Wherever I am, the aroma of curry leaves cooking will take me to Jasmine’s kitchen. Outside, one of those sultry and wet English November dusks; inside, a warm kitchen fragrant with spices. We chop and chatter, stir and laugh. I suspect that half the time I’m in the way and only slowing her down, but she graciously lets me learn by doing it myself. And I’m grateful to her for that.
Jasmine is a formidable cook, with English, Italian, Chinese and many other dishes in her repertoire, but tonight she is introducing me to the flavours of her homeland, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka (‘sacred island’ in Sanskrit) is an island nation situated in the Indian Ocean, to the southwest of the coast of India. Its cooking has been compared to that of South India, but to me it has a very distinct character of its own. Rice is the staple in both cuisines, and coconut, cashews and bananas (some of Sri Lanka’s main crops) are used extensively. Curry leaves feature prominently in both South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking, but Sri Lankans also make use of pandan leaves (Jasmine calls it ‘rampa’) and lemon grass (‘sera’).
Jasmine, my kind host and teacher, tells me her cooking combines the Northern, Tamil cooking and the bold spices of the West of Sri Lanka. Her food is fragrant, full of bold flavours, mouth-watering. Three flavour trinities, as Jasmine calls them, describe it best. The first is lime, green chillies and of course the curry leaves. Their haunting, addictive aroma permeates almost all the dishes. I had them before, and cooked with them, and loved them, but nothing comes close to this. I will always remember them and associate them with Jasmine’s cooking. Lime is also used extensively, and is usually added at the end, after the dish is finished cooking.
Jasmine’s other flavour trinity is Sri Lankan garam masala, Sri Lankan roasted curry powder and Sri Lankan chilli powder. Sri Lankan garam masala is very different from what I know as Indian garam masalas. Firstly, it is not roasted; cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are simply ground together raw, and the flavours of cloves and cardamom are dominant. Sri Lankan curry powder is roasted, and not ‘raw’. The spices are roasted and then ground, which gives them a nutty flavour. The curry powder is often added to the dishes at the final stages of cooking, to perk up the flavours. There are numerous versions of the recipe, and it’s usually homemade. Sri Lankan chilli powder, on the other hand, is often shop-bought. It is a mixture of spices, rather than a single spice. All three are spice mixtures are deliciously captivating.
The third flavour trinity is garlic, ginger and pandan leaf (or ‘rampa’).
That first night, Jasmine served us an exquisite meat feast:
- Beef rolls
- Chicken byriani
- Lamb curry
- Peppered beef fry
- Red lentils dhal with coconut milk
- Aubergine curry
- Pineapple curry
- Pineapple salad
- Ginger chutney (sambol)
- Crème Brule
The second day, we were treated to a fish feast of:
- Salmon curry
- Prawn curry
- Fish cutlets
- Varar (leeks and cabbage with coconut)
- Dhal (as above)
- Lemon rice
Both dinners were simply superb. Suffice to say that since then, I have made many of the above dishes in my own kitchen. One day, they will all find their way to this blog!
With this, I would like to than Jasmine for her warm generosity, and for putting up with me in the kitchen!
Curry leaves (PHOTO: Sonja Pauen – Stanhopea @ Wikipedia Commons)
INFO: Curry leaves
‘The Curry Tree or Karivepallai or Kadipatta or Sweet Neem leaf.(Murraya koenigii; syn. Bergera koenigii, Chalcas koenigii) is a tropical to sub-tropical tree in the family Rutaceae, which is native to India.’ (WIKIPEDIA) Its aromatic leaves are used as a herb in South Indian and Sri Lankan cooking.
For more information, please see Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.
My other posts and recipes on Sri Lankan cooking:
Sri Lankan spices (including recipes for Sri Lankan garam masala, curry powder and more!)
Sri Lankan Fish Curry (Meen kulambu)