It came as quite a surprise to many to discover that one of the several ‘hats’ I wear is Honorary Council General for Sri Lanka to Ireland…
The 3,000 plus Sri Lankan community in Ireland are of course aware but it wasn’t until the tragic events in late April when I attended mass in the St Mary’s Pro Cathedral, celebrated by Archbishop Martin for the victims of the massacre that my connection became more public.
I accepted the honorary role in November 2017 on the invitation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe…. who visited Ireland and Ballymaloe Cookery School over Christmas period in 2015.
I’ve visited Sri Lanka many times, an astoundingly beautiful country, lush, green and fertile with delicious food and warm and friendly people who have endured many years of turbulence but had recently become accustomed to a more peaceful era.
Sri Lankan tea is some of the finest in the world. I’ve visited the tea plantations and seen at first hand the care and dedication that is involved, from the hand picking of the ‘tips’ of the Camellia Sinensis, tea bush to the drying, withering, grading….
It is important that the Sri Lankan tea industry remains glyphosate free at a time when there is a growing concern worldwide among scientists and the general public about the toxic effects of pesticides.
Cinnamon is another top quality Sri Lankan ingredient that few other countries can equal.
True cinnamon is native to the lush tropical forests of southern Sri Lanka. The gentle coastal hills are especially suited to the growth of cinnamon. Wars have been fought over this spice. In 1505 the Portuguese sailed to that part of the world in search of cinnamon so they could cut out the Arab middlemen. In those days it was gathered from wild trees but when the Dutch succeeded the Portuguese the first plantations were sown and cinnamon has been flourishing ever since.
On my last trip to Sri Lanka I wanted to see the process of cinnamon production for myself so I visited Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon Estate with 360 degree views over Weligama Bay. Thilak the general manager, showed us around the estate which grows both cinnamon and galangal and explained the whole process. On our way to the plantation we passed the little temple to Pathini, The Buddhist God of cinnamon. The air was filled with the scent of cinnamon.
The cinnamon is still harvested and peeled in the same time honoured way by the skilled Salagama caste. It cannot be mechanised and the process has survived virtually unchanged since ancient times.
The cinnamon peelers go into the fields early in the morning. They choose twigs about 5 feet long and about 1 ½ inches thick – straighter are easier to peel. Shoots or leaves are trimmed with a sharp curved machete. The skill has been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries. The peelers sit cross legged on hessian sacks on the floor in the peeling shed with their bundle of cinnamon sticks by their side. They need just three tools, a curved peeler, a brass rod and a small sharp knife called a kokaththa.
First the outer dark leathery layer is shaved off; this is returned to the cinnamon fields for compost.
When the peelers have several layers of precious inner bark they carefully layer them inside each other, over lapping to create a four foot quill.
These are carefully laid on strings of coconut coir hanging beneath the tin roof. It takes eight days, away from sunlight for them to curl and dry. They will then be rolled tightly, and allowed to dry for a further ten days. The cinnamon ‘quills’ are then tied into large bundles to sell in the market where they will be precisely cut into the cinnamon sticks we know.
Real cinnamon is known to be a natural ‘cholesterol buster’, unlike it’s inferior and cheaper relation cassia, which is often passed off as cinnamon.
How to know the difference….true cinnamon comes from the thin pliable bark of the Cinnamomum Verum trees. This cinnamon is softer, flakier and paler than cassia which too has it’s place but the flavour is more acrid than sweet, gentle and aromatic. This is the Sri Lankan cinnamon, which I use at Ballymaloe Cookery School, perfumes for both sweet and savoury dishes.
Hard quills or ‘bark like’ pieces are more likely to be cassia so save those for vegetarian curries if you don’t have true cinnamon. Always try to buy cinnamon whole and grind it yourself, ready ground cinnamon is regularly cut with the less expensive cassia. So it’s darker in colour and has a more aggressive flavour. I’ve had many questions about Sri Lankan food, is it similar to Indian food, hotter, spicier…..? In fact it is a wonderful melange of Indian, Indonesian and Dutch flavours reflecting the countries history as a spice producer and trading post over several centuries.
In this column I will introduce you to some of my favourite Sri Lankan dishes.
Sri Lankan Beetroot Curry
2-3 tablespoons sunflower oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
50g (1¾oz) red onion, chopped
5 Curry leaves
8cm (3inch) piece of cinnamon stick
500g (1lb 2oz) beetroot, peeled and cut into 4cm (1½in) cubes
1½ teaspoon untoasted curry powder
10 fenugreek seeds
5 green chillies
225ml (8fl.oz) coconut milk, whisked
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Put oil in a deep frying pan over a medium heat, add the chopped garlic, onion, curry leaves, curry powder and cinnamon to the pan, stir and cook for 2 minutes. Then add the beetroot, stir and add the fenugreek seeds, chillies and some salt. Bring to the boil, add the coconut milk, and continue to cook for about 20 minutes or until the beetroot is tender. Season to taste.
Sri Lankan Carrots with Shallots and Green Chilli
Shallots add extra sweetness to this simple spiced carrot dish which can be fully prepared ahead and gently heated later.
2 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
60g shallots peeled and chopped
450g medium carrots peeled and cut into 2cm dice
½ green chilli, deseeded and chopped
1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground coriander
½ teaspoon freshly ground fennel seeds
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper (a few grinds)
175ml coconut milk, from a well-shaken can.
Put the oil into a heavy, low sided pan and set over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the shallots and green chilli. Stir and fry for about 2 minutes or until the shallots have softened a bit. Add the carrots, cumin, coriander, fennel, cayenne pepper, turmeric, salt and pepper and continue to fry, stirring at the same time, on a medium heat for about 2 – 3 minutes. Add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer very gently for 15- 20 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning.
Shredded Chicken and Toasted Coconut Salad
500g (18 oz) shredded free range chicken
3 tablespoons finely shaved coconut flesh
6 spring onions, finely sliced
2 red chilli
1 cucumber, peeled and julienned
3 tablespoons mint leaves, shredded
2 tablespoons coriander leaves
3 finely sliced shallots
5 kaffir lime leaves, very finely shredded
6 shallots fried
100ml (3½ fl oz) coconut cream
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons palm sugar
3tablespoons lime juice
1 red chili, thinly sliced
2 kaffir lime leaves, thinly chopped
For the dressing, mix all the ingredients together except the fried shallots. Adjust the seasoning to taste with more fish sauce or lime juice accordingly.
Salad, mix together all the ingredients with some of the dressing, pile in a bundle on the plate then sprinkle the fried shallots and some more coconut shavings. Finish with a drizzle of the dressing and serve immediately.
For cinnamon scones, just roll out the dough to 1 inch (2.5cm) thick and stamp or cut into scones and dip the egg – washed tops in cinnamon sugar.
Makes 18-20 scones, using a 3 inch (71/2 cm) cutter
2lb (900g) plain white flour
6oz (175g) butter
pinch of salt
2oz (50g) castor sugar
3 heaped teaspoons baking powder
3 free-range eggs
16fl oz (450ml) approx. full cream milk to mix (not low fat milk)
Egg Wash (see recipe)
2oz (50g) granulated or Demerara sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon for the top of scones
150g (5oz) butter
250g (9oz) pale brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven 250ºC/475ºF/Gas Mark 9.
First make the Cinnamon Butter.
Cream the butter, sugar and cinnamon together and beat until light and fluffy.
Sieve the flour into a large wide bowl, add a pinch of salt, the baking powder and castor sugar. Mix the dry ingredients with your hands, lift up to incorporate air and mix thoroughly.
Cut the butter into cubes, toss well in the flour and then with the tips of your fingers, rub in the butter until it resembles large flakes. Make a well in the centre. Whisk the eggs with the milk, pour all at once into the centre. With the fingers of your ‘best
hand’ outstretched and stiff, mix in a full circular movement from the centre to the outside of the bowl. This takes just seconds and hey presto, the scone dough is made. Sprinkle some flour on the work surface. Turn out the dough onto the floured board. Scrape the dough off your fingers and wash and dry your hands at this point. Tidy around the edges, flip over and roll or pat gently into a rectangle about 3/4 inch (2cm) thick.
Spread the soft cinnamon butter over the surface. Roll up lengthwise and cut into pieces about 2 inches (5cm) thick.
Brush the tops with egg wash (see below) and dip the tops only in cinnamon sugar. Put onto a baking sheet fairly close together.
Bake in a preheated oven for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown on top.
Whisk one egg thoroughly with about a dessertspoon of milk. This is brushed over the scones to help them brown in the oven.
Ahilya Iced Tea
2 litres (3 1/2 pints) of water
2 small pieces cinnamon or cassia slivers
2 black cardamom
230g (8 1/4oz) granulated sugar
2 English breakfast tea bags
juice of 7 limes (200ml/7fl oz approx.)
In a saucepan, bring the water to the boil with the spices, sugar and tea bags. Remove the tea bags. Simmer for 5 minutes. Cool, add the juice of 7 limes or less depending on size.
This iced tea can last for 5 days. Serve chilled with 2 mint leaves in each glass of iced tea.
Orange Blossom Iced Tea
1.5 litres (2 1/2 pints/6 1/4
2 Earl Gray tea bags
225-300ml (8-10fl oz)
base sugar syrup
2 teaspoons orange blossom water
4 springs of fresh mint
1 orange, cut in thin slices, skin and all
Bring the water to a boil in a pan, add the tea bags and stir around. Turn off the heat and leave to steep for 15 minutes.
Remove the tea bags, add the sugar syrup and blossom water and stir to mix. Decant into a bottle or jug and push in the mint sprig and orange slices. Place in the fridge to cool entirely. Serve with loads of ice.
Pimp your tea – crush some fresh mint leaves at the bottom of a lowball glass, add a shot or two of rum, top up with ice and iced tea and lots of ice.
200g (7oz) sugar
200ml (7fl oz) water
1 tablespoon glucose or honey
Mix everything together in a small pan and bring to the boil over a high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Leave to cool, then transfer to a clean bottle or other container and store in your fridge for up to a week.
Cinnamon Meringue with Plums and Cream
If the plums are ripe and juicy there’s no need to poach them, just stone and dice.
2 egg whites, preferably free range
110g (4oz) icing sugar
1/2 scant teaspoon of powdered cinnamon
300ml (10fl oz) whipped cream
225g (8oz) poached plums, drained (see recipe)
little sprigs of mint or lemon balm
Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2.
Check that the bowl is dry, spotlessly clean and free from grease.
Mark 2 x 7 inch (19cm) circles on silicone paper or a prepared baking sheet. Put the egg whites into a spotlessly clean and dry bowl. Add all the icing sugar except 2 tablespoons (2 American tablespoons + 2 teaspoons). Whisk until the mixture stands in firm dry peaks. It may take 5-8 minutes. Sieve the cinnamon and the remaining icing sugar together and fold in carefully.
Divide the mixture between the two circles and spread evenly with a palette knife. Bake immediately in the preheated oven for 45 minutes or until set and crisp. Allow to cool.
For this recipe poach the plums for 20 mins approximately. Allow to get cold, then drain (save the syrup for a plum jelly or use as a base for ‘plumade’. (Note: half the poached plum recipe will be adequate (see recipe below).
Sandwich the meringues together with the drained poached plums and whipped cream, reserving a little fruit and cream for decoration. Decorate with rosettes of whipped cream. Garnish with little sprigs of mint or lemon balm.
The meringue discs will keep for several weeks
in a tin.
Poach the plums whole, they’ll taste better but quite apart from that you’ll have the fun of playing – He loves me – he loves me not! You could just fix it by making sure you take an uneven number! Greengages are delicious cooked in this way also.
350g (12oz) sugar
450ml (16fl oz) cold water
900g (2lbs) fresh Plums, Victoria, Opal or those dark Italian plums that come into the shops in Autumn
Put the sugar and water into a saucepan, bring slowly to the boil. Tip in the plums and poach, cover the saucepan and simmer very gently until they are about to but not quiet beginning to burst. Turn into a bowl, serve warm with a blob of softly whipped cream. Divine!
*The poached plums keep very well in the fridge and are delicious for breakfast without the cream!
Note: If plums are sweet use less sugar in syrup
Irish Tea Barmbrack
This is a more modern version of barmbrack, now commonly called a ‘tea brack’ because the dried fruit is soaked in tea overnight to plump it up (rather than boiled as in the recipes above). This little gem of a recipe is much easier to make at home than the Halloween Barmbrack (see recipe).
Even though it is a very rich bread, in Ireland it is traditionally served sliced and buttered.
Yields about 12 slices (eat the crusts, too!)
110g (4oz) sultanas
110g (4oz) raisins
110g (4oz) currants
50g (2oz) natural glace cherries, halved or quartered
300ml (10fl oz) hot tea
1 organic egg, whisked
175g (6oz) soft brown sugar
225g (8oz) self-raising flour
1 level teaspoon mixed spice
50g (2oz) homemade candied peel (see recipe)
450g (1lb) loaf tin – 12.5 x 20cm (5 x 8in) OR 3 small loaf tins 15 x 7.5cm (6 x 3in)
Put the dried fruit and cherries into a bowl. Cover with hot tea and leave to plump up overnight.
Next day, line the loaf tin with silicone paper.
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
Add the whisked egg, soft brown sugar, flour and mixed spice to the fruit and tea mixture. Stir well. Put the mixture into the lined loaf tin.
Cook in for about 1 1/2hours or until a skewer comes out clean.
Leave to cool on a wire rack.
Keeps very well in an airtight tin.