Sunday, 12 July 2015

Ceylon Cookery with Chandra Dissanayake

I didn't think my first foray into Sri Lankan cooking would be via a 1960's cookbook rummaged up from the depths of a vintage books and records store but that is exactly what happened when I came across a tattered copy of "Ceylon Cookery" by Chandra Dissanayake. After cooking Sri Lankan food for a week I have a new appreciation of this bold cuisine distinguished by the unique flavours of curry and pandan leaves as well as a whole new appreciation of vintage cookbooks.

Until now I have been a vintage cookbook virgin. The lure of the stunning photography and cultural focus found within the pages of a modern cookbook is my drug. Cookbooks I grew up with in the  80's seemed to be the first attempt to add photography as a major component of the book but the quality of pictures was poor and the photos (as with everything from the 80's, myself not included) have that distinct brown and orange overtone. 

Prior to this many cookbooks were presented as text alone. Fairly dull compilations of recipes with very little explanation as to their context. They paled in comparison to what is on the market today & I had little interest. But this one called to me, it may have been the $8 price tag, it may have been the tattered little bookmark for the Tourist Guest House in Colombo hidden amongst it's pages or it may have been the fact that I was hungry, my tummy rumbling for something new and exotic. Either way the time worn cookbook came home with me and bought us many fragrant meals throughout the following week.

Delving into the introduction of the book it was immediately obvious this was from a different era. Chandra's opening line draws you through time "The cooking of rice and curries is considered one of the most time consuming and tedious tasks by the average housewife". Chuckling to myself I read on to Chandra'a explanation that this impression is due to the fact that the average kitchen lacks organisation due to the fact that it was formerly the domain of untrained domestic staff and a space that the housewife need spend little time. But never fear Chandra tells us that with the increasing use of kerosene, electric and gas stoves and the scarcity of domestic labour, the kitchen "need no longer remain a drab hole black with soot". Whoa I don't think we are in Kansas anymore.

In preparing for the week of Sri Lankan cooking I sat down and chose three dishes very different to each other so I can get a broad range of flavours and techniques to try. Although the recipes in the book are predominantly curries I chose a dry curry which was the prawns you see below. A yoghurt based curry which was the fish dish and a coconut milk based curry which was the beef dish. All were so different and distinct and they paint a vibrant picture of Sri Lankan food.

The first dish we cooked was "Tempered Prawns". I am sure this dish was invented to ward off the many colonial oppressors who have come and gone from Sri Lanka throughout it's history. The chilli factor in this dish was face meltingly hot and the technique of crushing and squishing out the fetid grey juices out of the prawns heads and shells was so gruesome that I am sure the Portuguese, Dutch and British all went running from the country in the face of it. Underneath all of that heat and looking past the grime and guts was a dish with complex flavours. The crushed prawn bodies bought a sweetness and the curry leaves have that aromatic earthy quality. Unfortunately our western palates couldn't handle this kind of heat and we only got glimpses of the complexity of flavours in between sweating, panting and gulping water. I will absolutely be making this dish again. I am going to cut the chilli powder down by half so the true flavour can be better appreciated.

We next took on "Fish Tomato Curry". My fish of choice was Flake which in reflection I would not use again. It's texture was a little mushy and I think the dish would have benefited from Monk Fish which is just as meaty but has a firmer texture. The interesting thing about this book is the protein choice for each recipe is very vague. It seems to have been done on purpose so the cook can choose the cut or even type of meat or fish to suit availability. There is a section of the book discussing readily available fish in Sri Lanka and indicates all fish are interchangeable in each recipe. Apart from my poor fish choice this dish was packed full of flavour and the heavy use of mustard seeds added a very distinct flavour setting this apart from other South East Asian Curries. The recipe itself only has four steps and the technique of frying the fish first & then making the curry makes it very easy to cook the fish to perfection. I know I often struggle when cooking seafood & curry together, I do have a tendency to overcook the seafood.

The last Sri Lankan dish of the week was "Pepper Beef Curry". I fell in love with pepper curries in Cambodia with the local speciality "Beef Lok Lak". It seemed time to see how other Asian nations use pepper in their cooking. As with all the dishes we made this week the recipe was simple. No hard labour required at all and big bang for your buck at the end. I was a little confused as to the cut of the beef required for this. A tougher cut like gravy beef didn't seem quite right as there was nothing in this recipe indicating a long cooking time was called for and I didn't want to end up with tough beef. Instead I went with a porterhouse steak that I could slice thinly, quickly fry off and add to the curry at the end. Again I would experiment with this recipe to achieve better results, possibly even pressure cooking it in the future with a tougher cut of meat. This way the meat would have that moist fall apart quality and would absorb more of the curry flavour. Of the three dishes this one had the most interesting flavour. The strong black pepper, the pandan and the curry leaves gave again a very earthy quality and it lacked any sweetness what so ever. In pondering the flavours my husband could only pin it down with the word "foreign". It didn't taste like anything we could compare it to which to be honest is why we cook world foods, to experience new tastes and flavours and this certainly lived up to the brief.

If you aren't lucky enough to find this gem of a book hidden away in the depths of a second hand store for $8 like I did you may find yourself forking out quite a bit of money. Seems I got a real bargain as it still sells online for upwards of $40 so keep your eyes peeled on your next visit to the antique store as the recipes found in these pages will take you on a real journey.

So after a week spent cooking my way around Sri Lanka I am excited to try more. I also own Hidden Kitchens of Sri Lanka by Bree Hutchins which is a stunning cookbook filled with traditional recipes collated on a journey around Sri Lanka and am keen to purchase Serendip by Peter Kuravita which is another perspective on Sri Lankan food this time from an Australian chef, born and bred in Sri Lanka. So it looks like I have a lot more cooking to do. Back in the kitchen for me.

Originally posted on Sunday, 12 July 2015 by