ArchiveFebruary 26, 2011

Sri Lanka

For many people getting out the kitchen for a couple of weeks is the sweetest part of a holiday – well away from the tyranny of having to cook every day. Of course I love eating out but I also love to cook particularly when I am in a place where the food and culture is different.

I’m intrigued by food markets and always seem to gravitate towards the nearest one wherever I wander. I particularly love to learn about strange looking ingredients and plague stall holders with questions desperately searching around for someone with a few words of English to translate and give me cooking instructions on how to prepare and cook unfamiliar produce. On a recent trip to Sri Lanka I found a soul-sister in Skye Gyngell who cooks such beautiful food at Petersham Nurseries Café in Richmond. She had been in Galle for the Literary Festival and stayed on for a few days. We were guests at the Beach House near Tangella. It’s right on a coconut palm edged beach with waves lapping gently while you sleep.

I woke early on the first morning and strolled out into the beach to find local fishermen hauling in their coconut string nets from the shore – the whole procedure takes about an hour and half.

First, the narrow Orru boat having returned after a nights fishing sails as close to the shore as possible, two of the locals swim out and catch the ropes at the two sides of the net  , They gradually pull the ropes inching the net  in a little further with each new wave.

When it is within a couple of yards of the shore, the fishermen on the narrow boat dive into the water and help to pull the ropes – I counted 13 or 14 men on each side. They read the waves with deadly accuracy and eventually haul the horseshoe shaped net in onto the beach.

It seemed to us that there was a very small catch but one of the fishermen told us in pigeon English that is was above average. There were lots of tiny little white bait like fish, less of a larger species called hurulla which looked like sprats and a few larger fish.

 This community are still fishing in the time honoured way – totally sustainable. One of these narrow  traditional boats with an out rigger on one side sustains 80 families.¡ A couple of the fishermen separated the catch into little piles of the different specie., I n the midst of it all was a disgruntled leather back turtle with three barnacles firmly attached to it’s shell. The fishermen gently coaxed it out of the net and let it waddle back down to the sea.

We bought a beautiful seer fish and a kilo of white bait and headed for the kitchen to chat to the local chefs.  We tossed ideas back and forth and then summoned a tuc-tuc to take us to the local market. The covered market just off the main street in Tangalle was a lively, colourful affair with lots of banter and haggling.

Markets are the very best place to really get a glimpse of local food culture. There were lots of familiar fruit and vegetables but tons of exciting produce that we vaguely recognised but I certainly didn’t know what to do with and then several greens that we’d never seen before. Our tuc -tuc driver turned ‘interpreter’ extracted recipes and advice from the stallholders and their extended family. We bought bitter gourd, a green knobbly vegetable, wing beans, pandanus leaves, slim purple and cream aubergines, a fine pumpkin and two greens we’d never come across before and of course lots of onions, garlic, ginger and chillies, and fresh curry leaves, the base of so many Sri Lankan dishes.

When we returned to the kitchen we had a ‘pow wow’ with Suresh and Sasira and decided on our menu. They salted and deep fried the white bait and fresh anchovies until crispy. We ate them whole, ‘skin and all’ with an Aoili and they were amazing.

We decided to cook the seer fish whole. When it was gutted, we slashed the skin, filled the slits with chopped garlic and ginger and the cavity with fresh curry leaves and baked it in the oven with coconut gravy. We served it with aubergine pahi a Sri Lankan favourite.

The greens were identified as kankun or morning glory and gatukola (good for the brain) The gatukola was chopped and added to some freshly grated, coconut to make a sambal. The morning glory was soaked in salted water to purify it and then tossed quickly in a wok with lots of ginger and garlic- delicious.

The strange looking bitter gourds were thinly sliced, soaked in brine for about 30 minutes, drained, dried and fried and then made into another delicious sambal. I also learned that sambal always has finely chopped onion and tomato added.

Here are some of the dishes Skye and I cooked with lots of guidance from Suresh and Sasira, the brilliant Beach House chefs.

Aubergine Pahi

Sasira was very knowledgeable about the medicinal value of each ingredient; aubergines are apparently good for our kidneys.

Serves 8 as a side dish

 450g (16ozs) small slim aubergines

2 – 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 small ‘thumb’ of ginger peeled and finely chopped

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 medium red onion cut into eighths

A shake of wine vinegar (I used coconut vinegar)

5 – 10 chillies whole

2 teaspoons mango chutney

1 tablespoon tomato ketchup

3 ripe tomatoes, quartered

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut the aubergine into thin strips about 6cm (2 ½ inches) long by 5mm (¼ inch) wide. Season with salt, toss and leave for about 30 minutes.

Dry and deep fry in batches in hot oil until deep golden (Suresh let them get quite dark). Drain.

Heat 2 -3 tablespoons sunflower oil in a wok over a medium heat, add the chopped garlic and ginger, toss and cook for a minute or so. Add the mustard and the onion and a dash of vinegar and 10 chillies or less if you like. Toss, add the mango chutney and a generous tablespoon of tomato ketchup and the quartered tomatoes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

The onion should be still slightly crunchy and the tomato still raw.

Finally add the aubergine, toss, taste and correct seasoning. Serve as an accompaniment.

A Whole Seer Fish with Coconut Gravy

Serves 8

1 whole fish (gutted) we used seer fish but a halibut would also be great

4 garlic cloves finely chopped

2 teaspoons ginger finely chopped

1-2 tabs vinegar

Coconut Gravy

300ml (½ pint) coconut milk

5 small or 3 large garlic cloves

5 chillies, roughly chopped,

3 tablespoons fish sauce, nampla

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 teaspoons salt

juice of 1 lime

Lay the fish on a large baking tray with sides. Slash both sides of fish 3 or 4 times. Fill the cuts with chopped garlic, ginger and 2 tablespoons of vinegar.. Leave for 15 minutes or more while you prepare the coconut gravy. Whizz all the ingredients for the gravy in a blender, pour over the fish. Preheat the oven to180°C/350°F/Mark 4.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until just cooked. Serve at the table with coconut gravy and juices and several sambals – a good green salad would also be a welcome accompaniment.

Bitter Gourd Sambal

I was really excited to learn a way to use and cook bitter gourd – a small knobbly gourd with a sour, bitter taste. Again it has many medicinal qualities, reduces cholesterol and is good for blood pressure and diabetes sufferers.

500g (8oz) bitter gourd

1 small red onion chopped

2 ripe tomatoes chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

lime juice

1 – 2 teaspoons dried Maldives fish, finely shredded or chopped, not easy to find at this side of the world, use a good dash of fish sauce instead, available from Asian shops and some supermarkets.

Slice the bitter gourd thinly, almost paper thin. Cover in highly salted water and soak for ten minutes to extract some of the bitterness. Drain and dry. Deep fry for a couple of minutes until pale and golden and crisp. Add chopped onion and tomato. Just before eating, add about1-2 teaspoons chopped Maldives fish, taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and freshly squeezed lime juice to taste.


Suresh’s Pumpkin Curry

There are still lots of pumpkin about, fresh curry leaves are more readily available nowadays from Asian suppliers, Try Mr Bell’s stall in the English Market in Cork 021 4270531 otherwise use dried. They may also have pandanus leaves which make a terrific ice cream and custard also. If you can’t get pandanus leaves just omit them. It will still be delicious.

Serves 8

3 – 4 tablespoons sunflower oil

500g (8oz) prepared pumpkin – cut into 4cm (1 ½ inch) squares

1 red onion chopped

4 garlic cloves chopped

1tablspoon black mustard seeds

2 ½ cm (1 inch) chopped ginger

10 fresh curry leaves

I pandanus leaf coarsely chopped

1 dessertspoon of coriander seeds – roasted on a dry pan for 2-3 minutes then ground

1 teaspoon cumin seed

½ teaspoon turmeric

450ml (16fl oz) coconut milk

1 small cinnamon stick

5 cardamom pods, lightly crushed,

salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat the oil in a wok or saucepan over a medium heat, add garlic, ginger and mustard seeds, stir and cook for 2 – 3 minutes or until the mustard almost stops popping. Add the chopped onion, crushed coriander pods, chopped pandanus and curry leaves, toss, add pumpkin cubes, cook for 2 – 3 minutes. Add freshly roasted and ground coriander, cumin, cinnamon and turmeric. Stir and add thick coconut milk, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir and cook over a medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the pumpkin is just soft. Taste and correct seasoning. It may need a squeeze of lime. Serve with lots of rice.

Anoma’s Coconut Sambal

Delicious served with egg hoppers for a Sri Lankan breakfast. (Egg hoppers are basically egg-filled crepes made from rice flour and coconut milk batter. A ladleful of batter is swirled in a small, lidded wok. The wok gives hoppers their distinctive shape. Then a whole raw egg is placed in the centre of the cooking crepe. Another ladle of batter is poured over the egg to cover it, and the whole hopper is then cooked until the egg is set.)

Serves 6 as a accompaniment,

150grams (5oz) freshly grated coconut,

2 small green chillies,

1 small red shallot,

2 small cloves garlic, chopped finely,

1 med ripe tomato, finely chopped,

2 teaspoons Maldives dried fish, finely sliced,

1/2 teaspoon salt,

1 1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes,

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper,

Put salt, chilli flakes and freshly ground pepper into a mortar, Pound with a pestle for 2 minutes or so, Add dried fish, continue to pound for about a minute. Add green chilli, onion and garlic, Anoma used the pestle in a circular movement for another 2-3 minutes. Add the coconut, we would need to add a little water if the coconut is not fresh. By now the mixture looks slightly pale orange, (she added an extra 1/2 teaspoon chilli) Pound for one .minute, add tomato, pound gently just for a second. Add a few drops of lime juice to taste.

Fool Proof Food


Homemade Limeade

5 limes

750ml (1 1/4 pint) water

300ml (10fl oz) stock syrup

ice cubes

Juice the fruit and mix with the stock syrup, add water to taste.  Add ice, garnish with sprigs of fresh mint or lemon balm and serve.



sprigs of fresh mint or lemon balm


Stock Syrup

Makes 825ml (28fl ozs)

450g (1 lb) sugar

600ml (1 pint) water

To make the stock syrup: Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes then allow it to cool. Store in the fridge until needed.  This quantity is enough for several batches of limeade. Measure the correct amount of syrup carefully for the lemonade. It is not necessary to use the all the stock syrup made.




Time to get moving on your gardening this year, here are some half day and day courses to inspire you…

Growing Vegetables at Barry’s Garden Centre in Killeagh, Co Cork on Wednesday 2nd and Saturday 5th March – sowing and planting potatoes, parsnips, peas, lettuce, onions, carrots. Learn about plant rotation to ensure there is always something fresh to eat from the garden. €25.00 for both days 10am to 12:30pm – to book 086 814 1133

I couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend a Sunday than at Glebe Gardens in Baltimore West Cork on Sunday 13th March 2011 learning how to get the best from your polytunnel/greenhouse on their one day Growing Under Cover gardening course – 10am-4pm for €60 including lunch. To book phone 02820232

Organic Gardening for Beginners – Grow your Own Food with Denis Hawke at the Organic Centre, Rossinver, Co Leitrim 10am – 5pm. The day includes planning your garden, rotation, soil fertility and composting. There will be practical sessions on ground preparation, sowing and propagation. €79.00 includes lunch and seed trays 071 9854338 or 

Winter Pruning of Soft Fruit at Ballymaloe Cookery School Tuesday 8th March 9:00am to 2:00pm Designing the garden layout, looking at the aspect, spacing, and plant training structures and protection from birds. Choosing fruit varieties. Creating fans, cordons and bushes with gooseberries, red currants, white currants and jostaberries. Understanding the general principles behind pruning. Pruning blackcurrant bushes, loganberries tayberries. 021 4646785 or


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