Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Supermarket Experience - The Sri Lanka Chronicles

Wherever I go I like to check out the markets. I love markets and I don't discriminate between supermarkets, wholesale markets, or local markets - I love them all! Our second visit to Sri Lanka was a relatively long one (18 days) and since we were staying in a bungalow with a fully equipped kitchen I knew I would not only be visiting the markets as a tourist but I'd be shopping too. Markets are a great way of getting a glimpse of the food culture of a place and supermarkets can give you a broader perspective, beyond fresh fruit and veg.

For practical purposes I shopped at the supermarket because communication was easier - the staff at the supermarkets usually had at least basic English so I could ask for stuff and even get basic instructions and descriptions about unfamiliar ingredients and products. Supermarkets are very popular in Sri Lanka and we'd see one nearly every half a kilometre whenever we stepped out to go anywhere in Colombo. I saw them frequently on the highways on our trips to Galle, Kandy, and Dambulla too. Basically, you're never too far away from a supermarket in Sri Lanka! Take your pick from the Cargill's Food City outlets, Arpico Super Centres, Laugfs, and Keells Super outlets, to name a few. 

Though I found Cargill's outlets very near our house next to the University of Kelaniya, I preferred the Arpico around 10 minutes away at Wattala. It is a huge store and I spent many a happy hour browsing in the aisles, drooling over the meat and fish counters, exploring the vegetable section, and picking up random things from the kitchen good department. They even have Noritake! The local Cargill's outlets are also very well stocked but being smaller were restricted mainly to food. For fresh produce both at absolutely at par. 

Fresh fish, cleaned, cut, and each piece individually wrapped

All sorts of fish and conveniently labeled 

On one of my visits to Arpico I saw this and it completely spooked me! There nestled among the chicken nuggets and other ready-to-fry goodies sat this hideous carved face. Eeeek! 

Milk is of excellent quality and there are many varieties of flavoured milk. Apart from the usual chocolate and vanilla, we also found this falooda flavoured milk which the hubby absolutely loved. It didn't have sabja seeds or the actual falooda noodles but was a fun flavour all the same 😋

Good old Maggi in Sri Lankan flavours 

Fresh veggies at Cargill's. What I loved about shopping for vegetables was that there were plenty of familiar veggies and a good number of new things to try so cooking wasn't a daily challenge where I had to constantly Google before I cooked. 

If you like salad then you will love Sri Lanka! The veg shelves are packed with varieties of salad greens and they are as fresh as ever. I don't think I saw one wilted leaf anywhere! 

Fresh pork at Cargill's

And at Arpico

Elephant House is a big brand in Sri Lanka and they also make some amazing pork products. Here's a part of the haul I brought back home to Mumbai with me. 

My prop and equipment loving self also went a little nuts at Arpico! It's not like you don't get stuff in our supermarkets here but the joy of finding all manner of unfamiliar bits and pieces or just mundane things but of good quality made my heart sing. take for example this display of coconut and kithul wood spoons - 

I think I bought a few EVERY time I stepped into Arpico! 😊

I didn't buy a single mortar and pestle even though they are so pretty! I need a prize for such self restraint! 

And that is Noritake on the shelves at Arpico. Noritake has three or four ranges in quality and the middle range is available at Arpico. I loved this classic white and gold set but since we don't drink tea at our house I couldn't justify bringing an entire tea set with me regardless of how much I liked it. Sigh!

The one disconcerting thing about the supermarkets is their lavish (and wasteful) use of plastic. At the checkout coutners I struggled every time to get them to use fewer bags (getting your own bag wasn't allowed). Nearly every category of goods would be bagged separately and on my first visit I came home with more than 10 plastic bags!  Seeing individual pieces of fish, pork chops, steaks, etc., wrapped in miles of clingfilm made me unhappy too. It's such a beautiful country, I hope they cotton on to basic concepts of keeping their enviroment clean and safe really soon. 

We were lucky to have been in Sri Lanka for a long-ish visit and one where we weren't in a hotel. Our breakfasts and numerous meals were home cooked where we tried out local products and local variations of familiar things. I could even host a dinner when the hubby's friends and colleagues from the University of Kelaniya came over one evening. 

Daal, rice, jeera aloo, pan grilled masala chicken, and fish curry

It was lovely to live a bit of the Sri Lankan life doing mundane things like going to the supermarket and running a house in Kelaniya. It wasn't very different from our life here in Kharghar but there were many new flavours. Even if you're staying in a hotel do visit a supermarket near you so you can try some of the local stuff. There's no better way to enjoy local food beyond what you get at restaurants. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dambulla Cave Temple Complex - The Sri Lanka Chronicles

Seated Buddha

On our previous trip to Sri Lanka we only touched base (quite literally) at Dambulla without going up to see the cave temples. This time we made it to the top along with our enthusiastic bunch of students from the University of Kelaniya.

It's an approximately four hour drive from Colombo, a scenic drive through hills and plains and plenty of lush greenery, small towns, bustling markets, and plenty of Buddhist dagobas too. Most restaurants have exceptionally clean washrooms making the long drive quite stress free.

This complex of cave temples is part of a living Buddhist monastery - the longest known actively used Buddhist monastery. At the base of the site is the Golden temple with an enormous seated Buddha image. This is one of the most dazzling sights in Sri Lanka - the huge temple with that massive image of lord Buddha seated atop against a clear blue sky.

The ancient painted caves are far above this spectacular looking temple and it's quite a climb up to get to them. Dambulla is not a site for handicapped visitors or for those who have difficulty walking or climbing. You can either take the winding paved pathways or the stone stairs. There are numerous places to stop and rest as you climb. The hubby was determined to get up there so we went up really slowly taking many breaks. We found the stairs easier than the winding paths going up. Be sure to carry drinking water with you, climbing is thirsty work and there aren't any stalls selling water/soft drinks or cheap knickknacks here. Wear dark glasses and a cap, the glare of the Sun can be quite sharp.

You can drive up to a certain distance reducing the climbing by about 50%. Ask for directions at the ticket counter while buying your tickets. Like with most active temples in Sri Lanka you have to remove your footwear before entering the temple complex at the top. Carry socks as the rock floor can get quite painfully hot. You will also have to buy a separate pass for your camera (not for the phone camera).

The climb is scenic and the views around as you get higher are quite spectacular. You will encounter troops of mischievous toque macaques as you climb. They are quite comfortable around humans and we saw one grab food from a passing tourist, so keep food out of sight to avoid thievery!

Grooming session

I could easily spend a couple of hours watching these macaques and shooting endless photos! I did manage to tear myself away and eventually make it to the top, to the cave temples.

Here we are, me, the hubby, Prof Manatunga, and the students

There are five caves in the complex at the top, each with numerous Buddha statues interspersed with a few figures of kings and of other divinities. There are paintings on practically every surface except the floors. What I really liked is that the caves are softly lit inside so one can see the interiors quite easily. 

A seated Buddha and standing figure of Ananda, his favourite disciple in the first cave.

The first cave houses a large image of the Buddha in the reclining mahaparinirvana pose with a couple of other images at its feet, one of which is of Ananda, his favourite disciple. The walls and ceiling are covered in painted decorations depicting devotees, bhikshus, and legends from the Buddhist texts. Even though its a small cramped cave it is still quite awe-inspiring!

Floral motifs under the Buddha's feet

The next two caves are quite vast and are full of Buddha images in standing and seated poses, and in the reclining pose too. These caves also have images of patron kings, and the gods Vishnu and Saman, and stupas. The frescoes depict Buddhist legends, episodes from his life, and animal, bird, geometric, and floral motifs. Like I said earlier, every square centimetre of the interiors of the caves is painted and the sight is simply spectacular. The last two caves are not as large but are as heavily decorated.

Row of seated figures

Standing figures 

Mahaparinirvana Buddha - the Buddha attains Nirvana

One of the numerous paintings on the ceiling in the second cave - a close up

A broader view of the cave with the figures and frescos

Patron King

The mahaparinirvana Buddha depicted on the ceiling. The detail is simply incredible!

Frescoes in the last cave - Hindu deities and a king

Keep a day for Dambulla. The temple at the base, the climb to the cave complex at the top, and then the cave complex itself will require time. Once you're done with this site you can have a quick look at the market on your way out. The sheer variety of fruit and vegetables will leave you impressed. Read about my visit to the Dambulla market here. 

On the climb down we caught a glimpse of the Lion Rock, Sigiriya as the skies were clear. What a thrill to see that incredible landmark from so many kilometres away! 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Half-Day in Galle - The Sri Lanka Chronicles

It's been a hectic few days in Sri Lanka as the hubby settled into his stint as Senior Visiting Faculty at the Department of Archaeology, University of Kelaniya. Introductions to the faculty, a tour of the department, meeting the Dean, the students, and finally starting the lectures, not to mention settling into our lovely accommodation - it's been busy days!

Apart from classroom lectures there are site visits planned and the first one outside Colombo was to Galle, the beautiful seaside town in the south. After a pleasant drive of a couple of hours along the Expressway from Kadawatha to Galle we arrived to visions of clear blue skies, the ocean, white breakers, and fishermen hauling in nets... It was just beautiful!

Hauling in the nets - Galle

We hopped off to have a closer look and the hubby and I spent a blissful 15 minutes drinking in the beauty of the scene in front of us and the fish market, right there along the beach.

At the fish market on the beach - red fin and black fin tuna


Fresh fish cleaned and cut according to your requirements

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and proceeded to the Dutch Fort at Galle. The fort was built in 1588 by the Portuguese and later extended and better fortified by the Dutch in the 17th Century. There are many lovely buildings, churches, a lighthouse, a hospital renovated into a fancy shopping complex, restaurants, curio shops, and of course, museums. You can easily spend an entire day in the fort or spend a couple of days in Galle and see the fort and the rest of this lovely ocean-side town.

The entrance to the Dutch Fort, Galle

You can see the British Coat of Arms up there at the top - there's the lion and the unicorn (with the crown around its neck), with the rose and the thistle below and by the side of the central shield. Much lower, at the top of the arch is the symbol of the Dutch East India Company - VOC.

Since we'd gone with archaeology and tourism under grad students of the University of Kelaniya, we went straight to the Maritime museum. It was a hot day and frankly, I was quite happy to be out of the sun! We spent a couple of hours looking through the display galleries starting with a short film about the Avondster Project. This project worked on recovering and restoring artefacts from the shipwrecked Avondster, among other things. In a tragic twist, just days after this project was completed, with artefacts recovered, conserved, and ready to be archived or displayed, the terrible Boxing Day tsunami hit Galle and all the artefacts were lost back to the sea.

The Maritme museum still has plenty on display and you can see artefacts from all over Sri Lanka from the earliest periods right till the British era. There's a nice gift shop too with souvenirs, post cards, books, and DVDs on sale.

We drove around the fort and had a quick tour without visiting the other buildings individually. The views of the ocean are spectacular! Like I said, there's tons to see in the fort complex so go with time on your hands.

As we drove out of Galle on our way to Matara, where another fort waited for us, we passed a fruit market housed in the original market building which is now a heritage structure.

Galle fruit market

This little market beats Crawford market in Mumbai just for the sheer variety! Rambutans, mangosteen, mangoes, varieties of citrus, apples, pears, a zillion kinds of banana, strawberries, and lots more - a fruit-lover's heaven this is! Those earthen pots you see are full of buffalo milk curd, a favourite here in Sri lanka. This thick curd is eaten with kithul molasses which they call kithul honey. Kithul is a variety of palm. You will see this pots for sale in the fanciest supermarkets and in the smallest markets in the villages too, such is the love for this product here.

Sri Lankans love fish and dried fish seems as popular as fresh in spite of the abundance of fresh fish straight out of the ocean.

Varieties of dried fish

more dried fish

These were on display at a grocer's shop, not in a separate shop for dried fish. Just goes to show how regular a product dried fish is here that you can stroll into your grocer's to get some!

We stopped for lunch at one of the many restaurants along the beach road in Galle where I tried out some Indian food. Now, don't get horrified! Hear me out. Indian food like all other cuisines changes when it goes goes abroad and I wanted to try the Sri lankan version of it. And I was so glad I did! I had ghee rice with chicken kurma. Lovely plump short grained rice redolent of buffalo ghee paired with a coconut cream kurma - the kurma was a take on the kurmas you get in the south in India, but had fewer spices and a very dominant and rich coconut cream sauce. It was yum!

Ghee Rice and Chicken Kurma

I'm hoping to go back to Galle and spend a day or two there... the ocean stretches forever, the air is clean, the fish is ridiculously fresh, and there's that gorgeous fort begging to be explored properly. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Chichinge Peyanj Bhaja - Snake Gourd and Onion Stir Fry

Moni (my mom) had a pretty limited repertoire in the kitchen but once in a way she would stir up something we weren't so familiar with. It is a fact that neither I nor my brother were great fans of vegetables and as a single mother she took the easier way out and cooked meats or fish just so we'd eat with a little less fuss. But as I grew up, and more so after I got married and developed an interest in food I started asking her how this vegetable or that was cooked - and with that began a journey of discovery for me of the myriad vegetarian delights of Bengali cuisine.

Moni and I agreed that cooking non vegetarian food was always easier - there was less chopping and prep involved. But there was a wonderland of food in the vegetarian component of Bengali cuisine and once I showed an interest she would cook more vegetarian things as she finally had a less fussy audience. The fact that the brother (starved of vegetarian food in Dubai, thanks to his own limited repertoire in the kitchen) was also now willing to eat his vegetables certainly helped!

One of the dishes she made quite frequently was chichinge peyanj bhaja or snake gourd stir fried with onions. This preparation is as simple as a dish can get and yet is as delicious as ever. As I learned more vegetable recipes I realised how frugal the ingredients would be and how minimal the spicing. Most everyday vegetable recipes in Bengali cuisine let the vegetable and its own flavours shine, as you will see in this simple preparation of Chichinge Peyanj Bhaja.

Chichinge Peyanj Bhaja

3 feet long piece Snake Gourd
2 medium onions
1/2 tsp Kalonji or Nigella seeds
1/2 tsp Turmeric powder
1 tsp Chilli powder
1 tsp sugar
Mustard oil

Cut the snake gourd into manageable pieces and scrape the surface to get rid of the white outer skin. A peeler will dig into the flesh of the gourd and you will end up wasting a lot. A good scrape with a sharp knife works just fine. Cut the gourd in half length-wise and scrape out the pith and seeds with a teaspoon.

Now slice the gourd as finely as you can - a couple of milimetres thin is perfect. Slice the onions equally fine. You should have gourd and onions to the proportion of 3:2. The gourd reduces as it cooks so having equal quantities will unbalance the dish.

Heat mustard oil in a kadai/wok and once the oil is hot chuck in the kalonji and let it sizzle. Add the sliced gourd and fry on medium heat for a while. Once the gourd has started to soften add the onions, salt, turmeric and chilli powders and mix everything well. Add the sugar too at this stage.

Now all you have to do is be patient and fry till everything is cooked. Cover the wok with a loose lid and let it cook for a few minutes, coming back to stir once in a way. Once the snake gourd is cooked through let any moisture dry off and let the onions caramelise just a bit.

Serve with plain hot rice and a simple daal. It makes for a lovely light summer lunch.

This recipe, like many traditional Bengali recipes is also vegan.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Posto Murgi - Chicken cooked with Poppy Seeds

I set myself blogging goals nearly every year and even though I don't achieve exactly what I set out to do I like the idea of having goals and direction. In 2017 once again I will try to have an average of a post a week; so what if we're at the end of the 7th week and I have written just one post so far? I will catch up.

Setting a number goal is just one part of it - what am I going to write about every week? This year I feel the urge to cook and therefore there will be many recipe posts on Euphorhea. I will be cooking from recipes on my friends' blogs and from the vast collection of cookbooks that have made themselves at home with us apart from other random things I might be inspired to cook.

Today I set out to start on this cooking and blogging journey with a recipe I had never tried before. As I browsed through blog after blog, trawling through cakes, desserts, savouries, and curries, I kept stumbling as I would be missing one crucial ingredient or other in my pantry. While I admit I invariably tweak a recipe fiddling with quantities or ingredients, I did want to try to cook as close to a recipe as possible. So no, substituting mutton for chicken, chilli powder for fresh green chillies, lemon for tamarind, etc., wasn't an option. I got frustrated and gave up. And made myself a comforting bowl of nonta suji to soothe my irritated mind.

And then after a good Sunday afternoon nap I examined a couple of shortlisted recipes and figured out what  missing ingredients I could buy from the stores in lane. There was no need to give up in a sulk, all I had to do was get off my lazy bum and go get the ingredients. I ended up having a brisk walk around the neighbourhood and all the ingredients for Posto Murgi from Bong Mom's Cook Book. 

Bong Mom's Cook Book is one of my favourite blogs and I have been drooling over her recipes for as long as I can remember. And today I was going to cook from her blog. Finally!

I made a few changes to her recipe. Instead of 5 pounds of chicken I cooked around 2 pounds, and therefore tweaked the quantities to make it work.

Bong Mom's Posto Chicken

3 full chicken legs divided into thighs and drumsticks
2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp mustard oil
juice of 1 lemon

4 tbsp poppy seeds
6 cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger
2-6 green chillies (according to the level of heat you can handle)

3 cardamom pods
2 inch cassia bark
3 cloves
1 scant tsp fennel seeds (saunf)

1 large onion sliced
1 tomato, diced fine
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp garam masala powder (I used Everest)
fresh coriander
mustard oil.

Wash the chicken pieces and marinate with the ginger-garlic paste, salt, turmeric, lemon juice and mustard oil. Let it sit for a couple of hours.

Soak the poppy seeds for 20 minutes or so. Then grind to a paste with the garlic, ginger and green chillies. Add a little water (a tablespoon or two) to get a smooth paste.

Heat mustard oil in your wok or pan and toss in the whole spices - cardamom pods, etc. Once they begin to sizzle add the sliced onion and fry slowly on a medium flame till the onion begins to turn pink. Add the chopped tomato and cook for five minutes till the tomato is mushy and cooked through. you can add a little bit of sugar while frying the onions.

Now add the poppy seed paste and stir as you cook it slowly. Add a couple of tablespoons of water and cook on a low flame till the oil begins to separate. Add the chilli powder and the garam masala powder and mix. Cook for a couple of minutes more.

Add the marinated pieces of chicken and mix everything well so the masala coats the chiken pieces properly. Chop a little bit of the fresh coriander leaves including the stalks and add it to the pot. Don't use too much as you don't want the coriander to overpower the poppy seed flavour.

Braise the chicken in this masala for a few minutes and then add half a cup of water. Add more if you want more gravy. Cook covered till the chicken is cooked through.

Serve with plain hot rice or rotis/parathas. Garnish with a few sprigs of fresh coriander.