We do things in threes. Us Sri Lankans stuck in the kitchen. Consider ginger, garlic and green chillies. Then there is rampa, sera, karapincha. Curry powder that is thunapaha. Once again thuna – three comes up. Then there are onions. At least three types – rataloonu, a kind of a smaller shallot often grown in Jaffna with sweeter and more complex notes than the French version; Bombay onion – essentially a red cooking onion but more pink than red, and loonu kola – a finer but better flavoured scallion than the dull watery version we buy in North America. Then the poetic fragrant spices – cardamom, cinnamon and cloves – the three C’s of Sri Lankan food poetry. These are the flavourings of most Sri Lankan food and always in a bath of coconut milk. I speak only from what I learned in a more or less Sinhala household while I was under my mother`s loving thumb. There are many other subtle and unsubtle differences in homes of other Sri Lankan cultural communities – consider the Tamils, the Malays, the Moors, the Burghers, and forgive me if I left others out, the kaffirs, the Veddhas and likely others that we never think of. No one taught me much about how the Veddhas or the Kaffirs cooked and that is for another day. Await “The culinary culture of Kaffirs and other Sri Lankan minorities.” But I digress.
And of these threesomes the most indispensable three sisters are rampa, sera and karapincha without which Sri Lankan food never tastes like Sri Lankan food. Fresh rampa (pandan leaves) sera (lemon grass) karapincha (curry leaves), these leaves and grasses are mother’s milk to us. They are never thought of as herbs but are simply called by their names and that is that. Globalization is well and good and we all wear our hair the same way and our skirts are of the same length and our jeans are universally tight all the same but I refuse to call rampa sera karapincha herbs. They are just rampa sera karapincha. And lemon grass does not connote the raspy knife sharp edge of a sera blade of grass nor is it a lemon tree. Thus sera it shall be from here on hence.
On the subject of Sri Lankan be it in a culinary or political sense or even within the meaning of purported heritage; I am trapped between whether I am Ceylonese or whether I was born in a mouthful of a country called Sri Lanka or indeed a Serendibean. The self-banished no longer know but we carry the most powerful of the memories our mothers taught us unable to be reborn in a new skin; permanently sweet-scarred by an accident of birth and the perfume of our mothers’ kitchens; a place of survival for many of us. A dear friend calls himself Lankino. Neither colonial nor the word of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government that came up with the name – Sri Lanka – around the time period when many young men resisted in revolution and were killed by the state by the thousands. Another scar. The associations of the name to the events of those times never sat well with me. It’s independence day today for the former Serendib – February 4, 1948. There is a rash of patriotic fervour on Facebook with resounding cries of “I am Sri Lankan” and the like and that troubled flag flying with hollow pride like Patachara by the river crying out for her children stolen away by the vultures. February 4th – A sad anniversary for what we did not do with our independence except for creating more problems for ourselves. Making a pariah state for ourselves. When we were Ceylon I guess everyone went around saying I am a proud Ceylonese. And then when it changed to Sri Lanka everyone became a proud Sri Lankan. Just names. The fantasy memory we all carry once we leave home self-banished, or most of us losers who do so, is of Serendib. A paradise of our formative years where the lush green and curry smells and the bird songs and the music of bajawu and genteel manners and the daily drum beat of survival and the regular sounds of wang gedi and mol gaha kept the reality hidden away from us. That is the poetry that some carry around with them lost in the wildernesses of the so called west the land of the free and the brave the true north great and free etc. And everyone who got left behind keep having their film roll changed and the camera has been taken away. And us lost fools cling to rampa, sera, karapincha when we feel that the high rise ground beneath our shorn feet slowly being pulled away and turn to pots and pans and thunapaha bottles to reorient towards the orient of our sad states. Escaping vertigo. Curry leaves the drug the continuity of generations. Why the other day when my son swung by to pick up something on the weekend he surprised me – mom, do you have any curry leaves and stuff? – The genes pining for home food. All that parippu still running in the veins through generations.
Curry leaves were hard to find outside of Sri Lanka some decades ago but if you go to any of the big Cities where there are Tamil communities, mostly Tamil refugees who left Sri Lanka during the long troubles you will find them. Sera and Rampa though is not a common ingredient in Tamil cooking and is more Sinhalese. But any big City which has a reasonable Asian populace will have Sera and Rampa if you look. I am fortunate living in Toronto where everyone and everything is here. Indeed Sera is now often found in just about any North American metropolis supermarket. Though curry leaves are still rare in the mainstream shops. What a lot of north Americans consider Sri Lankan food is mainly Tamil food which while a genre on its own is not entirely representative of Sri Lankan food. And that is another subject for another day. More pleasures and rants to come.
Just about every Sri Lankan dish will have curry leaves in it but the use of Rampa and Sera depends on whether the subject is meat, fish and several other considerations. But all three are essential for that Sri Lankan staple of life. Parippu. Learned in the every day and one of the first things one learns to cook when playing chinchoru bath as children – cooking in tiny hand thrown earthenware chatti pots on real fire hearths built outside between three side-turned bricks by children. Such adventure. Most little children growing up in Sri Lanka went up to their mothers to ask for little portions of whatever she was cooking. A little dal, some ash plantain, a piece of fish, some coconut milk and the other necessities of curries. A small fire is lit outside to do the cooking often in play houses and we built our dreams in play never to forget those first smells of coconut milk, turmeric and vegetables infused with karapincha, rampa and sera, cooking in miniature earthenware vessels – never to forget that nawum earthy smell like the kiss of rain mingling with childhood food smells sealed forever in our hearts – the benchmark of love.
Parippu or “dal” in non Sri Lankan parlance. Red maisoor dal, red lentils. Those tiny legumes bright orange mostly and quite unique unlike Depuis lentils or those other darker or less bright hued species. Where I grew up into young adulthood fast food was unknown and money was always tight despite two teachers salaries in the household. If we were home late after coming back from a family trip out of town and everyone was hungry there was no stopping by at MacDonalds or the like. And there was never enough money to splurge on what we called boutique food or kadae kaama – hoppers, string hoppers, thosa from the saivar kadae or even a rice packet with curries. The thosa shop up the road was Dharbar House across from Forvil Shop but we rarely ever got food there. Money spent on luxuries such as shop bought food could feed a family of eight and the household help for days. And Parippu took only as long as or even less than it took to cook rice easily and deliciously accompanied by fresh bought bread. Thus any money was spent on getting a few loaves of bread and a quick parippu was rustled up by my mother and the household help if one was present; and the hungry children were all fed and starvation staved off for the night. Then there was the other truth that most women knew – that home cooked food was far more tastier than that which was sold at the shops.
Parippu. My most intimate link with my mother and likely that of many others who grew up from a serendib childhood. You learn just by eating, watching, and by the sounds and smells of how my mother made parippu. In those days there was always some sand or stones in it requiring careful washing and re-washing to make sure there was no stone to be bitten on by an easily offended husband. That would be a very bad thing punishable by a beating in some households or at least a seething glare across the dining table to the shame of the cook and scaring the children. Oh the standards were so high for women of my mother’s generation. Sand or stoneless parippu or else.
But today life is more simple and in some aspects even sweeter for us. There are hardly any stones or sand in the dal I buy and all it takes is a good wash till the water runs clear and an easy and delicious staple is made ready for all to eat and enjoy. Wish my mother had this brand of parippu. Would have saved a lot of trouble for her. The time taken to pick out stones and other nasty things and the washing and the re-washing like panning for gold except for stones and sand. Those were the good old days. So much time was spent in the cleaning of the food rather than even the preparation of it so much so that having a cleaned up ingredient was its own reward. The actual pleasure of cooking was a bonus.
Parippu is also referred to as Dal in English. And I’ve carried in my heart Amma’s way of making dal over the decades and across oceans and through several countries. When I was home after about a decade a few years ago I was quite surprized to learn that my sister did not make dal in the same way. Her recipe had changed whereas I’d stuck to what Amma taught me likely clinging to old ways not wanting to let them go when one is far from home. The parippu that Amma made does not exist back home any more or may be it does. But it certainly exists around here and in my son’s kitchen because he has learned to make it just like his Aachi did although he hardly knew her.
Also practice and the quality of ingredients you have on a given day affects the outcome of dal. Sometimes it is a thick sauce other times it can be a watery grave oops gravy. The days when your expectations meet the outcome are the best. So it is best to practise and make dal at least once a week especially if you have many mouths to feed. And dal is still affordable here compared to meat and animal flesh and on most days of the years I do not eat any flesh.
Key things essential for parippu – Ceylon cinnamon, brown mustard seeds, cumin or fennel seeds, a whole red dried chilli or two. Its sacrilege to cook dal without umbalakada also known as maldive fish but being a vegetarian I never use it any more. I use asafoetida (hing is the Hindi word I believe and you can always get it in Indian shops) and even a little smoked paprika at the end in the temperado to make up for the absence of umbalakada which adds a smoky umami to the flavourings. But in the name of authenticity umbalakada must be used if you are not vegetarian. This is made of bonito and can be purchased in Sri Lankan shops usually in bottles and already broken into little pieces. I recently discovered that a similar but likely a more refined product is the Japanese katsobushi. But best to locate umbalakada because katsobushi does not have the heft as it is sold in very thin delicate flakes.
For most of us we can make dal with our eyes closed because its now bred in the bone. But if you want to learn to do it the way my mother taught me and if you stay with me here I will show you how. I have changed nothing except for the umbalakada substitute and the dab of butter at the end. And each time I make dal I am with my mother and I can forget most of life’s woes and burdens for a day or two. And some of the things I share here will also be a primer for other serendipitous food from that paradise that I left behind.
You will need some basics:
Coconut milk (thick and thin). Use Maggi brand Coconut Powder sold in Most Tamil/Sri Lankan shops in North American cities. Do not use tinned coconut milk. It has a tinny taste and ruins the flavour. Of course you can make it from scratch but that is for another day.
The ratio for making coconut milk from powder:
7 tablespoons powder to 1/4 cup hot tap water and blend using a hand blender. This will produce a creamy clot free and very thick heavy coconut cream. You may or may not need all of it but if there is excess you can add it all at the end when it is called for; or use it in another dish. For other uses you may adjust amount of liquid.
Step 1 – The cooking of the dal
Maisoor Dal – 1.5 cups
Water – between 1.5 cups and 2.5 cups water (depending on the dal which may be more or less absorbent)
Ginger – Small piece peeled and sliced.
Garlic – A clove or two smashed.
Green Chilli – one or two sliced or split in two lengthwise.
Shallot – one large or two small or 1/4 small regular onion sliced.
Karapincha (Curry Leaves) – About 5 – 10 leaves or one sprig.
Sera (Lemon Grass) – About 1/4″ piece.
Rampa (Pandan) – About ½” piece
Turmeric Powder – About ½ teaspoon
Ceylon cinnamon – 1″ piece (do not use any other type of cinnamon)
Maldive fish pieces – ½ – 1/4 teaspoon (optional)
1 pinch of fenugreek seeds (optional)
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons thick coconut milk (made from powder as per directions above).
Salt to taste.
Step 2 – For the temperado:
brown mustard seeds – about ½ teaspoon (buy only from Sri Lankan shops)
cumin or fennel seeds – a pinch or two
Dry red whole chilli – one or two – broken into two
Karapincha (Curry Leaves) – About 5 – 10 leaves or one sprig.
Sera (Lemon Grass) – About 1/4″ piece.
Rampa (Pandan) – About ½” piece
Sliced shallot about a tablespoon or two.
½” Ceylon Cinnamon
About 2 – 4 tablespoons cooking oil (or ghee)
A dab of butter. optional.
A pinch of asafoetida (hing) – optional
A pinch or two of smoked paprika – optional
Gather together all the ingredients separately for Steps 1 and 2.
The idea as to quantities of flavourings (such as garlic, ginger, chillies, onion etc.) is really just to flavour the dal without overpowering it. You will see from the pictures the amount I use. To me the most importance flavour is the rampa and sera and Ceylon cinnamon – though everything listed is essential unless specified as optional.
Thoroughly rinse dal in water many times over till the water runs clear. Drain. Promptly add all the ingredients in stage 1, except the salt and coconut milk, into a pot not letting it fill over half way up. Ensure the liquid is at least 1/4″ – ½” over the dal. Take about two tablespoons of the coconut milk mixture and add to the pot. Idea is that at this stage the dal should have the flavour of coconut milk but just a little.
Cover and bring to near boil then reduce heat and simmer gently. Be careful not to let the dal boil over as it can happen very easily. Cook till dal is tender but don’t let it completely disintegrate. Takes about ten minutes but may vary. This is something that will come with practice. Each batch of dal is different and the quantity of water strictly depends on how much water the dal can absorb and it varies. Trick is half way through the cooking gauge how much more water it needs and if there is too much liquid then uncover give more heat to boil down the water and simmer covered the last few minutes. If there is too little add some water and do the same.
Once dal is cooked remove from fire and add salt and gently mix and taste. Its easy to over-salt dal so go very easy and the perfect amount of salt will bring out the best taste in the dal. Too much salt will kill the recipe. Add the thick coconut milk and fold in gently so you don’t mash up the soft dal; set aside.
the right consistency or you could let it be a little less so.
In a small saucepan (ideally one with a bowl like shape so it can puddle) heat oil. Have a splatter shield handy as it will splatter. From ingredients list in Step 2, add mustard and cumin/fennel seed to the hot oil. (It will splatter so be careful and make sure to use the splatter shield). If the saucepan is too hot take it off the fire or turn off the heat. Once the mustard has popped return to high heat and add the dry chilli broken into two. It will fry up fast and now add the rest of the temperado ingredients except for the butter, hing, and smoked paprika. Once everything, especially the shallots, are nicely browned add the butter and let it melt and become fragrant and then add the hing and the paprika. In a few seconds it will all be fragrant. Promptly add the temperado to the cooked dal and bring the entire thing to a quick bubbling and immediately take off the fire. It may be somewhat hot and bubbly when you add the temperado; so have a cover at hand to cover immediately in case it is too volatile. Gently fold in the temperado once the wild bubbling has subsided so flavours are spread around. Carefully taste for salt and adjust. Ideally you will have a creamy concoction more watery than porridge but still thick. That is my favourite consistency. Some like it more liquid and you can adjust using the amount of liquid used at the boiling stage or add more lighter coconut milk at the stage when milk is added. That is the stage where you can gauge how thick or thin the parippu will turn out.
You now have parippu. Wonderful with nice crusty bread, rice, or just some warmed pita. Ideally I would serve dal with rice, a curried vegetable, pappadam, and a nice tvp vegetarian meat curry and cucumber sambal. But the options and combinations are pretty endless.
Dal and rice combined is a complete protein. And so affordable.
The hing and smoked paprika is the substitute for the maldive fish (umbalakada).
Sri Lankan shallots versus the normal shallots – big difference as you can see. Its preferable to use the Sri Lankan shallots especially for the temperado. But if they are hard to find regular onions will do. But try the difference sometime.