After five straight days of eating and running, shooting and more eating, we have finally reached the last day of the shoot. Despite Tony’s shaky start and the nagging head cold I’ve been nursing all week—not to mention the jet-lag and heat we’ve all had to endure—everything has gone pretty smoothly and the crew seems more than happy with what they’ve got in the can. For my part, it’s been a blast sharing old haunts and a couple of new finds with people who can really appreciate it. I can tell these guys are enjoying the food simply by the sight of their plates piled high with string hoppers, hoppers, sambols and curries every morning at the breakfast buffet. Of course, there are also a lot of dishes they have not tasted, and many great locations where I would have liked to take them. But for a one-hour program shot in six days, I feel like we’ve done Sri Lanka justice. For our grand finalé feast I have obviously saved the best for last.
I initiated this blog with a story about Leela, my Aunty Dora’s maid for 32 years, who retired during my last extended stay on the island. Along with my cousin Sam and his family, I accompanied Leela back to her village near Chilaw, and enjoyed an incredible home-cooked meal prepared by her relations there. The vegetables were plucked right off plants on their property; a beautiful patch of land nestled between jungle and river, and cooked in traditional clay pots over an open hearth. I doubt that many Colombo urbanites had experienced a meal quite like this—much less any Westerners. Months ago, when the show first contacted me, one of my initial ideas was to bring Tony here. Chilaw, a 3-hour drive up the coast from Colombo, was especially renowned for its huge lagoon crabs, which Leela would be making into and incendiary curry for us today.
Being a Sunday, however, the local fishermen’s’ day off, we had to cheat a little and buy the crabs a day earlier. Since a lack of rain in Chilaw also meant less crabs, some friends in Negombo, which was on the way, purchased 15 hulking specimens for us and kept them alive since dead crabs tend to spoil very quickly. We had another issue when we reached Leela’s place. This devout Buddhist lady absolutely refused to kill any live creatures, so we paid a local boy to act as the executioner. I don’t know which is a better way to go—being steamed alive as they do to the famous blue crabs in Baltimore, or being whacked between the eyes with a blunt object and pulled apart while you’re still dazed and trying to crawl away. As a cancer myself, I can’t help but ponder the fate of my fellow crabs, though this hardly impedes my love of a dish like Chilaw crab curry.
In addition to the crab curry, Leela, her two nieces and a couple of other relatives were preparing chicken curry; rice; dahl (paripoo, the familiar red lentils stewed in coconut milk); ash plantain, the flower of the banana tree; jackfruit; gotu kola sambol, a tangy green herb chopped and cut with shredded coconut, salt and lime; and cashew curry, another typical Sri Lankan dish that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. With so many dishes for so many mouths and not even a stovetop on which to operate, the cooks immediately got to work when we arrived with the crabs at about 9 in the morning. But first, the diminutive Leela, whom I had not seen in over a year, greeted me with flowers. The country air and simple living had been good to her, and even the pronounced limp she used to carry now gave way to a spring in her step.
For the first time of the shoot, Tony stayed with us all day, but kept away from the backyard kitchen. “Hey, if you came over, I wouldn’t want you in my kitchen,” he joked. Actually, for the trip down south he also hung around, but he and I were dropped off at a nearby hotel bar to relax while the crew shot B-roll and food prep. No booze awaited us at Leela’s, but rather fresh toddy, the sap of the coconut palm, which is distilled into the local liquor of choice, Arrack. I find the slightly sweet taste of Arrack to be somewhere between brandy and Hennessy, but toddy is altogether different. One of the boys scaled a tree on the property and tapped a fresh jugful, which went down sweet, cool, and frothy.
As three clay pots bubbled on open fires, the women chopped vegetables on bamboo mats on the ground and grinded spices on an old-fashioned grinding stone. My cousin Sam and I took the opportunity to give Tony his first taste of rural Sri Lanka. Behind the small house, all kinds of edibles grew—from gotu kola and jackfruit to plantains, manioc, and cashews. Even a small plot of rice had been planted in a clearing. Behind this luxuriant garden, a river gently snaked by, its sloping banks soggy from a recent shower. As we proceeded down for a closer look, the treacherous footing caused Sam to take a spill. Tony ditched his flip-flops for the surety of bare feet, which were soon covered with mud. Somehow Todd the cameraman, who is prone to mishaps, stayed clean that time as did I. Meanwhile, Jerry the other cameraman had his lens all over the food. I left him in the good hands of Sam’s kids, Shanaka and Shalini, who acted as translators with the cooks.
By around 1 in the afternoon, Leela’s crew started bringing out the food. They set up two tables together on the veranda, and soon, it was covered with 8 different clay pots. I took Tony down the buffet line explaining each dish as he served a bit onto his plate. He took a bigger portion of the crab curry, which had certainly been hyped to death. Though the whole crabs had been broken up, their bright orange shells contrasting against the fiery red gravy and green murungu leaves (a special addition for crab curry) made for an impressive and tantalizing sight, which tasted as good as it looked. This time I felt like a proud Jewish mother when Tony returned for seconds.
It was a unique treat to have Chilaw Crab Curry as only Leela can make it. My only criticism would be that she didn’t use enough chili, since Tony and the rest of the crew were able to eat it. Poor guy, he comes to my country sick, and just when he’s got his stomach back, I’m trying to put him back on Immodium. I think it’s because I never got a chance to challenge him to a raw chili eating competition. To thank Leela for an amazing meal and her family’s generous hospitality, I gave her a copy of my book, Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking (blurb.com) in which she contributed two recipes, one of which, of course, was the crab curry.