Birthdays and Basketball and Hunting with my Father

When amma did her one pot chip chop slash blash magic on what thatha shot who knew how she did it except I learned from smell.  Black pepper was generously spent and gaminess was the high note that told you this was wild.  Arjuna still recalls from when he was three or four of a hunt the boys went on shooting peafowl.  “Seeya shot a peacock!” he beamed when the shooting party returned.  And then we took it home and roasted it.  The Ceylon Daily News cookbook has a recipe for roast peafowl.  Amma usually followed that on the rare times when thatha brought home mayura’s wagon shot down for dinner and other goodies.

Last week was a bit of a whirlwind around these parts.  Arjuna who worships basketball dislocated his shoulder playing and its been a worrying time; but anyone who is a parent knows what happens to the worrying.  You bury it for the time being and do what needs to be done and cheer up and stay positive and slowly burn inside.  When I got the call as dad was checking him out of emergency  “mom wouldn’t it be easier for you to come over and stay with me a few days than for me to have to go to Scarborough and stay with dad?” I dropped everything; threw some clothing into a knapsack; threw the chicken I was gonna cook in the freezer and called Diamond Taxi and wham bam I was there in fifteen minutes with leftovers from fridge.

Mom turned into full-on mom mode, made sure the lad did not miss anything foodwise and that his apartment was not gonna go to pot; slept on the couch and the first night was rough though not due to any fault of the couch which is perfectly comfortable.  It was the suppressed worry.  Sleep was hard to come by for both mother and son but love reigns and sleep was had in the wee small hours lulled by the sound of the St. Clair Street Car.  The lad has progressed well so much so that he is now barbecuing with his arm in a sling and can manage the dishes. He has good people around him and dear friends.  On day two a wonderful young man he teaches with came to do laundry with him so he did not have to lift piles of clothing to the laundromat.  On garbage night another friend came by and helped deal with putting it out.  Who needs parents with friends like this.  When I returned from a little diversion to the office on laundry evening shirts were drying on hangers everywhere ready to be ironed and more friends had arrived.   Last night at his birthday party he carried two glasses of water but in a somewhat awkward configuration.  He is in excellent spirits and is taking things in stride; forgive the pun given the basketball connotation for those in the know.  We seem to have all survived well.

So here is what happened.  He was trying to shoot the ball and someone pushed his arm and presumably he was resisting hard and at an unfortunate angle and out popped the poor poor shoulder.  I am told it was the worst pain he’d ever known and I am not even going there.  Of all days my phone was running out of juice so I had turned it off and on a rare visit with friends on the east side and the poor lad had been calling me and fortunately he found dad who came rushing down by which time they had put him to sleep to fix the shoulder.  Scary really.  And when I checked the phone later in the evening there it was. A text message saying “mom I am in hospital.”  So that’s the long and short of it and all because of basketball I guess but it was good to see that on day two he was back on the web watching basketball for hours.  So there’s resilience for you.

Last evening decorating his birthday cake I was inspired to draw a basketball court on it at the last minute which was greatly appreciated.  I even had hoops on it although without the boards as someone noticed.  We were laughing that all that the cake missed was a stick Arjuna with his arm in a sling and that there should be party favours of arm slings.  The cake went fast before most of the people had even arrived for the gathering though dear Jared got his piece because I hid a piece for him in the fridge before it all disappeared.

Arjuna grew up with no relatives because I had no one here nor did his dad and he would sometimes say “mom, my relatives are my school friends.”  Many who he grew up with since Grade 5 and more nurtured at university and from his music gigs.  Warm loving fun and bright young men and women who so clearly love him and its like a million suns shining on him when his friends are around.  Such love such treasures.  A wonderful end to a worrying week much of which was spent scurrying about making sure the lad had all he needed.

And today, being Saturday, is the first day in about a week when I’ve been at home able to do or not do what needs to be done.  There are once again piles of paper everywhere and I cannot really find anything because I do not know where anything is.   I can’t even remember when I last made a square meal around here.  When I left home for the party last night I discovered there was something like a dead chicken in the freezer which I left out to thaw not quite knowing what will come out of it.  You know how you discover stuff in frigid storage not remembering you ever putting it there.  When I rinsed it late this morning it was a bit gamey.  May be it had sat in the fridge a bit too long before I froze it but it reminded me of wild game from the days when thatha used to hunt.  These ranged from porcupines to wild birds when there were plenty to be had in the jungles.  And a memorable wild venison curry I had near Matara on the way back from Yala in my childhood.  We stopped at a bath kade in Matara town in the middle of the night looking for food and the boutique keeper offered kalae mas, wild venison with godamba roti; long long before kottu roti was ever heard of.  I can still remember its funky wild edge. I couldn’t have been older than twelve if that but I still remember like yesterday night’s dinner.

Those days a bird or a hare or anything else that was shot was skinned and or feathered and then hung for a few days; and this in the dry heat that was usually near Hambantota where thatha had a shack long before ports, airports or cricket stadiums in Galle were ever dreamed of.  Somehow the funky ripeness of today’s thawed chicken only made me think of wild game the way that amma and thatha showed me.  He shot she cooked.  Usually there was always someone around to help with the skinning.  Especially at Hambantota.  I remember one time we were at Johar mama’s ancestral home near Hambantota and thatha shot a hare and they all skinned it and hung it out, as they say to dry. This hunted flesh was never cooked fresh as if it were fish from the sea.

Amma used a lot of gammiris and onions, garlic and ginger with no real spices except for a little clove and cardamom and Ceylon cinnamon and some curry leaves and rampe.  No coconut milk and any of the usual stuff that goes into curries.  The seeming sparseness of the flavourings gave voice to the taste of wild flesh and the pepper and fragrance of the three C’s the perfect foil for gaminess.  Almost medieval but truly earthy.  Amma usually made this in an earthenware pot which added to its flavour. These animals were truly wild and lived off the forest and jungle and their flesh did not taste like the beef you bought at the Kotahena municipal market meat stall where meat hung from hooks unrefrigerated.  So how to deal with my slightly funky chicken just thawed.

The left over rosemary garlic and olive oil marinade from the lamb from the other night I felt would be a good pairing and I rubbed the well rinsed and dried chicken with it and along with some fresh ground pepper and left it out on the counter to loose some of its chill for about an hour or so – protected by the black pepper and the rosemary garlic oil.  They say that spices like pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves were so priced long ago because of their ability to mask the smell of funky meat and had preservative qualities.  The rosemary was semi dried from a batch I was drying to bottle.  Of course amma had no rosemary and no olive oil and the closest I had come to rosemary in my time growing up in Colombo was in cookbooks from the British Council Library but never to be seen in real life.  I recollect Amma used to pound garlic, ginger, black pepper, curry leaves and rampa to a rough paste in the molgaha wangediya and rub the meat with the paste before frying it up with onions and then cooking in its own juices with a little vinegar; then she’d re-fry the meat in a little coconut oil to give it a last browning.

The slightly funky edge of a piece of chicken reminded me of these halcyon days of wild birds, black pepper and when amma and thatha were at their best. If only they had been like that all the time. Then may be I wouldn’t be here, Arjuna wouldn’t have played basketball and I would not be sitting here wasting time writing about funky chickens.

Hambantota Wild Chicken by way of the Silk Road with Porcini liquor
Image

A whole organic chicken, 2- 2.5, lbs cut up in pieces rinsed and dried with paper towels and placed in a large mixing bowl.

1 Tablespoon dry porcini placed in a cup and covered with boiling water to soak.

Spices:
About ½ teaspoon dry red chilli flakes
1/8th teaspoon cardamom seeds
About 4 cloves
1 inch piece of ceylon cinnamon
Fresh ground black pepper – I use liberal amounts because the point of the dish is the pepper.

Rosemary oil:
Pour about ½ cup of olive oil into blender with:
2-3 cloves peeled garlic
A sprig of rosemary with the tough stalk removed
Blend and reserve.

One small-medium Onion sliced (but from top to bottom as opposed to rounds)
A few fresh curry leaves
A small piece (1/4 inch) of lemon grass (just a hint of it)
A small piece (1/4 inch) of rampe (pandan)
2 – 4 cloves of fresh garlic sliced thin and then cut into strips
A peeled knob (about 1″x1″) of fresh ginger grated (grate onto the chicken once  chicken is pan fried)

About a teaspoon of good coconut vinegar (or chinese rice wine vinegar and as a last resort regular white wine vinegar)

To gild:
about a heaping teaspoon of dijon mustard (Grey Poupon should do)
about two – four tablespoons of cold butter cut up into pieces

salt
oil

How to:
Pour a good amount of the garlic rosemary olive oil over the chicken along with a generous amount of fresh ground black pepper.  Rub it all in and cover and leave at room temperature for about an hour.  Come back in about an hour and get the rest of the ingredients ready.

Fry the chicken.  Heat about 1/3rd cup (or less) of cooking oil (or coconut oil) in a heavy- bottomed large vessel over medium high heat and when hot fry the chicken in batches so that they are browned well.  Salt the chicken pieces as it goes onto the pot for frying.  Reserve browned chicken in a separate bowl then grate the ginger onto the chicken and set aside.  Be careful when browning not to let the oil or the chicken burn because you will be using this oil as the recipe progresses.

Rinse the porcini in its own water and then slice it thin.  Reserve the liquid.

In a mortar and pestle, roughly grind up the cardamoms and cloves.

If there is insufficient oil to fry the onions add more oil and over medium heat fry all the onions.  Toss around but let it fry up till beginning to brown.   Add the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves and fry for about fifteen to twenty seconds.  Add the sliced porcini, curry leaves, rampa, lemon grass and garlic with about a 1/4 teaspoon of chilli flakes and fry up so everything is fragrant and beginning to brown.  Push the onions to one side of the pan so it forms a mound.  If there is any chicken juice in the raw chicken bowl rinse with about 1/4 cup water and add to empty side of he pot and also add the porcini water being careful not to shake it so that any residue like sand stays in bottom of cup and remains there.  Bring to boil over very high heat  and then once boiled down somewhat  (about 3 – 5 minutes) there should be about 1/4 cup liquid at most.  Mix with the onions and  add the fried chicken and also rinse that bowl with about 1/4 cup water and add to pot.  Make sure there is liquid up to about half way of the chicken.

Bring to simmer over medium heat and cover and simmer on medium high for about 20 minutes.   Add the vinegar.   Carefully turn the chicken and make sure to stir the bottom so the sauce does not burn.  Do this every ten minutes or so.  After about thirty minutes taste for seasoning (salt and pepper) and adjust.  The sauce will cook down until viscous or creamy so if it is under-salted its ok because the flavours will intensify.  Once the chicken is cooked through then you can open the cover and let the sauce boil down somewhat faster and toss again to ensure the sauce is thickening and that the chicken nor the sauce burns.  You’ll have to carefully check frequently towards the end as the sauce thickens and be careful not to break the meat.

Finish the sauce:

Once the sauce has thickened to a creamy viscosity take the pot off the fire.  Pile the meat on one side of the pot and add the dijon mustard into the sauce and carefully mix in.  Then add all the butter and stir vigorously (without breaking the chicken pieces or touching them) and incorporate into the sauce.  Now fold the sauce into the chicken pieces.  (You may want to add some minced parsley, about a tablespoon at the end).

Accompaniment:

Would be perfect with some nice basmati rice or boiled new potatoes and steamed green beans.  And a nice white riesling or gewurztraminer. Or just plain ice cold water.

So wouldn’t you say I would not have cooked this today if not for an unfortunate incident on a basketball court near here.

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