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Gin and Cinnamon: A Journey Through Sri Lanka

Gin and Cinnamon: A Journey Through Sri Lanka

Posted by Alyssa Noui
“…you don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings … serendipitously.” John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
Serendip, Serendib, later known as Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, has more names than P. Diddy and is full of the mysticism and miracles of an epic adventure novel. A center of the Spice Trade, both real and fictional sailors endured life-changing transformation here. Recently, I took a cue from those sailors and set out to explore this magical land myself — without time to research before leaving, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what lay ahead of me. Save for the faint idea that Sri Lankan cuisine may be an extension of South Indian, I set off with my beloved to discover where centuries of mystery and inspiration came from.

Save for the faint idea that Sri Lankan cuisine may be an extension of South Indian, I set off with my beloved to discover where centuries of mystery and inspiration came from.

Let it be known that Sri Lanka is in fact, not India, nor an extension. The majority population proudly call themselves Sinhala and are Buddhist. Tamil Hindus make up the next largest group. Though these two groups stem from India, they have each forged their own identity and cuisine. Muslim Arabs, British, Dutch, Portugese Burghurs, and Malay immigrants also contribute to a colorful population with many delicious influences. Spicy lamb, milky tea, meatballs, and sweet and sour noodles can be found on menus alongside a traditional dish like rice and curry, or curry and rice. With so much diversity on an island the size of West Virginia, Sri Lanka might possibly be the last undiscovered cuisine of Asia.

From LA via Dubai, I arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s magnificent coastal capital. Conflicted by wanting to hit the ground running and internalizing how much a 40-hour plane journey considerably shakes up your cells, I strained to find some middle ground between enthusiasm and eyeball-puckering jet lag. The 1980s guide books in my possession were written by old school Brits, who recommend a strong gin cocktail upon arrival. I normally abhor gin; juniper being a forest treasure I only enjoy in a pot of braised game meat. However, in a humid country at a gorgeous colonial hotel like Mt. Lavinia, the allure of a gimlet quickly presented itself. I sipped the earthy herbal cocktail with alkalizing, juicy lime and felt better immediately. As if my tastebuds blossomed, having relished something I usually scoff at, I felt an awareness that I was about to experience an awakening of flavor.

Getting my gimlet on at the Mt. Lavinia hotel.

 

 

Getting my gimlet on at the Mt. Lavinia hotel.

The Galle Face, like many of Colombo’s hotels, boasts a large selection of traditional curries, sambols (chili-based condiments), fresh fruit, and juices. Egg hoppers — fermented batter thinly crisped on a hot skillet, similar to South Indian dosa — are particularly Sri Lankan, and made in a special bowl-shaped skillet that allows for their distinct shape. String hoppers, on the other hand, are made from dough pushed through an extruder. The 50 or so squarish holes in the extruder make long noodles that are then swirled around on an oiled mesh palm disk to form a pile, then steamed. Most of my favorite foods are in form of an egg nested in greens or starch, so my first instinct was to grab an egg hopper and scoop up curries and sambols with it.

Breakfast at Galle Face Hotel

Curries are stewed in wildly aromatic coconut milk, which keeps better in tropical weather than animal milk and is still made fresh everyday.  What makes the Sri Lankan curry unique is that they use less cumin, more fennel seed, and they roast each ingredient until almost black — similar to a Oaxacan mole negro preparation, giving a smokier flavor. Sri Lanka’s curries stand apart from nearby India’s, where instead of fresh cilantro’s brightness, woodsy curry leaves are used more often than not for principal flavoring. Like all the curries throughout Asia, the fusion of  influences, adjustment of piquancy to reflect cultural taste and garnishing with native essences allowed each country to exhibit their own distinct flavors developed throughout centuries.

 

True cinnamon, an ingredient in curry and native to Sri Lanka, is unlike anything I have experienced. The holiday staple cinnamon stick we consume here in North America is a toxic corky inner bark of the Cassia tree that contains high levels of a toxic component called coumarin. Coumarin damages the liver and kidneys in high levels while true Ceylon cinnamon contains negligible amounts. Unlike the aggressive and astringent cassia, true cinnamon is a soft bark with subtle vanilla notes. Only in a small area of Chiapas, Mexico can we find cinnamon of a similar quality, whose flavor we associate with Mexican Chocolate.

A 10 minute walk inland from the coast of Colombo is Pettah, the largest outdoor market in Sri Lanka studded with golden mosques and Hindu temples.  It was a bit late in the day and anything edible from a stall was closed up, save for gigantic piles of vegetables and carts of peanuts wrapped in banana leaf. After working up quite an appetite scouting locations for my fiance’s music video, we were lured into an eatery decked out with cell phone company decals and a sign of a pixelated European chef kissing his fingertips. A cramped 12-seat eating area awaited us with piles of  ”Short Eats” — basically fried and stewed snacks tossed into a basket and served with sambol. I pointed to a Maldive fish patty sandwich, samosas, and Chinese rolls. The roll is a pancake made of flour and water stuffed with potatoes, spices, and/or meat, then dipped in breadcrumbs and fried. The stuffing is a versatile mixture used in other Short Eats like patties, roti wraps, and samosas. Because of the different exteriors: gritty, crunchy Chinese roll, flaky samosa, crisp doughy roti, you don’t feel like you’re eating the same thing though the inside flavor is the same. My snacking partner and I dipped and munched our way through the pile of fried goodness. I stared quizzically at a can in the middle of the tables filled with sheets of newspaper and telephone books until locals exposed their purpose: They were napkins, and quite efficient at absorbing grease. We came in hungry and left ten minutes later, grease-free with full tummies and and appreciation for this culture that doesn’t share America’s fragmented view of food as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Short Eats in Pettah

During our guerilla music video shoot at the farmers’ market, the psychedelic buses that bring in the lovely produce from the province served as our background and all the locals amassed to watch, playfully tossing toys and fruit to my fiancé while performing. One man showed me his spice stand where I purchased the famed curry powder, made of maple-scented fenugreek, tumeric, black pepper, and cinnamon. Soon after, we followed him to the wholesale market up the road, where 50-75 sacks of extra-terrestrial looking tubers, edible flowers, and gnarled gourds were being sold to restaurants. The market was a fine display of Sri Lanka’s tropical agriculture.

To market, to market to buy a thousand eggplants.

 

Finally we ended at the banana market, where men carried one or 2 two gigantic banana bunches at a time. The bunches were almost as tall as they were and significantly wider than their thin frames. I was amazed at their strength. We were introduced to the manager of the market, who rolled us a joint under the watchful gaze of a framed portrait of his father. “In Sri Lanka, fifty kinds of banana can grow in any one yard at any time,” he said expertly, sealing the joint up. The other men smiled proudly in confirmation. Poor as they were, their country seemed to provide a lot to smile about and be proud of. I was able to sample three types of banana: one sweet, one sour, and one super creamy variety. Unlike the monocropped sugar sticks sold in America, one can find the more complex specimens like the apple banana, containing a crunchier bright taste with a smooth and creamy finish. Eating a banana in the tropics is a gift, it is a supernatural experience that lifts the spirits and lives within the mind and body long after the initial taste.

Our homies from the banana market.

 

Two hours south of Colombo is Beruwela, a beach town with many spa resorts keeping tradition with the ancient, local medicine, Ayurveda. I had the unique pleasure of staying at an Ayurvedic retreat, The Barberyn Reef Resort, where guests are  treated to a program of massage, herbs, special diet, and acupuncture treatments to harmonize governing elements in the body, such as air, fire, and water. As perceived in most Eastern Medicine, certain foods exhibit medicinal properties, creating hot, cold, damp, and dry effects on the body. Chef Dhammika da Silva, one of Sri Lanka’s best known chefs, graciously allowed me into his kitchen at the resort. He explained how Sri Lankan food is innately Ayurvedic, and its ingredients can synergistically work together in dishes like mung bean curry and stewed lentils to harmonize and maintain health in the body. Anti-microbial garlic and spices, high-protein pulses, along with energizing rice and vegetables keep banana farmers, surfers, and health nuts alike strong and vibrant. Seeing food as medicine in practice validates a natural health nerd like myself who tries to use the kitchen as doctor’s office and beauty salon, as well as feeding station. Aside from the fully loaded buffets, da Silva’s plated dinners were beautiful and well-portioned; full of vitality and flavor to soothe the cleansing process as well as the palate.

Chef da Silva's perfectly portioned and beautifully balanced entree at The Barberyn Reef.

 

A one hour plane ride up to Jaffna in the North of Sri Lanka shows a whole new side of the island. The frenetic Hindu culture of the North is a sharp contrast to the laid-back Buddhist Colombo. After a civil war kept Jaffna isolated for 30 years, its recent reopening exposed a fresh market of undeveloped tourism. My mission was to find food spicy enough to make my eyeballs sweat and I was hoping to find it in an untainted area like Jaffna. A kindly, betel nut chewing, alcoholic Canadian Tami at a local beach swooped us up and took us to his cousin’s house where the matriarch graciously served us squid stuffed with chili, onion, and tentacles simmered in its own ink, red rice and fried fish with spicy curry, and sambol. I had only had squid ink as Mediterranean nero di seppia, tossed with gnoochi or spaghetti. Its astringent oceany taste is one of my favorite flavors; trying it Sri Lankan homestyle, bought right out of the water, with Jaffna’s unique curry blend inspired new ideas in approaching this tasty creature.

Observing the technique in Jaffna.

I think I got this.

We sat down with a bottle of palm whisky, shared stories and ate with our hands.  It’s a very unattractive process: all five fingers knuckle-deep mashing rice and curry into a ball, scooping the soaked mass with 4 fingers then finally the thumb popping it all into a wide-open mouth. When human hands touch food, flavors are massaged together, opening up dimensions of enjoyment no fork could achieve. We relished handful after handful, eyes and noses running from the spiciness until we were about to explode. Then thank yous, hugs, and pictures were exchanged, followed by a stroll down the road for sweet Ceylon ginger tea on our host’s auntie’s porch. She and her friends were dressed in elegant saris as chickens pecked around for crumbs and bugs. I silently shouted my gratitude to the Universe as I marveled at the whole experience: a chance encounter with outrageously generous people, mind-bending food, engaging with a culture in the process of reinventing itself. Colombo and Jaffna are worlds apart in energy, language, and flavor. Though neither is superior, Jaffna’s homemade fare, especially in the spontaneous manner in which it was received, fulfilled my wishes for adventure by plate. Sri Lanka is a country that begs to be discovered without pretense, where surprises lie in the kind hearts of its people, ancient traditions, and banana leaf packets.

Alyssa Noui

Author: Alyssa Noui

Alyssa Noui, the product of parents from Algeria and Japan, is an inventive home chef and Poor Taste’s Eating In Editor. She’s donned aprons at ice cream parlors, soup kitchens, “just-because” dinner parties, and as an after-school cooking instructor. From an early age she cultivated an appreciation for handmade quality, close contact with food growers, and intuition in place of measuring cups. Inspiration from her travels across America and the globe helped develop a home-cooking style that blends rustic and exotic flavors — she rarely serves the same dish twice. She learned to treat ingredients as though they were her kids by wiping off any dirt and learning through play. When experiments go awry, there are always kosher mini marshmallows. Her last meal would consist of single malt (make it a double) Scotch, Ethiopian steak tartare, and green figs. Follow her on Twitter @suppingood

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