Himself and I visited Priyani Ceylon Fusion Oriental Cafe, just a stone's throw from UC Northridge. Our Sri Lankan host was proud of his cuisine and his cooking, and after he waxed poetic about the menu's offerings, we asked him to bring us what he thought we should have. He seemed quite pleased with our deference.
First he brought us a plate of appetizers or "short eats," all containing a filling of fish that was boldly seasoned but well balanced. On the left are pattis, which look for all the world to me like empanadas. In the middle are Chinese rolls (if only the fish sticks in school had been so good!) and to the upper right are cutlets. All were pleasantly spicy even without the homemade hot sauce--which pleased our tongues and cleared our sinuses.
"lump rice""Lump rice" isn't a very sexy name for a dish, but don't let that put you off. It's essentially an entire meal bundled up and cooked in a single banana leaf. Himself gently opened that steaming leaf to find eggplant curry, roast chicken, green banana curry, onion sambal and basmati rice nestled inside. I managed to swipe a few bites, but Himself guarded his meal jealously. I'll just have to go back and get my own next time. Everything in the leaf was tasty, but most surprising was the green banana curry. The dense, starchy consistency of the cubes of unripe banana had us puzzling for a few minutes. What kind of tuber is this? Or is it yucca? We finally went back to the menu and realized that the texture was so different from that of either ripe bananas and cooked plantains that we hadn't recognized it as banana. It's always puzzling when you encounter a familiar food that you can't recognize because of difference in culinary context.
BiryaniMy biryani was made of basmati rice and loaded with cashews, raisins, currants and an array of spices. Buried inside this mound of rice were several pieces of roast chicken. (To my eyes it looks more like what I'd call "lump rice" than Andy's "leaf rice!") The biryani was topped with a roasted egg and served with a dense sweet eggplant curry on the side.
It seems a little odd for a dish to show up with a twice-cooked egg perched on top (boiled and then roasted), but I'm finding that this is actually a common accompaniment for biryani. I'm also discovering recipes that call for deep-frying boiled eggs and making a curry of them.
For dessert we shared a dish of watalappam, a custard flavored with an array of spices and a type of unrefined brown sugar called jaggery. It has a darker, more sophisticated taste from the jaggery and spices and plenty of richness from the eggs, cashews and coconut milk, so sharing a piece was smart.
Both entrees and the dessert are Muslim in origin, which might seem curious, considering that Sri Lanka is majority Buddhist and minority Hindu. But the history of civilization is the history of food, of food and food preparation methods being carried by immigrants, missionaries, merchants, armies and wanderers, so nothing should really surprise us when it comes to the culinary influences of one place on another.
Asian cooks know their spices like pianists know their keys. When a world of spices grows in your backyard, you don't have to shell out anywhere from $4 to the-sky's-the-limit for a single tiny bottle. So you can step out your back door, harvest freely and experiment to your heart's content to come up with the spice blend you like best. And every cook has his and her own favorite blend.
My friend and colleague Carol Selva Rajah shares one of her favorite Sri Lankan spice blends:
3 Tbsp. coriander seeds
1½ Tbsp. cumin seeds
1 Tbsp. fennel seeds
2 tsp. whole peppercorns
¼ tsp. fenugreek seeds
¼ tsp. cloves
¼ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. cardamom
Dry roast the spices and grind in a small coffee grinder. Add chili powder and fresh curry leaves to flavor if needed.
Raw ingredients for a rich and heady spice blend: 12:00 cinnamon bark; 1:00 cardamom seed; 2:00 a bit of show-and-tell: smash these cardamom pods and you'll find those little black seeds inside; 3:00 cumin seed; 6:00 coriander seed; 7:00 black peppercorns; 9:00 fenugreek seed; 10:00 whole cloves; in the center, fennel seed which, incidentally, I got from my own garden right here in LA!
I toasted the coriander, fennel, cumin and cardamom seeds and then put everything in an electric coffee mill and gave it a good spin. I keep an extra mill on hand specifically for grinding spices--a metal one, as plastic absorbs the oils of the spices and imparts them on the next batch, even if you don't want that particular blend!
Coriander seed toasting in the pan: Use an uncoated pan and medium heat, and pay attention, so they don't burn! Let your nose be your guide.
This may look like a lot of work, and you may give in to the urge to cheat and go buy a jar of pre-made curry or jars of pre-ground spices to make a curry (and who knows how long those jars have been sitting on the grocery shelf?), but if you take the time, you'll be rewarded with the most amazing explosion of flavors. And you can make this in large batches to use for more than one dish. Just don't make too much at once. As soon as these seeds are ground, they immediately start to lose their zazz.
The finished spice blend: If only you had a scratch-n-sniff computer screen!
Throw a generous amount of one of these spice blends into a pot of simmering meat or vegetables, and the heat will open up the aromas and perfume your house with the most beautiful blend of fragrances imaginable. And of course, you'll have an amazing dinner, too.
Sri Lanka's wealth of spices lured many a ship from Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. With all those neatly organized rows of tins and bottles of spices in the baking section of the grocery store at our disposal, it's difficult to imagine expeditions being prompted by the allure of something as ordinary--to us, anyway--as pepper and cinnamon. But the more I learn about spices and cook with those amazing blends, the more I understand what the fuss was all about!
*Special thanks to Carol Selva Rajah for her knowledge and insights. If you want to learn more about cooking with the abundance of spices and flavorings from Asia, look for her book, Heavenly Fragrance.