Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sri Lanka's Glorious Rice & Curry

A Singapore friend, whose husband is Sri Lankan, told me how good Sri Lankan food is – a major complement coming from a Singaporean. Our high expectations were met beginning with our first lunch of rice and curry. A meal that was repeated often and never disappointed. Typically we were served a plate with a mound of rice and a spoonful of mango chutney then up to 10 small bowls of food appeared: 3-5 vegetables, a coconut sambol, a herb salad, a dhal, a meat or fish curry, and pakora. Rice and curry is similar an Indian thali and Malaysian banana leaf, but using different spices and coconut.

Rice & curry buffet style
Rice & Curry for two

Fresh vegetables are typically purchased at a produce market. Damith, our driver, asked if we wanted to see a market. We said "yes, we love markets and in KL we buy our vegetables at a night market." The Dambrulla Produce Market (the link talks about the economic features of the market), had nothing in common with our local night market other than the vegetables. The first thing we saw were lorries of all sizes queued up laden with small red onions, a component in all of the curry dishes.

Onions being traded

Ripe cucumbers - great curried

Trading pumpkins - a conversation or
a negotiation?
Farms from all over Sri Lanka deliver their produce to the Dambrulla market, negotiate with the traders, and the traders redistribute the produce throughout Sri Lanka and export some of it – the Middle East is a major market.

Produce on its way out - I assume it is headed to a local market

During our stay in Sri Lanka we progressed from eating rice and curry, viewing its major components at a produce market, to learning how to make some of the basic curries. Our travel agent booked a cooking class with Mama (Malani) of Mamas Galle Fort Cafe and Guesthouse. When we arrived there was some confusion, our guide had booked us with a class at another "mamas." We never figured out the details - a court case is pending on the other restaurant's use of "Mamas.". We stayed where we were. We are writing about the cooking class offered at 67 Church Street, Fort, Galle (phone 0777-510-485 or 0912-235-214).

Doug and I went off with Mama and her daughter, Denisha, to get the ingredients for our lesson. We went to the fish market, to a produce market, and to a food store to see the spices that are essential to rice and curry.

When we got back to the guesthouse a table was set up for the class. On our side we each had a cutting board and knife. On the other side there was a two burner gas stove, a basket of vegetables, another basket with basic ingredients, jars of spices, pitcher of coconut milk, and a pan for washing the vegetables.

Mama (left) & Denisha preparing potato curry
We chose 5 vegetables each would be made into a separate curry. We started with our 4 favorites - cucumbers, eggplant, potato, and pumpkin and then added sour mangoes. To make the curries different combinations of red onion, garlic, green chili, chili powder,curry powder, mustard powder,  fish flakes, turmeric, whole cinnamon, and coconut milk. We also made the herb salad and coconut sambol. Full after a heavy lunch and having learned what we came for we passed on the fish - someone else made it anyway. We called Damith and Mahesh (the tour agent) and asked them to join us to eat the fruit of our work. Their faces show the success of our efforts.

Damith digging in
Mahesh happy that we ended in the "right class"
You can see a cooking class in action on youtube . Also, since Doug is a veteran of cooking classes (3 in Penang, 1 in Laos, 1 in Thailand, and 2 in Vietnam) he has added a few comments here.

Sri Lankan curries are quite different from the curries of neighboring countries.  Thai curries are all about an explosion of tastes in the mouth: ginger, galangal, garlic, onion, lemon grass, and peppers with herbs on top.  South Indian curries have a heavy dose of herbs in their flavour profile, while North Indian curries are dominated by seeds: cumin, ferrengeek, mustards, etc.  Malaysian and Indonesian cooking contain curries but they do not predominate the cuisine, and in Vietnam, curries are a delicate addition to the cuisine.  In Sri Lanka the techniques are different. The spices (at least in this class) are mixed with the vegetable ingredient and either fried or cooked with a generous amount of coconut milk in small clay pots (or in our demonstration, small metal "claypots") until the vegetables are cooked.  It is simple cooking, but the mixture of spices is the important element.  Two dishes were distinctive: the ripe cucumber (from the west you forget that we eat cucumber as an immature vegetable from the squash family) is cooked in a mild coconut curry sauce until it melts in your mouth.  Contrasted against the light curry, is the "umbrela" curry made from sour mangoes.  Here the sauce is thick and sweet as the flavours attack you.  It is a freshly cooked chutney.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sigiriya and Dambulla


It is only 1200 steps to the top said our guide.  Daunting but not insurmountable.  

Sigiriya is a large palace complex in the heart of the cultural area of Sri Lanka.  It was built in the late 5th century by King Kasyapa I.  History tells us that he killed his father and then moved the capital city of Sri Lanka from Anuradhapura.  Rightly fearing reprisals, Kasyapa I built his place on a mountain fortress 370 meters above the surrounding plain.  This "impregnable" fortress succumbed after only 7 years.  But what a palace he built in those 18 years.

An outer wall was built approximately 1.5 km from the core of the city.  It consisted of ramparts and an outer moat. The inner moat and ramparts were located immediately outside of the fortified city.  The moat in historical times contained crocodiles.  There were four gates to the city, east, west, south and north.  The east gate was the entrance to the inner city and further guarded the 370 m cliffs of this redoubt.

The Inner Moat (no crocodiles present today) although there were warning signs against swimming.

Once we passed the west gate we entered formal symmetrically laid out gardens,  each side of the main bath a mirror of the other.  Water ponds abounded and fountains were present.  The fountains were fed by an elaborate water system originating in tanks (reservoirs) at the top of the mountain.  Kasyapa I built two palaces, one at the top of the mountain and the other among the gardens at the base.  He rotated between the two palaces seasonally.  However, the mountain palace was the central focal point of this geometrically laid out city.

A garden pond

An unearthed but not restored garden feature.

The approach to the Sigiriya within the inner walls

The remains of a fountain (not the water bottle on the left)

And the stairs begin with Liz taking the lead.

A natural stone gate.

Fresco in a cave.

A 1600 year old fresco
Although the frescoes were exposed to the elements great care was made in keeping water from destroying them.  At other locations in the city, caves which had the frescoes destroyed when they were occupied by monks (I guess they disturbed their meditation).

Liz, our driver and guide at the half way point.

An active archaeological site on the mountain.

The final 300 steps
The entrance to the final climb was through a lions head.  Only the paws remains on either side of the staircase entrance.

Carved water channels etched into the mountain side.

The final two steps.  We made it.
Having been raised in a family of compulsive counters, I cannot climb a set of stairs unless I count them, I actually skipped the routine this time.  I guide said 1202 and the last two were the only ones I counted.

Enough said

The quarters of the kings concubine (500 ladies)

Our intrepid guide, Jahaka

Dambulla Caves

Dambulla Caves is the last cultural site deriving from prehistory.  Guide books indicate that the Dambulla Cave complex dates back into proto-historical, first millennium BCE.  However what the tourist sees is the work of 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century CE artists.

Unfortunately the temple guide was not proficient in English, and was able only to deliver his speech and was unable to answer questions.

The complex consists of 5 caves, one which was recently quarried out of the mountain in the 20th century.  The other four caves contain magnificant frescoes covering the floor to the ceiling.  Unfortunately I was unable to put it into the context of the temple.
A large meditating Buddha

Meditating Buddha from 18th Century Cave 3

A stupa from the Maharaja Vihara  18th Century

A teaching Buddha from the Maharaja Vitara, 18th century

The patron King

Fresco on the ceiling

A series of  meditating Buddhas  under some magnificent Fresco
Dambulla Caves is worth the visit, beautiful statuary, and frescoes abound.  If you go make sure you have an independent guide who is able to put the frescoes, and statuary in historical context, and is able to point out the significant items.

Another Medievil City: Polonnaruwa

D. Fernando, Licensed Guide
Polonnaruwa  was our third stop on our tour of Sri Lanka's cultural sights. After two days of walking/struggling on pebbles in bare feet I came prepared with socks. They worked! I enjoyed pleasant, stone-free touring.

Our guide was 71 year old D. Fernando, who has about 50 years of guiding experience. He started at the museum where he explained the reproductions of the ruins that we would later visit. As we toured he reminded us of what we had seen in the museum. This strategy has made it easy to recall what saw. As we read more on Polonnaruwa we aren’t wondering “did we see that.”

After leaving the museum we went to the statue of King Parakramabahu I, the visionary ruler during Polonnaruwa's golden age. He built Sri Lanka's largest man made lake by combining three existing reservoirs (locally referred to as “tanks”). Now over a 1000 years later it serves as an important water source for local farmers. In front of the statue was the sign pictured below.

The statue was carved out of a rock. Was the rock to be excluded? No, the rock was in, but people were out The juxtaposition of human and statute shows disrespect. Although we heard a later story about a tourist who was posing next to a statue, tripped, and cost the statue three fingers. This accident may be the real motive behind the sign.

Here is King Parakramabahu rock and all

King Parakramabahu was also credited with creating the Library Monastery. (Tour guides use the terms university and monastery interchangeably.) In the center was a stupa shaped building that housed sacred manuscripts. Housing for faculty, which included classrooms, and students surrounded the library

Faculty Housing

In its day the palace was an imposing building. Designed by a Chinese architect it had seven stories. It allegedly had a 1000 rooms - surely an exaggeration to account for a lot of rooms. The lower story had rooms where the king's valuables were stored, an audience hall, and a bathing pool.

Palace Audience Hall

The Quadrangle is an area packed with the ruins of sacred buildings. At one time it was the site of the tooth relic, a lower molar from Lord Buddha, which has been moved around. It came to Polonnaruma from Anuradhapura. Currently the relic is in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. The picture below is of the Vatadage, a relic house, from the 12th century.

Vatadage at Polonnaruwa - images in front are temple guard stones
Close by was the stone book also from the 12 century. Chiseled in the stone was the king's story of himself and his rule. Note at the ends are Hindu figures, even though the king who commissioned the work was a Buddhist. According to our guide the figures were to honor a request from the king's Hindu wife to recognize her religion.

We again found the rules of the monastery. One passage directs the monks not to eat after their midday meal, after which they should not engage in "worldly talk or sinful thoughts" and only focus on religion and meditation. A guide in Sri Lanka told us the last meal at midday was still the practice here. The guides in Laos were more graphic - if you are hungry your mind won't turn to sex. (If you wish to see the rules, make a comment and we will arrange to send you the photos and you can enlarge them.)

We drove by the Hindu temples. Our guide referred to one temple as the "Ladies Temple" where only women could worship. The temple had a lingam, which you can see in the photo. Our guide kept referring this as "Shiva's penis," an interpretation that seems unique to himself or at least among Polonnaruwa guides.

Shiva temple - Lingam barely visible in background

Our last stop was at Gal Vihara with its four Buddha images carved out of one boulder. The first picture below depicts Buddha meditating. The second is controversial as to  whether it represents Buddha or not and what he is doing. According to our guide he was teaching meditation.The third image is of Buddha after he has died and reached Nirvana. We to tell that he was not resting was because he feet were uneven and his knees were slightly bent.

The guide offered to take us to other sites, but we were a bit templed out. Better to return on another day.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Morning & Evening in Kandy

Disaster. I was careless and deleted photos from the Royal Botanical Garden in Kandy from our memory card. That said pictures do not fully cover the serenity and majesty of the gardens. To share a little of our experience here is a two minute youtube video.

The garden were founded in 1843 although its roots go back much further. The grounds are immaculate - a major task in the tropics - the trees majestic and well spaced, and flowers mark the pathways. Memorial Trees section was particularly impressive.  Its trees were planted by visiting dignitaries and planting continues up to now. A favorite choice of both Burmese and non-Burmese planters was the lovely Pride of Burma.Trees have been planted by leaders of countries that no longer exist and governments that were deposed. The Prince of Wales, India, Ceylon, Malaya" (apparently King Edward VIII), King George V and Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth II all planted trees.

Tuesday crowds were light, but young couples apparently found a way out of their daily obligations to visit the gardens. Those totally enthralled with each other sought out solitude behind the trees. They were chased away by a bicycling guard with an ear piercing whistle.

Along the pathway and on the grounds monkeys groomed each other, wrestled, ran, and swung through the trees. When we turned our eyes upward away from the monkeys we saw fruit bats all over the place. They weren't just hanging there, many were active. They seemed to jockeying with each other for position. This half minute youtube clip of fruit bats at the Botanical Gardens shows what we saw and heard..

Pictures at last. At the orchard house we saw a stunning display of well exhibited orchids. This sign helped us pay attention to what all orchids have in common, Increase your botanical appreciation and notice the labellum, sepals, and petals the next time you see an orchid

:Here is a start toward sharpening your orchid viewing skills.

The visit to the botanical garden took up our morning. We returned to Kandy in the evening for a cultural performance. We had debated whether to go or not. We have seen some pretty dreadful performances where the dancers go through the motions of museum pieces. We saw the performance of the Kandy Lake Dance Ensemble. We didn't see museum pieces.The dancers were energetic and moved through the program efficiently. Probably efficiency is not the right word to use in conjunction with a performance, but we have heard long explanations and experienced long pauses in other performances.

The dances seemed more similar to African dances we have seen than to anything we have seen in South and SE Asia, with the possible exception of Balinese dances. The dancer pictured below was featured in several dances. In each dance he exhibited impressive athleticism.

The performance ended up with fire walking. It was beyond the capacity of our camera, but there is a 1 minute clip showing it on youtube. I actually saw fire walking in Bali 40 years ago. There the dancers worked themselves into a trance. They not only walked on coals, but also started throwing them. As I recall it was both fascinating and frightening.

Dancing on coals
The dancers are an important part of the Esala Perahrra festival that takes place in July or August. From our guides' description and Wikipedia it seems to have the pageantry, including parading elephants, of Dasara in Mysore, India..