Lata’s Curd

The first meal I had in Sri Lanka was curd and pani. Sri Lankan ‘curd’ is like Greek yogurt or clotted cream: rich creamy buffalo milk, boiled and set in a clay pot, the cream settled atop it like a blanket. This was drizzled with pani, or palm syrup, boiled down and smokey, the flavor part maple, part molasses. Z and I were sitting around his parents table, our eyes bleary with travel. “One day I’ll have to take you to the south,” Z said, “where the best curd is made.” I nodded and had another serving.

As we drove north from Tangalle we began to see paddy fields, buffaloes and their birds, and then curd shops along the road.  We stopped at several. Our favorite was Lata’s Curds.

Lata rinsed three bowls and three spoons in a basin, set the curd and pani on the table in front of us, and began to serve generous portions.

More pani? More curd? When we had eaten all we could Lata wrapped up a pot of curd to go.

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No Sugar

We stayed two nights at Kurumba House, in Tangalle, being cooked and cared for by Rupa and Tekla, who arrived from the beach in the morning to make breakfast and left in the evening the same way. A handful of others walked and rode their motorbike on the wide smooth sand.

Amma asked Rupa and Tekla about the Tsunami. “Madam,” they said, and then continued in Singhalese.

Z turned to me when they are done. “They said that some people got out, but because of the lagoon, the water came from two directions, and most didn’t make it. Now, they say, there are drills every few months.”

This whole coast was struck by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the architecture of the place shows it. Solid cool concrete, floor and walls, bed frame and closets, night stand and wash basin. Beautiful, but more than that, functional.  If there was a flood, nothing would float away save the mattress.

Rupa and Tekla cleared the lunch plates and began to plan dinner. “Rice and curry?” Rupa asked. Tekla said a few words I couldn’t follow. Amma nodded. Then I caught the word miris. Chili.

“I can handle the spice,” I said, quickly, guessing. They all smiled.

The few Sinhalese words I know fall into two categories: food and creepy crawlies. Kimbulabunnis: sweet croissant like rolls. Miris: chili. The: tea. Seeni: sugar. Garandia: snake. Huna: gecko. Meru: flying termites that flock to the light.

When Thaththa wouldn’t eat, at the end of his illness, I learned epah, the word for no.

Tea, Madam?” Rupa asked.

Amma nodded. “Beth?”

“Yes,” I said, then added, “Seeni epah.”

Rupa smiled, “Yes Madam, no sugar.”

As it fell dark the geckos began to chirp. This is sometimes the loudest sound in all of Sri Lanka.

Amma scratched a bite on her arm. “There are so many huna. They are always falling on people.”

I looked behind me. I could easily spot five of the pale bodies on the wall. When I was a kid geckos were the stuff of nightmares. In Sri Lanka, where there is little difference between indoors and outdoors, they are just part of life.

One of the bodies wriggled a bit.

“Did you know there is an almanac for huna? “You look up where the huna falls on you and it tells you your fortune.”

I put down my book as Rupa set pumpkin, loofa, eggplant, fish, and prawn curries on the table.

“Did they fall on you?” I asked Amma.

“What, the huna?”

She got up and went to the table, almost laughing. “Many times.”

Kurumba House. Wonderful. I hope to stay there again. Comfortable, relaxed, delicious.

Fishermen in Tangalle

When we arrived at Tangalle it was Poya, the monthly Buddhist holiday on the full moon.  In Kandy, Poya means meat is not sold at the supermarkets and that young children wear their white Sunday outfits to temple, where I see them walking, holding hands, up the hill to our house. In Tangalle, Poya means all the fishing boats are pulled up on the beach.


The next morning Amma and I went out to meet the fishermen.  We arrived just as they pulled in the nets.

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Heading South

From Colombo we headed south along the coast.  Z drove. I sat next to him. Amma was in the back seat. As we approached Moratuwa, where Amma grew up, the regular traffic of three-wheelers, women under umbrellas, school children, motorcycles carrying families of four, sedans, lorries, and timber trucks with men balanced on top, bicycles, cows, dogs, tricycle lottery ticket vendors and old men in sarongs driving bullock carts, grew to include gangs of fishermen holding their net on their shoulders, in one long quarter-mile train, the net dipping between them like the icing on the edge of a cake.

To our right was a row of huts and shacks, a crucifix three times as tall as them, more nets, a railroad track, and the long flat blue Indian Ocean.

We passed a row of small fish laid out to dry on the side of the road. The sun shone off of them like mirrors. “Did you hear what Lalitha said about the miris maalu and the onions?” Zilla asked.

I shook my head.

“She said if you don’t put onions then the chills are enough to preserve the fish several days without refrigeration.”

“Long years ago my grandmother used to make a dry kind of miris maalu with sprats and send it to us in the mail,” Amma said.

“How long did it take to get to you?”

“Oh, a day or two. Early on, before the postal service was good, maybe three. We used to take them when we went on pilgrimages this way to Kataragama. We’d build a little fire at night and boil rice and eat them together. It was quite exciting.”

“And it didn’t spoil?” I asked.

“No,” Amma replied.  “They do all sorts of things to keep the fish here. They also make a terrible sauce in this area with the heads and guts. It’s fermented like.”

“Did your mother make that when you were a girl?”

“No, no, the fish vendor would come round with his basket of fish and then if Amma decided to buy she came out with the pot and he would clean the fish and put it right in.  When that man cleaned the fish he just scraped the guts right onto the ground.”

“It must have smelled terrible.”

“Oh, no,” Amma said. “Invariably a cat appeared out of nowhere and the mess was just gone.”

As she says this it is easier to imagine her as a girl of 6 or 7 rather than 67.

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

The twins were born yesterday morning. Identical girls, in matching bassinets, under matching pink mosquito nets.

After we went to see them we took Amma to the Galle Face Hotel, in Colombo, for her birthday lunch. As we walked in the door we were greeted by this fellow.

“I have been here since British times.” “Really?” Amma said. “Yes, Madam,” he said. “I began in 1942.” Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948.

“How old could he be?” I asked Zilla.

“He probably started as a bellboy, when boy is what was really meant.”

Kiribath for Breakfast

Lalitha Aunty serves kiribath for breakfast. Kiribath is a soft rice pudding that is then formed into a cake. It is made with coconut milk, rice, and salt. Kiribath is the first solid meal served to babies and the first food eaten in the Sinhala New Year.  At Lalitha’s house, it is eaten every day.

Kiribath is rich and creamy, salty and slightly sweet.  We ate ours with Seeni Sambol,  Miris Maalu,  and Maalu Kiri Hodi, Sear  fish in sour and a yellow curries.  In Sri Lanka, curry is a breakfast, lunch and dinner affair.

After breakfast, we had mangoes. Amma just said it is the season. We should find more as we head south.

Recipes

Kiri means milk, often coconut milk. Bath means rice.  Maalu means fish. Hodi means gravy.  Goraka is a soft brown seed used as a souring agent in Sri Lankan curries. Maldive Fish is a dried tuna flake from the Maldive Islands that adds a savory element to many Sri Lankan curries.

Kiri Bath

Rice, water, coconut milk, salt.

Place one cup of rice in a pan.  Place your finger on top of the rice and add water up to the second joint. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat as much as possible, cover, and cook over very low heat until the water is absorbed. Once the water is absorbed, add the coconut milk and salt and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture no longer sticks on the sides of the pan.  Pile the kiribath on to a plate and use the back of your spoon to smooth it. Slice in diamonds and serve with Pol Sambol.

Miris Maalu

Sear Fish, (or King Makerel) cut in thin steaks, lime juice, coconut oil, minced ginger and garlic, curry leaf, chilli powder, goraka paste, salt, & water.

Wash the fish with key lime juice, rub with goraka paste and salt, then heat a little oil with ginger, garlic and curry leaf. When they begin to brown add some chilli powder. To this mixture add the fish and enough water to barely cover.

Then, as Lalitha says, “Cook a bit and then it is done.”

Beigels, Bagels

London was lovely. We landed at noon, hopped on the Heathrow Express to Paddington, and then walked to Marylebone Parish Market, all in under an hour.  Cristiano, his wife, and daughter were waiting. There is something so reassuring about finding friends exactly how you remember them. The last time I saw Cristiano, he was showing my mom and dad and me around his hometown of Padua, outside of Venice.  This time we drank mint tea at a new Lebanese restaurant.  His daughter slept. He and Zilla chatted.  Friends, I thought.  Sometimes the concept still amazes me.

It happened to be—Cristiano told us—Guy Fawkes Day, the annual celebration Fawkes capture and the foiled plot to bomb the House of Lords in 1605.   Around four Cristiano and family left to make their way back to Greenwich and the fireworks. At first we thought we’d join them, but then the jet lag began to set in.  “But you are returning, no?” Cristiano asked. We nodded. After Istanbul. “Then there is the possibility of a pop-up restaurant, if you are interested…” Zilla and I nodded. “Yes, yes!”

Outside, the weather was just like Seattle, grey, vaguely wet, and not quite cold. You would think it sounds dreary, but the people on the street made it lively.  The crisp clip clop of footsteps.  The quick pace of everyone walking where they needed to go.

Z tucked my arm in his as we turned down a side street.  “Why is it that townhouses are so much cuter here?” he asked. “Is it the window boxes?”

I shrugged. “It’s just London.”

*

For dinner we took the train out to Canary Wharf to a pub called The Grapes, half of which is built on pilings out over the Thames. Our hope was that we might catch a view of the fireworks and enjoy a real ale. And that is exactly what did happen, except that to the ale we added fried deviled whitebait, aged 21 day aged Welsh steak, green pea mash (which is lovely) , roasted carrots, and sticky toffee pudding at the nice old restaurant upstairs.  We got invited to share a beer with one group and I engaged in a loo line chat with another.  According to the menu the place was a favorite hangout of Dickens. If I lived there it would soon be a favorite hangout of mine too.

We got to the hotel tired and fell fast asleep till about three, pretended to sleep another hour or so longer and then decided to get up and go to a traditional all-night ‘beigel shop,’ from our favorite guide book in  Hackney. By five thirty we were on our way just as others were stumbling home.

We ducked in to Brick Lane Beigel Bake as the night began to fade and took our place in line.  A man in a blue work suit stirred three spoonfuls of sugar into his tea from the large bowl by the register. “What are you doing today, luv?” The plump clerk asked him as she made change. “Werkin, always werkin,” the man said, with a nod. A tray of bagels came out from the kitchen. The bell on the door dinged.

“And what would you like, luv?” the lady asked Z. A heat lamp shone over a slap of what looked like corned beef. Z read the sign. “A salt beef bagel please.” She nodded. “Mustard?”

Just to be scientific, and also because I ordered cream cheese, I ordered a second salt beef bagel with mustard and a pickle from the competition next door.

*

I’ve always been skeptical of short trips, fearing they’d be too hectic, but we spent a relaxed afternoon with Z’s cousins in Sunbury and were back at Heathrow just over a day after we arrived. We are on the plane now, flying over the Malives. We should be in Sri Lanka in an hour.

 

Comptoir Libanais, 65 Wigmore Street, London, W1U

The Grapes, 76 Narrow Street, E14

Brick Lane Beigel Bake, 159 Brick Lane, E1

 

Another place that feels like home…

We are finally heading to the Seattle airport after spending much of last night trying to fit three weeks and two hemispheres worth of luggage into two carry-ons. We failed. But we would have made it if it weren’t for the toys!

Z and I spent a good part of last Sunday at Magic Mouse Toys in Pioneer Square picking out gifts for his little cousins. The oldest boy is twelve and likes dinosaurs; his little brother is 5 and likes whatever his brother does. They got an archeological dig set and a puzzle. The three girls got a board game they can (hopefully) play together. Two others got a Legos/Pictionary hybrid where you try to build the Lego figure on your card. These are the main gifts.  In addition there are a bunch of little stocking stuffer sized goodies for each of them—rubber pencils, false teeth, and photosensitive paper.

Z took me with him to pick out toys for his cousins the first he took me to Sri Lanka. Each toy had to be perfect.  I was surprised how serious he was about it: He spent an hour browsing and asking the clerk for advice before he even
started to choose. At one point I suggested princess wands for the girls. He wrinkled his nose.  “I want something more educational. You can make costumes in Sri Lanka. Good toys are harder to come by.”

At that point our relationship was very new, and to me, the trip to Sri Lanka see was going to be a test of it. I was excited but also scared.  Sri Lanka was very far away. I had never been to Asia before.  A war was on. Besides all that there was eating with my fingers and how to handle the spices.  Plus wasn’t sure if Z’s parents would like me.

After another hour at Magic Mouse we picked out several copies of The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls, combination science fair and mischief manuals, a few science kits, and a small fleet of rubber band propelled flying monkeys.

That was four years ago.  Shortly after our first visit, Z’s father fell ill.  Since then we’ve been back to Sri Lanka six times. The phone would ring in Seattle, in the middle of the night, and Z and I would be on a plane the next morning. There was no time to buy toys.

As Z and I stood in Magic Mouse last Sunday discussing which puzzle to get or whether or not the kids would be able to play Banannagrams, I realized how different I felt about going to Sri Lanka. This time I was not scared.  Thaththa’s illness gave me so much time in Sri Lanka—and with Z’s family–that I feel comfortable there now.  Sri Lanka is still plenty foreign and I don’t speak the language, but I can eat with my fingers and handle the spices.  As I looked at the toys, I realized Sri Lanka is another place that is beginning to feel like home.

I am sure we will not go hungry…

Z and I are leaving Friday, which as I write this I realize, is tomorrow. Luckily, Friday evening.  We are going to Sri Lanka and Istanbul with a few days in London in between to see Z’s cousins and their new baby, eat at The Quality Chop House and show Z Borough Market.

I’m also hoping to eat at my friend Cristiano’s new food truck Tongue N’ Cheek—which might be the best name ever for a salumi venture. (And cutest website.) The name also describes Cristiano perfectly.

So we fly from Seattle (tomorrow! today?) to London, for a day, and then to Sri Lanka. We’ll meet Amma (it’s her birthday) at Katunayake Airport and from there, go visit Z’s grandmother and cousins.  One of his cousins is due that very day, with twins! She asked the doctor to delay the delivery so the twin’s birthday would coincide with Amma’s. We shall see.

So Z and I will spend two days visiting with all of them and then head down the coast, for a few days at the beach.  We’re going to stay at a bungalow in Tangalle that comes with a cook!

From Tangalle we will head back up country to Kandy, where Z grew up, and spend our second week at home. On the last day, we will be preparing a dane for the monks at the Peridnyia University Temple in honor of his father’s life.  It is a kind of ritual offering; we’ll be cooking the kinds of things Thaththa liked to eat.

The day after the dane we fly back to London and then after an airport overnight, to Istanbul. Which is very exciting.   I was the one that wanted to go there and now we are on our way.

We are not yet sure where we’ll be staying the first few days. We signed up for Servas, a homestay organization I heard about from a friend  and are waiting to see  if any of the families we contacted in Instanbul get back to us. My greedy hope was to do some Turkish home cooking!

Whatever happens, we’ll spend seven nights in Istanbul, I’m sure eating and exploring. I’ve been reading the blogs Café Fernando and Istanbul Eats for ideas. Rose petal jam, real shish kebab, lokum, yogurt from the place yogurt was born. I am sure I will not go hungry.

Then back to London and, finally, home.  And now, back to packing.