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.