before arrived swimming in a broth made of tomato and clam juice, and topped with chopped cilantro. There were even a couple long slices of yuca for good measure. I had just eaten a dish very similar in San Francisco, the famous cioppino, but Toto’s special blew it away on all counts.  The fact that I had practically stumbled into this place made it all the more satisfying because it really felt like a discovery worth telling others about.

return to La Canta Ranita

Just to make sure the whole day wasn’t a dream, we revisited La Canta Ranita and Toto’s the next day as well.  For lunch, my friend Susan had the Arroz con mariscos, a kind of Peruvian seafood paella, topped with a healthy dose of parmesano cheese.  I went for the Pescado frito con langostinos al ajillo, fried fish topped with shrimp in a chili sauce. Both dishes were fantastic and under 20 soles each.

Arroz con mariscos

pescado frito con langostinos al ajillo

For dinner that night at Toto’s we both went for traditional dishes. Susan had the Aji de Galina, chicken cooked in a thick walnut and cream sauce. I ate the Seco de cabrito con frijoles, stewed baby goat with white beans and rice.  While it would have been tough to top my previous nights’ meal, the baby goat was super tender and not gamey in the least, and the beans sang with a hint of cumin. Susan’s chicken was very rich, but tasty as well. All in all, second time around, we could not go wrong, and we didn’t

Aji de Galina

Seco de cabrito con frijoles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The author with NBC News4 Host Barbara Harrison

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being on the NBC midday news in Washington D.C. for a cooking demonstration on what else but  chicken curry, one of my favorite Sri Lankan dishes. Thanks to my long-running cooking show on Youtube, Pan Asian , I’m very comfortable with cooking in front of a camera. No matter that I had to bring in everything that was necessary for the dish’s preparation (including a portable butane burner) or work on a very low table, but the one thing that totally threw me for a loop was the time limit. When they originally told me that the whole segment would last four minutes, I thought that was plenty of time to at least get the chicken started before finally pulling out the already prepared dish for the host to taste. But four minutes in TV time, might as well have been four seconds! The host, Barbara Harrison, chewed up much of that time reading the recipe’s ingredients, so when it cut back to me, I had to work quickly. In addition, there was just the slightest bit of pressure as she kept on asking me if it was time to add the chicken in the pot. When I finally did, I forgot to put in the curry leaves (not to mention the water, coconut milk, salt, and tomato paste, which come later anway)! No big deal in the end, however, as she liked the dish, and gave my book a nice plug. But it’s amazing how a good day’s worth of prep went into making that four minutes of TV happen.

I should also add that it was a great experience simply to see the newscast and weather report from inside the studio. The atmosphere was remarkably calm with surprisingly hardly any people around. Even the three huge cameras were remote controlled.  No wonder unemployment is so high at the moment.

You can check out my cooking demo at the following link:

http://www.nbcwashington.com/video/#!/on-air/as-seen-on/Cooking-Lesson–Chicken-Curry/137114833

But to see how this recipe is really made, please use this:

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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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