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If there’s something I love more than cooking Sri Lankan food, it’s showing other people how easy it is to  make at home. So, once again, I am returning to the Hill Center in DC’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, to demonstrate how it’s done. The three-hour class is hand-on and immersive, and afterwards I guarantee you will feel confident in your knowledge of the spices and special techniques that Sri Lankans use to turn simple ingredients into amazingly tasty dishes.

If you’ve taken some of my previous classes, we have a whole new menu this time including: chicken curry, dal (lentils), coconut roti (flatbread), and the ever-popular eggplant curry.

Seats are limited, so please reserve a place early. You can sign up here: http://hillcenterdc.org/home/programs/2255

 

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South Indian cuisine has a reputation for being some of spiciest, most flavorful food around. A lot of times, however, people mistakenly believe it is strictly vegetarian. Not so for Chettinad cuisine, which is the food of the Chettiars, a group of Tamils in southern India who do eat certain meats (i.e. mutton, chicken) and seafood. I first tried Chettinad food at an Indian chain called Anjappar, which had a restaurant in Colombo, Sri Lanka (they also have a location in Manhattan). I found it to have some of the most complex flavors of any cuisine I have ever enjoyed. Even with my extensive knowledge of spices, I was a bit intimidated to try cooking this cuisine myself. But the best way to approach things like this is to dive right in, so I did, and the following is the result.

The Recipe

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

2 Tbsp. crushed garlic

2 Tsp. sliced fresh ginger

1 cup sliced onions or shallots

2 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. cayenne pepper powder

½ tsp. turmeric

14 oz. can diced tomatoes

2 tsp. tamarind juice

1 pound shrimp, shelled & deveined with tails intact

salt to taste

2-3 fresh green chilies, sliced

1 spring fresh curry leaves (for garnish)

 

spice blend: 6 dried whole red chilies

½ tsp. fennel seeds

½ tsp. cumin seeds

½ tsp. fenugreek seeds

½ tsp. black mustard seeds

 

  • Heat 1 Tbsp. of oil in a pan. Combine spice blend ingredients, and sauté until mustard seeds start to pop.
  • Add garlic and ginger to pan and sauté another minute. Add onions or shallots and sauté another 2 minutes.
  • Add remaining oil as well as coriander, cayenne, and turmeric, and stir to combine.
  • Stir in tomatoes, tamarind juice, and ¼ cup water, and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  • Add shrimp and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly until sauce thickens and shrimp are cooked. Add salt and fresh chilies, and stir for another minute.
  • For garnish, heat a little oil in another pan and fry curry leaves until crispy. Sprinkle over shrimp before serving.

 

Makes 3-4 servings.

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My goto spot for Sri Lankan products has long been the friendly, mom-and-pop operation called Spice Lanka located in a Derwood, MD strip mall. There isn’t a thing you can get in Sri Lanka that Spice Lanka does not carry–including hot and fresh “short-eats,” or traditional Sri Lankan snacks, as well as labor intensive foods such as string hoppers, which the store’s owners make in their kitchen in the back. I have tried unsuccessfully for years, to get Chandra Malalasekara and her husband to open a Sri Lankan restaurant, since they already do quite a bit of catering, but they have done the next best thing: started a weekend buffet.

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A selection of  Sri Lankan "short-eats" at Spice Lanka

A selection of Sri Lankan “short-eats” at Spice Lanka

The aroma of home greets you as you walk into the small shop. On the other side of the small counter in front, you can see a row of traditional clay pots, which Sri Lankans use to cook and serve their food. The clay pots help to both seal in the moisture and enhance the flavor. Spice Lanka does not skimp on the menu either, offering about 12 different dishes–various meat, fish, and vegetable curries–which comprise a trypical Sri Lankan “rice & curry” meal. The menu changes weekly depending on what is seasonal and available, but when I went there was pork, mutton, chicken, and fish curries; dal, beets, green beans; even a lotus root curry, which is a dish I thought I would only find in Sri Lanka. Everything is cooked by Chandra and her husband and tastes thoroughly authentic and delicious. I was even pleasantly surprised by the “burn” left in my mouth by the chilies. This is Sri Lankan food for Sri Lankans–not some watered down facsimile–all for $7.99/pound. I could see that this buffet was a big draw as well, as practically every customer in the store that day, most of whom happened to be Sri Lankan, were helping themselves.

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I’m actually a late-comer to the buffet, which has been running for about a year–and only on the weekends. But I’m also surprised that word of it has not really circulated beyond the Sri Lankan community–especially due to the dearth of Sri Lankan restaurants in the area. So I’m here to set the record straight. If you are looking for an authentic rice and curry experience at a reasonable price, you can do no better than Spice Lanka’s weekend buffet.

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Before the end of last year, I did my first Dinner Lab event in Baltimore–a Sri Lankan supper for 66 people. It was held in a cool warehouse space in a very industrial part of town that I had never visited. I’ve actually been so busy that I am posting the pictures only now.

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The menu was identical to my earlier Dinner Lab event in DC, but I was able to tweak it a little bit. I was aiming for an authentic menu that you might be served in anyone’s house in Sri Lanka with a bit of an upscale twist since diners were paying $65 for the pleasure. Because Sri Lankan food is not served in courses, however, I asked the diners to imagine that the first 4 courses came together–all on the same plate.

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Dinner Lab is an organization started in New Orleans that organizes pop-up dinners like this all over the country. Baltimore is a new market for them, and I was the first local chef to present his food to the hometown crowd, who I must say were very supportive and loved the meal.

The Washington Post did an article about the recent popularity of supper clubs, pop-ups, and other unique dining experiences, for which they interviewed me:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/dc-diners-going-off-menu-with-a-selection-of-unique-supper-clubs-and-dinner-locales/2014/12/04/da4e5c7c-48d9-11e4-891d-713f052086a0_story.html

 


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I’m kicking off the 5th season of Pan Asian, with a quick, easy and delicious dish I’ve enjoyed at restaurants as well as at home. It’s called Dak Gogi, or Korean BBQ chicken, and I’ve love how it’s eaten almost as much as the dish itself. Once you’ve made the chicken, you slice it up into thin strips; top it with a sprinkle of chopped scallions, toasted sesame seeds, and sliced red chilies; and then place it on a lettuce leaf, atop some rice. To eat, just fold it up like a taco, and insert it into your pie-hole. Each tasty bite is crispy and refreshing from the lettuce, and you get the nice sweet, savory, spicy, smoky taste of the BBQ chicken, which is so tender and moist. What more can you ask for from a simple meal? To kick it up a notch, you can use the Ssamjung sauce (recipe below), which usually accompanies this dish, but for most Western palates (myself included), the flavor of the fermented bean paste is an acquired taste. I prefer hitting the chicken with Sriracha instead, but honestly, I don’t think you’re going to need any additional flavor enhancement for this dish.

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The marinade is thick and rich, and filled with all those essential Asian flavors–soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and shallots. The addition of corn syrup–or in my case, honey–contributes the crucial sweet component, which also helps to caramelize the chicken as it grills. The secret to this dish is to marinate your meat for at least two hours,  and also to baste it regularly with the remaining marinade while grilling.

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The Recipe

2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 cups cooked rice

16 lettuce leaves (either Boston or romaine), washed & dried

¼ cup thinly sliced scallions (for garnish)

1 tsp roasted sesame seeds (for garnish)

2 Tbsp. thinly sliced fresh red chilies or big pinch of Korean chili threads (for garnish)

Ssamjang sauce (optional)

Marinade:

½ cup sesame oil

3 Tbsp. soy sauce

3 Tbsp. light corn syrup (mul yut) or honey

1/3 cup shallots, finely chopped

4 tsp. peeled fresh ginger, finely grated

4 tsp. minced garlic

4 teaspoons mirin

2 tsp. Korean red chili flakes (gochugaru)

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. pepper

Ssamjung Sauce:

½ cup thinly sliced scallions

3 Tbsp. fermented soybean paste (dwenjang)

2 ½ Tbsp. red chili paste (gochujang)

2 Tbsp. mirin

2 tsp. roasted sesame seeds

1 tsp. sesame oil

  • Wash chicken and pat dry with paper towels.
  • In a large bowl mix marinade ingredients until well-blended. Add chicken to marinade and coat thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
  • Fire up the grill or broiler. Brush grilling surface with oil and grill chicken until it is charred on both sides.
  • Remove grilled chicken to cutting board and slice into strips. Add garnishes and serve immediately.
  • To eat, place a spoonful of rice on top of a lettuce leaf, and top with a piece of chicken. Wrap it up like a taco and enjoy!

Serves 4

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Silk Road menu025

Uzbekistan. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t. Herman Cain, the one-time, front-running Republican candidate for President in 2011, had absolutely no clue about who that country’s president was, and infamously stuttered, “Uzbecki, becki, beckistan” to buy some time. For the record, Uzbekistan, or more formally the Republic of Uzbekistan, lies smack dab in the middle of Central Asia, bordered by five countries: Kazakstan to the north; Tajikistan to the southeast; Kyrgyzstan to the northeast; Afghanistan to the south; and Turkmenistan to the southwest. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, the country belonged to the Turkic Khaganate before that. Their official language is Uzbek, not Turkish, and Mr. Cain, if you’re interested, the current President is Islam Karimov. 

But my own interest in Uzbekistan has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with their food, which I first had the pleasure of tasting last year at a local restaurant called Silk Road. While most Uzbeks are Muslim, it makes sense that the restaurant is located in the Baltimore suburb of Pikesville, a heavily Jewish enclave that is now home to a lot of Russian Jews. You know what they say: Once a former Soviet satellite….Anyway, since we enjoyed the place so much the first time, I don’t know why it took so long for a repeat visit, but I can confidently say we will be going back again very soon.

Those familiar with my tastes know that I tend to skew towards spicy, but Uzbek cuisine has nary a hint of heat. Event the hot sauce I requested from the waitress was mostly tomato-based with maybe a sprinkle of paprika. But the food itself does not really cry out for much enhancement. It’s simple and clean cuisine, using good ingredients, which is flavorful and hearty.

Take our first course, the soups. I ordered the Shurpa ($5.49), a traditional dish made with chickpeas, lamb and vegetables, and my wife got the Borsh ($5.49). Talk about a soup that eats like a meal: My bowl had plenty of chunks of tender lamb and  vegetables. The clear broth also tasted like someone’s grandmother had been tending the pot for many hours. My wife’s Borsh was not like any Russian Borscht we’ve ever eaten, but was loaded with chunks of beef, beet, and cabbage. Both soups came with a sprinkle of fresh dill, and it’s theses little touches that can really liven up a whole dish.

We also ordered a couple of salads. The eggplant salad ($6.99)featured cold slices of fried eggplant layered with tomatoes, garlic and more of those fresh herbs. Yum! The Tashkent salad ($6.99) was like their version of a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes practically hidden under what looked like a blizzard of crumbled feta. I like places that are not stingy with their feta–especially when it is this mild and good. If you are thinking the soups and salads are on the pricier side, everything else on the menu is a downright bargain.

We tried two hot appetizers: Samsa ($2.50), a crispy pastry stuffed with ground beef, onions, and spices; and Kutabi ($2.50), thinly kneaded dough filled with beef and fresh herbs served with a yogurt dipping sauce on the side. Both were great, and we could have eaten more, but wanted to save room for the main courses.

At the recommendation of our Armenian waitress, who was very familiar with the food, we ordered the Plov ($7.45), which is a signature Uzbek dish similar to a pilaf with rice, meat, and vegtables. Once again, the generous portion allowed us to split this dish, and then get some kebabs on the side as well. I ordered lamb and veal liver, while my wife got beef and chicken ($3.99-$4.49). Each kebab came grilled to perfection on those wide metal sticks–the mark of a professional–and garnished with a side of raw, sliced onions. The meat had obviously been well-marinated, tender and moist as it was.

This meal brought to mind many different cuisines–mainly Turkish–but it had its own character as well, a unique blend of eastern and western influences. I guess geography has everything to do with that, since Uzbekistan is located at the crossroads. The Silk Road, in fact, was one of the first trade routes between east and west.

Not only did we leave with full stomachs and satisified smiles on our faces, but we also learned something about another culture and a place far, far away. I love it when a simple meal can do that.

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Silk Road Bistro

1004 Reisterstown Rd.

410-878-2929

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Happy Holidays to all of my subscribers, of whatever faith, in whatever country! The true sentiment of this time, I believe, is to be thankful for all that we have, and to be helpful to others in whichever way we can. In these trying times, we all need to think about how much we all have in common, and remember that we are all in this together.

That said, we all need to eat, so I’m closing out this season of Pan Asian with another quick and easy one. And did I mention it was delicious, too? This is comfort food, fast food, and food that you can make in your very own kitchen with very few ingredients.

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The Recipe

3 tablespoons oil

12 oz. (350 g) beef sirloin, thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 spring onions, cut into 1-inch lengths

8 oz. (250 g) canned or pre-packed frozen bamboo shoots, drained & thinly sliced

1 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons sesame seeds, dry-roasted in a skillet until browned

2-3 finger length red chilies, sliced (optional)

  • Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok over high heat. Stir-fry the beef for 1 minute until it browns. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • Heat the remaining oil in the wok and stir-fry the garlic, spring onion, and bamboo shoots for 2-3 minutes. Add fish sauce, oyster sauce, salt and pepper.
  • Return beef to pan, add sesame seeds, and stir-fry 3 more minutes until the beef is tender and done.
  • Remove from heat, transfer to serving platter, and serve hot with steamed rice.

Serves 4

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