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 Diarmuid 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 in 2015.
I’ve visited the tea plantations and Sri Lankan tea is some of the finest in the world.
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.
True cinnamon is native to the lush tropical forests of southern Sri Lanka.
On my last trip to Sri Lanka I visited Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon estate with 360 degree views over Weligama Bay. Cinnamon and galangal are grown on the estate.
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 1½ 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 its 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 its 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 country’s 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 carrots with shallots and green chilliServes 4
Shallots add extra sweetness to this simple spiced carrot dish which can be fully prepared ahead and gently heated later.
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 two 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.
Cinnamon SwirlsMakes 18-20 scones, using a 3 inch (7½ cm) cutter
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.
Preheat the oven 250C/475F/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 ¾ 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.
Sri Lankan beetroot curryServes 4
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.
Shredded chicken and toasted coconut salad
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.
For the 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.
Ahilya iced tea
In a saucepan, bring the water to the boil with the spices, sugar and tea bags. Remove the tea bags. Simmer for five minutes. Cool, add the juice of seven limes or less depending on size.
This iced tea can last for five days. Serve chilled with two mint leaves in each glass of iced tea.
Exotic Organic Mushrooms
I’m always delighted to find a chemical free alternative to food. We just discovered Garryhinch Wood Organic Mushrooms from Co Offaly. There’s a terrific selection to choose from — Shitake, Grey and Pink and King Oyster mushrooms, Hen of the Woods, White Beech, Lions Mane and Forest Nameko. They are cultivated on wood from trees sourced from sustainably managed forests. Each mushroom has its own flavour and medicinal value.
Sheridan’s Cheese Festival
Set in Sheridan’s beautiful grounds in Co Meath, this festival features more than 100 stalls selling cheese, organic fruit and vegetables, heritage meat and charcuterie, plus artisan bread. There’s lots of talks, demos and workshops too. Sunday, May 26, entry €5 and children go free; for more information go to www.sheridanscheesemongers.com