Friday, May 25, 2012

Pepper Crab

Pepper Crab with Steamed Rice

Black, Brown and White Kampot Pepper for sale in Kep, Cambodia

The bottles in the centre contain green Kampot pepper in salt water.  
A recent post by David Lebovitz reminded me that I need to write about possibly the most delicious crab dish I have had in my life. The Pepper Crab on the coast of Cambodia. 

I was in Cambodia for about three months in the summer of 2011, and visited Kep, on the coast of Cambodia, three of four times during that time. I discovered pepper crab only on my second visit. 

There are a series of little shops along the coast for perhaps half a mile, where you find little restaurants tucked away selling all kinds of sea food deliciousness. While I will talk about another delicious seafood find on another day in another post, the pepper crab is one of these. 

The views from these restaurants are spectacular. They are built literally jutting out into the sea itself, like piers, and as you eat, the sea is swishing beneath you under the floor boards. 

When we ordered crab, we saw the owner cum chef cum maid of all work, go out into the sea, and literally pick out our crab from rattan baskets that were floating in the sea. The freshness of our crab was beyond compare. To say we were excited is to understate things by a mile. 

By the time the crab reached our table, it had been sauteed with garlic, salt, pepper, and a first for me, young pepper corns, still attached to the stem. I had never been confronted with these before on a plate. I ventured to tentatively taste these, and whoa, explosion of taste. They were peppery but so mild, and they imparted such a delicious flavour to the crab. Really, that crab deserves a michelin star, all on its own-some. 

Before we left, I bought a bottle of "preserved" green pepper from the vendors that dot the street. And they actually stayed fresh and green for quite a while, though they were only preserved in plain old salt water. The ones kept out of salt water turned black pretty quickly. 

They were also selling a garlic-soy sauce-chilli reduction which they use for grilling fish (which will be my next post), which I should have bought, in retrospect. Anyhow, I found a few culinary geniuses under those thatched roofs, and though we kept going back to the same restaurant in our subsequent visits, I think all of these Cambodian chefs are equally adept a producing this type of truly delicious, juicy pepper crab. 

The shops in Kep, where you find delicious fresh, Pepper Crab

Prawns and garlic, I think preserved in salt water. I was not brave enough to try these
I used the pepper in scrambled eggs (a la Sri Lankan style, which I make with diced tomatoes, onions, curry leaves and now, cambodian green pepper from Kampot) and it was delicious! Really, who would have thought. They impart a truly unique flavour that the dried black pepper does not. In fact, there are four types of pepper; the young green pepper, fresh off the wine, the brown pepper, which is medium dried, the black pepper, which is fully dried, and the white pepper which is black pepper (or brown, I'm not sure which) with the skin scrubbed off. You can see it all in the pictures.

It was inevitable that as we ate crab, we talked about pepper. My companions were from France, Spain, Italy and USA respectively, and it appears that since the French colonised Cambodia, way back when, the pepper from Kampot made it to French tables. It has apparently also received geographical indication status in 2009. Just like fine wines, for example Champagne, Kampot pepper is supposed to be unmatchable in quality and taste, which is imparted by the geography of Kampot. I have to say, I agree. And even though three decades or so of civil war had almost destroyed these plantations, it looks like the pepper is making a comeback. Its even being marketed now for its unique characteristics. All I can say is, I'm 100% behind the initiative. After years of suffering, Cambodians deserve a break. 
The beautiful coast off Rabbit island, in Kep, Cambodia

More about Cambodian food adventures on another day. Now that I am back in Sri Lanka, where we have our own pepper (in fact my husband's garden has not only pepper vines but also cinnamon trees, where the leaves are so fragrant, I'm wondering why no one ever uses it in cooking), I have high hopes of using tender green pepper in my cooking in the near future. 

And people, if you ever see Kampot pepper in a store, buy it. Its the best pepper in the world, and it helps Cambodia. You can't lose. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sri Lankan Ribbon Cake

Those of you who hail from Colombo, you know what I'm talking about. The ribbon cake that you had for every birthday cake since infancy. The ribbon cake your mum makes. The ribbon cake that Fab (sorry I can't find a link for their website) is famous for (at least in my books). And you can't get it anywhere else. 

So when I wanted to make a cake for a very special little girl (my cousin's two year old daughter), I looked no further. And the recipe wasn't too hard to come by (I used the recipe on Malini's Kitchen, which you can find here, they have called it a butter cake, but in my books, its the same recipe. I used more butter and less icing sugar for the frosting, other than that, I followed the recipe and it came out perfect)

Its basically a cake made using the creaming method, so the cake is rather dense, but not too wet, like dessert cakes. Its really easy to make, and its called ribbon cake because you use three different layers (usually blue, red and green, but really, any colours you fancy), and layer the cake with butter cream icing. I hate sugary sweet icing, so I reduced the sugar and increased the butter. This made decorating a bit of a pain because I had to keep chilling the icing, given the heat wave we are suffering with these days. And the fact that my tiny kitchen was really really hot because I had just baked the cake. 

You know how it is, you are all organised and decide to make the cake the previous day and decorate it on the day. So you start making the cake on friday (night, at 11 PM when all the shops are closed) and realize you don't have an essential ingredient(s) like flour, and eggs. Oh, and butter. And you then wake your husband up at 7.30 am the next day and have him scour the open shops for these ingredients. And the sleepy shop keepers in Colombo open up at 10. And you have a couple of hours to bake, hyperventilate, decorate, hyperventilate, shower, spruce up and get yourself to the destination. Yeah. Life is so complicated when you are organised. 

I seriously cut things rather close that day, I started baking at 12 and had to leave by three; I had three separate layers to bake, and the cake refused to cool. I even stuck it in the freezer at one point in desperation. Luckily one of my besties was home that day (we did brunch as well, to add to the complications), and she willingly helped me. She even offered to tie me to a chair with an extension cord if I didn't stop poking the cake every five seconds to see if it was cool enough. What with melting icing and a hot cake, it was rather a stressful day. 

But the result was worth it. The little girl I noted above was thrilled, and insisted it was her birthday and even blew out candles after we obliged. I tried to recreate the 'rose cake' of i am baker fame, but since I didn't have the 1M tip, the result was rather, well, not rosy. Not very much. But I like it. And the two year old liked it. So it must have some artistic finesse. And I think the adults invited to tea also enjoyed the flavor if not so much the looks. Really, the Sri Lankan Ribbon cake cannot be beat when it comes to afternoon tea. Try it and you'll realise what we are talking about. Absolutely five stars. I even found a blog named ribbon cake, written by a Sri Lankan. I know Sri Lankans who live abroad, who refuse to have any other type of cake for their birthdays. They find a Sri Lankan, somewhere in the vicinity, who can bake and decorate a ribbon cake, a la Sri Lankan style, for them. 

Word of caution, this type of decoration takes a lot of icing. Make extra. You can see the gaps in the picture below. Luckily, when you are 2, you hardly notice these things. The candles take up all your attention. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Strawberries and Cream

Is there anything in the world better than fresh strawberries and cream? On our honeymoon last October, my husband and I headed for the local strawberry spot, Humbugs, close to Hakgala gardens, to indulge. And indulge we did. Though they offer all kinds of strawberry (and other) goodies, we stuck to the basics- strawberries with a generous dollop of cream, sprinkled with sugar on top. We decided to eat it out in their garden, overlooking the hills, despite the tendrils of mist that was fast enveloping the landscape. It was truly a magnificent tea time treat, with a magnificent view and climate. . 

We even made two friends, a dog and a cat. The dog kept a safe distance while wagging a friendly tail, while the cat became more familiar, rubbing her chin on our feet quite comfortably. We thought we were naturally cat-people, until we discovered her true intentions; the cream. See the hilarious pictures below, for a pictorial account of a cat on a mission.

If you look closely you can spot the tips of two grey ears, popping up surreptitiously in the middle of the picture.

 Here we are. She has now ventured to take a closer peek at her quarry, the cream. Having made friends with us, she has clearly thought its time to make a move.

And volla, thats one pissed off cat. She is like "what the ...?, where did the dishes go???" Despite her clearly thieving intentions, we felt sorry for her, and afterwards, we divided a bit of cream between the cat and the dog. Despite nature dictating otherwise, this cat was clearly a bit of a dictator, and we had to make sure she didn't attack the dog.

Oh for the love of strawberries and cream :). The strawberries were fresh, from their fields, and the cream, was well, fresh and creamy. Such simple ingredients, such a decadent dessert, these things never cease to amaze me.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Best Sandwich in Town

                                                                                                  I have had many sandwiches in my time. Some have been good, some have been average, and some have been very bad. But the one sandwich, which has consistently been upto mark, hands down, is the submarine offered by Dinemore. Seriously. This sandwich is the sandwich of all sandwiches, and I'll tell you why. 

Imagine a lovely, thick curried prawn. slightly overcooked, to be sure, but in this particular case, I never quibble about that. Absolutely hits the big Sri Lankan curry spot bang on. Then doused with a creamy maiyonnaisse-y sauce. I say this with responsibility. Its creamy, with less of the tartness of mayonnaise. Its cheesy. Its melt-in-your mouth goodness. I suspect its made in the house (and I bet its a secret recipe). Its stuffed with rings of sweated onions. Then the slices of cheese. All encased between two, slightly sweet, ever so slightly crusty, baguette shaped (but definitely not a baguette) bun. With toasted sesame seeds on top. And crunchy french fries on the side. I loved it when I was fifteen, and I love it now - lets just say more than a decade - later. 

The picture doesn't do it justice. This is my go-to comfort food in Colombo. I missed it in New York. I missed it in Phnom Penh. This is one of the reasons why I decided I need to live in Colombo. The Dinemore Shrimp Submarine, take a bow. I have since then tried many other submarines in Colombo, and there is nothing -yet- to beat this sub. I just hope that it will stay the same, and not get smaller, or cheesier, or shrimp-ier, with time. 

I first visited Dinemore when its only location was in Kollupitiya, with the beautiful yellow walls, and limited seating. It has since expanded to other locations as well, but the Kollupitiya location holds nostalgic memories of when I first met that shrimp sub. The stuff that memories are made of *sniff*.

Dinemore offers other food too, but I can't comment on them. I have never moved beyond the shrimp submarine. Possibly I have gone as far as the chicken submarine, which I have if they are out of shrimp. If.

NB. Dinemore did not pay me with a truckload of shrimp submarines for writing this (I wish). As is my policy, if I like it, I write about it. If I don't, I won't. 'Til next time, happy eating! 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Egg Drop Soup

So I am usually not a fan of buffets. Too much food, kept close together, just assaults the senses. And I (and most people I know) hardly ever taste anything properly since I am too tempted to pair my food properly. Its just a matter of 'oooh, this looks good, and this, and this, and this...' and before you know it, you have a market worth of food on a plate.

So when I went to a wedding last saturday at Blue Waters Hotel, Wadduwa, I headed straight to the soup section first. We Sri Lankans like our soup occasionally, but at a buffet, not everyone is interested. The stampede is usually for the rice. So I had the soup station, with the soft dinner rolls and cubes of butter, all to myself. And they had my favorite soup, egg drop. And then I shocked all my friends and relations and had only a bowl of soup and several dinner rolls for dinner. Sensational. One of the best dinners I've had recently. My mother even had a 'talk' with me for not eating properly (for more information on how Sri Lankan mothers like to 'talk' to their offspring, check out JehanR's viral youtube video here. I can totally relate).

Why this egg drop soup turned out to so good, was because of the Chef's superb timing. The corn was tender, but the egg, oh the egg! It wasn't the bits of rubber that you usually find at buffets. This was proper, tender, just cooked egg. With the flecks of red chillie flakes that we Sri Lankans always appreciate in anything we eat, seasoned perfectly. Cheers to the chef. (And in case you are wondering, no, I have no commercial interest whatsoever in Blue Waters Hotel. It was just a delicious egg drop soup, that I would go back for). Looking at the picture now, I wish I could go back right about now.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bananas for Bananas

As the world should have taken note by now, Sri Lankans hate wasting things. Despite the fact that we waste water, electricity and and our own breath (case in point?) most Sri Lankans I know hate to waste food. And other things such as old clothes, which my mother for example stores for 'rainy days'. It is therefore a constant source of frustration to me when I have to throw out bananas by the truckload when they get a little too ripe to eat. 

I like my bananas just ripe. Not under ripe and not over ripe. That gives me the space of about one day to finish off a bunch. In a household of two, thats near impossible. So we ended up throwing out a lot of bananas until I came up with alternative uses such as banana waffles, banana pancakes, and banana muffins. 

Banana muffins have turned out to be a hit with the family, and I even made them for breakfast one morning for the hubby. The recipe (from Joy of Baking, available here) is ever so simple, and I used it because the ingredients are so easy to find in the kitchen cupboard. I add whatever I think will match the banana flavor, chopped cashew nuts, chopped chocolate, grated cinnamon etc. This batch is nuts and cinnamon. It was lovely, and filled the kitchen with such a warm summery smell. Perfect afternoon tea material. 
While I add an extra banana when I have one or two left over from the recipe, just remember that the more banana you add, the more sticky the muffin will be. As it is, after the banana cools, the top of the muffin tends to be a little sticky. I don't mind, but some people might.

The mix, ready to go into the oven, is shown below. I sprinkled nuts on top as well, so that you get some crunch with every bite.

I used my silicone cupcake cups which I found in the party section at Arpico Hyde Park Corner (I know, why would you stick bakeware in the party section. And this was in a random box, not even where you would expect to find it). I have also seen these at Odel Alexandra Place (home section). Really, this was one of my best investments. I have made so many muffins with these, and no greasing, no sticking, just bake and pop. Here they are, right out of the oven. You can see how nicely they have risen.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Winning the Yeast Wars

The first time I tried making bread was perhaps when I was about fifteen. With my sister, I would sit with a recipe book of my mothers' and attempt to make many strange things, many of which were not only edible, but made it into the permanent 'special occasion' menus of the old homestead. However, bread eluded us. Each attempt was an epic failure. They would come out looking beautiful and round and golden; but they were literally gal banis (rock hard buns). You could only eat them when they were hot out of the oven, and even then, they were very dense. 

I wondered how bakeries did it. We blamed it on poor quality yeast. On low temperatures. On hot temperatures. But we never got it right. Strangely, when used for pizza, the bread was fine. Sure, it was slightly dense, but we got a rise out of it (no pun intended). 

Then I moved to New York for an year, and for an year, I researched bread. In between the other things I was supposed to be doing there, I watched so many cooking shows that I  learnt a lot more in that year than over ten years of trying to make bread from a book. Thats when I learnt about the punch test, and the window pane test. That you have to be gentle with the yeast, that you have to gently coax it to rise, to breathe, to literally give you melt-in-your-mouth delicious bread. 

But the man I really have to thank for helping me defeat Yeast, once and for all, was Sanjay Thumma. Seriously. His recipes are AMAZING. I used his recipe for dinner rolls (which you can find here), and they came out perfect. I filled them with a fish, onion, curry powder and potato mix, which we Sri Lankans call maalu paang (or fish buns), and my husband gulped three of them down hot out of the oven. 

One tip for making bread, is to knead properly. While you are highly unlikely to over-knead if you knead by hand, you are VERY likely to under-knead, which will result in gal banis. Believe me, I know, I made those for ten years. My tips;

1. The key is to test the dough after kneading for ten minutes. Do the punch test (i.e when you stick a finger in the dough, it should not spring back immediately), and the window pane test (i.e. when you stretch a bit of dough between your fingers, it should stretch, allowing the light to come through, but not breaking.

2. Be Gentle. Don't punch down the dough after resting it as if you are punching your last ex boyfriend.  Just gently let the air out with your fist. Be gentle. You want the yeast alive and kicking, not bruised and half dead.

3. Hot oven. If the recipe says 225 deg. celsius, it says that for a reason. You need a hot oven to allow the yeast to rise properly before it dies ( I think). Anyway, if your oven is not hot enough, your buns will be a flop. Really. Invest in an oven thermometer if yours is not accurate.

Thats it folks. This is truly a recipe to try. Happy cooking!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Taco dreams

For a blogger with an appetite, I have been contemplating starting a food blog for a while. The only thing that held me back was the urge to let off steam about other things I love and hate about living in Colombo as well. Finally, I have found the perfect middle ground- a blog about food AND other things (GENIUS!). And where better to start a food blog on Colombo, than with a food item that is not available in colombo to 1. the food blogger with a budget and 2. the food blogger with a discerning tongue for the genuine thing. 

That said, I recently had a craving for a new-york-food-cart-on-14th street and 9th avenue-mexican-taco. Yes. I know. Its far away. But when I want food, I want it. No, you can't offer me a fountain cafe hot dog to compensate. No, you do not want to offer me a Sri Lankan pol rotiya (coconut flatbread for those not in on the local lingo) with chicken on top and call it a chicken taco. And charge me for it. Yes, one establishment tried to do that, and I still have nightmares about it. And yes, I did pay for that particular abomination. 

Given these the lack of a decent taco in this nation of sun and sand, I decided (as usual) that I had to make one. The tortilla (I made flour tortillas), was made with wheat flour and a pinch of baking powder, similar to our kiri roti (milk flatbread? forgive the direct translation). You can find the recipe here. I would use less water next time, it was difficult to roll out the dough (just keep using flour to take away the stickiness), but they were deliciously thin and soft. 

For the topping. Ah, the topping! With a taco, there are somethings that must be there, that define the very character of a taco- the avacado, the tomato, the sour cream (I just used local buffalo curd mixed around until it resembled sour cream/ stirred yoghurt), and the indispensable fresh cilantro. And fresh Onion slices. These five ingredients define the taco. as opposed to the chicken pieces on a rotiya. The creamy avacado, the citric tomato, the cool, sour, sour cream, the crunchy onion, and the herby pop! of cilantro. An ode to a taco.

You can then add chicken (left over roast chicken would be great), or fish, or any other meat you fancy. You can also add cheese, monterey jack being the cheese of choice, but I guess any melty cheese would do. I just ate it vegetarian, the four basic ingredients just transporting me all the way back to west 14th street in mere seconds. 

My husband's first comment when eating one, i.e when he could wrestle one away from me, was 'interesting'. There he is, grabbing a taco before I could eat it. And then he ate several more, which I presume to mean, that he liked it. 

Tacos, ladies and gentleman, are awesome. Colombo supermarkets still do not offer tortillas to the discerning consumer (or else I have missed them all together). But let that not stop you from making your own. This whole thing you can put together in an hour, and believe me, its a great, nutritious, healthy, delicious, (did I say great?), week night dinner.