Monday, 29 February 2016

Pleasure in Small Portions


Temples have been the focal points of many cultural landscapes since Mesopotamian times. Parthenon as a temple epitomizes the highest order of classical architecture. It has been built on top of a hill to depict its place in the spatial hierarchy of ancient Athens. Almost in parallel to the latter part of Greek civilization, ancient Sri Lankans built temples of gigantic proportions in the plains of Anuradhapura kingdom (377 BC – 1017 AD). Sometimes temples are placed on high grounds for greater emphasis and veneration. Such temples are dotting the cultural landscape of Sri Lanka. Similar landscapes can be seen in other Asian countries like Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam.

                                                    Stupa at Mihintale, Sri Lanka, 7th Century AD
                                                                                                       (pic from Google)

During one of my visits to Hanoi city in Vietnam, a good old friend called Ngo Minh Hung accompanied me to see a tiny temple called ‘one pillar pagoda’. It is not spectacular in size but distinctive in terms of architectural value. Its importance to the Vietnamese is such that it often associates with the cultural image of the country. It is also regarded as one of the most iconic temples of Vietnam despite its size.


                                                                                                            (pics from Google)

One pillar pagoda has been built by the Emperor Ly Thai Tong who has ruled from 1024 -1054 AD. It was an offering to the Goddess of Mercy who bestowed him with a hair to the throne.  The pagoda is entirely a timber structure built on a single stone pillar. It has been designed to resemble a lotus blossom rising out of muddy water. Lotus blossom is the Buddhist symbol for enlightenment and muddy water symbolize the sorrows of life. What exists there today is a pagoda re-built by the government after it was destroyed in 1954 by the departing French occupiers.

It is not possible to enter this teeny-weeny 3 sq.m. pagoda, but it is a serene pleasure to watch it from the lush garden surrounding it. That is possible only if you do not get distracted by thousands of tourists who flock around it to get the best perspective. Undoubtedly, this little gem is the most admired architectural edifice in the city that also offers a concoction of French and Vietnamese architecture, myriad of lakes, lush green parks and tree lined streets. 
.
While my eyes were enjoying the pleasure of little doses of architecture, especially in the ancient quarter of Hanoi called “36 old streets”, the tongue was craving for some gastronomical pleasure. Hung accompanied me to a place he introduced as the oldest restaurant in Hanoi. Many tourists and locals flock to this 100 year old restaurant called ‘Cha Ca La Vong’ located on Cha Ca La Vong street, to enjoy a dish called Cha Ca La Vong. The street, premises and the dish happen to bear the same name. 


                                                                                                        (pics from Google)

In fact it is the only dish the restaurant offers and therefore there is no menu to choose from. We joined a line of about 15 people and waited on the sidewalk. Once we got our chance to enter the tiny restaurant through a rickety old staircase we saw a dining room full of diners. It was time to rub shoulders with some strangers at a communal dining table.

Minh did the ordering and I just enjoyed the cacophony of sounds and fragrant smell of the unique dish. Soon a waiter brought a burner and a skillet of pre-cooked fish and placed them in front of us. As Minh told me the dish consists of a local variety of catfish cooked with turmeric, shrimp paste, fish sauce and herbs following a secret recipe. The yellowish chunks of fish were served with plates of silky rice noodle, peanuts, chilies and a mix of fresh herbs. The last stage of cooking and assembly of the dish was in ‘do-it-yourself’ style. Minh did the cooking and I just enjoyed the flavorful dish.


                                                                                                       (pics from Google)

The popularity of the restaurant and its iconic dish is such that there are also imposters in nearby streets who offer competitive versions under look-alike names like “Cha Ca La Lvong”.     
Whenever I enjoyed a new dish in a foreign city I try to cook it. However, I didn’t dare to cook that unique dish. Instead, I tried to make one of my all-time favorite Vietnamese dishes.  


Lotus Stem Salad with Shrimps

Ingredients
Bunch of lotus stems (white ones) cleaned and washed  
10-12 shrimps de-shelled and de-veined (let tails on)
2” piece of carrot very thinly julienned
1 tbsp. lemon juice
½ tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. white vinegar
2 tbsp. light fish sauce
½ tsp salt
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
2 red chili
Sprig of sweet basil leave
Few coriander leave with stems
Spring of mint leave
½ tbsp. dry roasted peanuts
½ tbsp. fried shallots

Preparation

Put lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix until sugar and salt are dissolved. This is the sauce for the salad.
Julienne lotus stems, carrot and chili
Poach shrimps over medium heat with water and little bit of vinegar until they are just cooked.
Marinate shrimps in 1 tbsp. of sauce and 1 tbsp. of light fish sauce for 3minuts.
Marinate lotus stems, carrot, basil, mint, coriander and chili with the rest of the sauce.
Add marinated shrimp and remaining fish sauce into it and toss until well combined.
Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with roasted peanuts and fried shallot to garnish.


Sunday, 31 January 2016

Cocos Nucifera debacle

Cocos Nucifera debacle


A friend reminded that I did not update my blog for more than a year. So, resuming the blog was one of new year resolutions. The first month of 2016 is almost over but I am yet to organize some thoughts to write. Then suddenly an idea came to my mind this morning…..Eureka… Eureka! ….. I should write about Cocos Nucifera.



Why can’t we Sri Lankans live without coconut? Why do we love coconut so much?

I vividly remember that we could not evade coconut as young students of architecture in 1983. It was our third year and our year master Prof. Nimal De Silva asked us to design a student center for the University of Ruhuna. The university was being built at that time. We went on a memorable field trip to its Mapalana campus and saw a green field full of coconut trees. When we were doing our design proposals some of us tried to preserve as many as possible coconut trees on the site. I was one of them. My building was in an oblong shape with a narrow courtyard in the middle and coconut trees surrounding it.  Gamini Sarath peeped into my drawing board and shouted out loudly… “මේක හරියට භගමනිය වගෙයිනෙ” (He compared it to a female genital). I was very embarrassed. So I had to through it out and restart all over again.

The buildings that go this way and that way in order to save coconut trees were sarcastically called “coconut architecture” by student folks. However, I must say that some of the most stunning resort hotels that I have seen in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia are set in coconut groves. Coconut trees have become such an integral part of the architecture of these tropical countries. So why not brand them as coconut architecture of Asia.

                                                      Laguna, Bali, Indonesia (source: Google images)

                                               JW Marriott, Khao Lak, Thailand (Source: Google images)

                                                 Blue Water, Wadduwa, Sri Lanka (Source: Google images)

Coconut is also very omnipresent in our food. When foreigners distinguish Sri Lankan food from Indian food or any South Asian food for that matter, they say… ah!!! Sri Lankans put coconut into everything. That is bit of an exaggeration but partly correct. Coconut flesh, milk and oil have being using in our cuisine for centuries. However, when the lobbyists of other edible oils started linking coconut consumption to heart diseases some people started shying away from coconut. Our family also fell for those scaring tactics but we did not completely avoid coconut. I do not think any Sri Lankan can distance from coconut when the taste buds crave for a hot “Pol Sambal” (coconut sambal).    

Our younger daughter came back home few days ago for her vacation. My wife prepared Kiri Bath (Milk Rice) for breakfast because it is the food for happy and auspicious occasions. It was weekend and the morning was very chilly. I was curling inside my blanket for bit more sleep when the familiar coconutty aroma of Kiri Bath entered my nostrils. Who can resist that divine aroma? I was in the kitchen in minutes. I was delighted to see “imbul kiri bath”. It is a special version of kiri bath made in the shape of a rugger ball with treacle sweetened coconut in the center. So it has a double dose of coconut in it.   

After the hearty breakfast the question came from our daughter….What is today’s special for lunch. Few days ago, I promised to prepare Nasi Lemak for her. When I suggested Nasi Leamk as our weekend lunch special, my wife said;

“පොල් කිරි දාපු කෑම ජාති ඔය තරම් කන්ඩ හොඳද අනේ? දැන් උදේට ඉඹුල් කිරි බතුත් කෑව නේද ?”
(Is it good to eat food with so much of coconut milk? Didn’t we eat Milk Rice for breakfast?)

Anyway, with two votes in favor of Nasi Lemak and one vote against it, the motion carried. It was going to be Nasi Lemak for lunch.

I was first introduced to this flavorful dish by my Malaysian friend, Khor. I was staying in a hotel of coconut architecture paternity near the Penang beach. We met for breakfast before our site visit and Khor recommended me to try Nasi Lemak. Voilaaaa!!!....  I discovered my all-time favorite Malaysian dish.

                                         Parkroyal, Penang, Malaysia (Source: Google images)

Nasi Lemak is arguably the national dish of Malaysia. It is a composite dish but its hero is the mound of coconut flavored rice in the middle. Nasi Lemak is like a younger sister of Kiri bath. The main ingredients are same but Nasi Lemak does not use a generous amount of coconut milk like in our Kiri bath. Its flavor comes from a combination of light coconut milk, pandan leave and ginger. Therefore, when I say the younger sister is more healthy and aromatic than the elder sister, I hope my fellow Sri Lankans will not be offended. Recently our Prime Minister went to Northern Sri Lanka for Thaipongal festival and stated that Pongal Rice (rice mixed with green gram, cashew, raisins, juggery and cooked in coconut milk) is tastier than Kiri Bath. Some Sri Lankans in the south thought that our PM disgraced our celebrated dish.  

Here is the recipe to make Nasi Lemak.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups Rice (Jasmine/Basmati)
  • 2 Pandan (Rampe) leave (warmed on fire and tied into a knot)
  • 1 cup light coconut milk and 2 cups water
  • 1” ginger julienned
  • 6 shallots
  • 4 garlics
  • 6 dried chilies
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • Sugar and salt to taste
  • Handful of sprats/anchovy deep fried until golden brown
  • Handful of peanuts deep fried until golden brown
  • 2 chicken drum sticks well-seasoned for 1 hour and deep fried until golden brown
  • 1 egg hard boiled and halved
  • 1 cucumber thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp tamarind paste



                                                               (Source: Google images)

Making rice:

  • Wash rice and put into a pot/rice cooker. Add coconut milk, ginger and pandan leave and bit of salt. Add water to the required level.
  • Once water is boiled, lower heat and simmer for 10-12 minutes until all water is absorbed (or let the rice cooker cook it).
  • Loosen rice grains with a wooden ladle. Do not let rice to break or smash.
  • Cover and keep warm.   


Making Sambal ikan bilis

  • Grind shallots, garlic, dried chilies and half of deep fried sprats into a fine paste.
  • Heat oil and fry the paste until it emanate aroma.
  • Add tamarind paste pinch of sugar and salt and cook until oil separates.


Assembling the dish

  • Lay a piece of coconut leaf on a shallow plate.
  • Set a mound of rice in the middle of the coconut leaf.
  • Arrange fried chicken, egg halves, deep fried sprats, peanuts, and sliced cucumber around the mound of rice.
  • Serve with some sambal ikan bilis placed on top of rice.    

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why did the chicken crossed the road?


This is a famous riddle/joke having a long history. As the yarn goes, it has been posed to ordinary people as well as to famous thinkers.  Some of the answers were very fascinating and some others very hilarious. One of my best liked answers has come from none other than Isaac Newton. According to the one who imagined the answer that Newton would have given, ... "Chickens at rest tend to stay rest. Chickens in motion tend to cross roads". The one who tried to think like Einstein has answered... Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road moved beneath the chicken depends upon your frame of reference”.

While sitting in a thought provoking conference session on “Low Carbon Transport” in Bogor, Indonesia during the last three days, some chicken questions popped in mind. Why did the chicken run away that evening in Yogyakarta? Why did the chicken cross the road full of traffic? Did the chicken use low-carbon transport to cross the road? Do chickens produce low-carbon food for us?

Chicken is almost a staple food in Asian countries. Asian food traditions have contributed popular chicken dishes like Tandoori Chicken, Hainan Chicken, Spring Chicken, and Chicken Massaman curry to the international food scene. Colonel Sanders has popularized Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) to be an internationally popular chicken dish but KFC cannot beat the Indonesian version of fried chicken – Ayam Goreng – for crispiness and flavor. It is Indonesia’s contribution to the international chicken seen. It does not have the chunkiness of KFC but it certainly has authentic chicken flavor due to the use of Kampung (village) chicken.




I was first introduced to Ayam Goreng in Yogyakarta by my colleague Henrika around 2004. At that time, we were establishing a community-based water supply cooperative in a kampung on the Code River bank. Henrika was very eager to show me the heritage monuments in Yogya whenever we got some spare time. She accompanied me to the Borobudur World Heritage site, Prambanan temple, Taman Sari water castle, Sultan palace and Kotagede silver craft village.

                                                                               Borobudur temple

                                                                      Tamansari water castle (Spa)

                                                                                  A street in Kota Geede

Visiting the Borobudur temple was an unforgettable experience for me. It is the most visited monument in Indonesia. It consists of six square platforms and 3 circular platforms placed in a pyramidal form. The central stupa is placed at the top of the last circular platform and surrounded by small perforated stupas with seated Buddha images inside them. 



Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world. It has been built in the 9th century following Buddhist cosmic traditions and to epitomize the attainment of Nirwana. The imposing Merapi volcano provides a mystic backdrop to Borobudur and harmonizes in form. Merapi is an active volcano. Every time I stayed in a hotel in Yogya I requested a room with Merapi view. It is such a magnificent sight to behold when the sky is cloudless and blue. I could even see it erupting during one of my visits.


                                                Merapi volcano set a backdrop to Borobudur Temple

My other favorite place to visit in Yogya is Malioboro Street. It is a popular place among tourists and locals alike. Its conserved streetscape is full of batik shops, craft shops and eateries. 


                                                                     Malioboro Street scene

Yogya is also famous as an education city. It has more than 25 universities and higher education institutes. After a tiring day of studies and research, thousands of students visit Malioboro Street to enjoy savory ayam gorengs, mie gorengs, nasi gorengs, satays and tempehs from ubiquitous street food stalls. Among them ayam goring seems to be the most sought after dish. The Yogya version of ayam goreng is called ayam goreng kalasan/kremes. It is made by boiling village chicken with a spice paste and then deep frying till crispy.

Henrika introduced me to a famous local brand of ayam goreng. The brand carries the name of a Madame who was believed to have a secret recipe. The Madame’s ayam goreng looks so different from the commonly available ayam goreng versions throughout Indonesia. Its golden brown, crispy look and the fluffy granule topping are so appealing. Colonel Sanders would have spent a fortune to get that recipe. I immediately liked it just for its appearance. Once inside the mouth it flakes and disintegrates like no other fried chicken. It is so unique compared to the rubbery and oily version of KFC and its copycats.


The Madame’s branded restaurants are located in the major cities of Indonesia. Since that first time I made sure to visit one of those restaurants whenever I visit Jakarta, Yogyakarta or Bandung. One evening Henrika and I were coming back from a tiring field visit. I requested Henrika to stopover at the Madame’s ayam goreng restaurant for a quick supper. While waiting for our order I saw a huge rat coming from the side of the kitchen and darting across the dining hall. For a moment I thought that it is one of Madame’s chicken escaping from the kitchen. It ran towards the front road and disappeared. Suddenly I knew the answer for the famous riddle – Why did the chicken cross the road? ….. It was to escape from the knife of Madame.


Needless to say that I immediately lost my appetite and barely touched the fluffy and crispy chicken that arrived at our table soon after. I did not say anything to Henrika and offend her. I just pretended nothing happened. That was my last visit to Madame’s restaurants anywhere in Indonesia. However, it did not stop me from tasting delicious ayam goreng’s elsewhere.

This is a recipe that I tried once at home.


Ayam Goreng Kremes (Deep fried chicken with crispy Kreme flakes)



Ingredients

6 pieces of chicken cuts
2 bay leaves
6 cloves garlic
6 shallots
6 candle nuts (can substitute with cashew nuts)
1 stalk lemon grass
2 tbsp coriander powder
2 tbsp all purpose flour
2 tbsp rice flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1½ cup water
Oil for deep frying

1. Grind garlic, shallots, candle nuts, coriander powder into a paste.
2. Coat the chicken pieces with the spice paste and place in a saucepan.  Lightly bruise bay leaves and lemon grass stalk and place over the chicken. Add salt and sugar.
3. Pour water over chicken, cover with a lid and bring to a boil. After that simmer for 15 minutes
4. Remove chicken from the pot and set aside to cool.
5. Strain the cooking liquid and mix it with two kinds of flour and baking powder to form a thin batter
6. Deep fry chicken until crispy and golden brown and place on oil absorbing paper.
7. Carefully place droplets of batter in the same hot oil and fry until golden brown. Scoop it and place on oil absorbing paper.

8. Serve chicken topped with crispy Kreme flakes.  

(Note: All pictures were obtained from Google)

Saturday, 30 August 2014

What is that Stinky Smell?

My summer break is coming to an end. Very soon I have to get back to my routine work. I had a very good working-holiday in Thailand and Sri Lanka. The highlight of the vacation was a visit to a fruit orchard in Rayong.


July-August time is the fruit season in tropical countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka. A variety of fruits are grown in large scale In Thailand. Fruit orchards are quite omnipresent in famous fruit growing provinces like Rayong and Chanthaburi. These orchards usually produce durian, rambutan, mangosteen, sala (sour palm) and langsat (ගඩුගුඩා). Among them, durian is known as the “king of fruits”.

    (At Suphattra Farm: source: Internet)

Those who like durian, really love it. The others really hate even its smell. My family belongs to the first group. We never let a chance to enjoy a good ripe fruit of durian. We even introduced the taste of durian to our children at very young age. Once I went somewhere with my wife leaving our 5 year old daughter with my younger brother and sister-in-law. They have brought a durian fruit and opened it. They were not sure whether they should give a piece to the kid. So they ate the whole fruit while the kid was looking on. When we came back home that evening she said “මෙහෙම දුරියන් පෙරේතයො දෙන්නෙක් මම නම් දැකල නැහැ. මට කෑල්ලක්වත් දෙන්නෙ නැතුව ඔක්කොම කෑව”.  She was mimicking some phrases that her grandmother often used. We all had a hearty laugh. Kids are kids. They quickly learn words of adults.

One day, while going to a tuition class in the evening I saw a notice at Thilaka Jayanthi Cool Spot in Maharagama.  අද විශේෂ - දුරියන් ජූස් (Today’s Special - Durian Juice). I wanted to try that because I have never tasted durian in juice form.  It tasted so delicious with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Then I went to the class. Soon I felt my tummy bloating. Perhaps the juice got highly aerated when it was churned in the blender. Burp after burp after burp …….. so many burps came out and spread delicious durian smell all over. The whole class burst into a hysterical laugh. Some classmates were making fun of me. Some girls were closing their noses. I could not take it anymore. I left the class and never returned. That night I suffered very much. Never ever drink durian juice. I learnt a hard lesson.

My second durian episode happened in Thailand. One day I went to see the CFO of our institute, Mr. Vejjajeeva. He asked me, “where are you from?”.…. I said, “I am from Sri Lanka”… “Are you a Buddhist?” …. “Yes, I am”….” Very well, we are going to visit a temple in Chanthaburi this weekend to offer alms to monks. If you like to join us, tell the GRO (Governments Relations Officer) to include your name”. I immediately met Mr. Pravit and requested to include me and my wife in the list. Saturday came and we left early in the morning by a coach. There were about 40 people including two Sri Lankan school teachers who have come for a short training program at our institute. We reached the temple about 11 am. The temple was just normal and the alms giving uneventful. Thai participants did not want to eat the left over alms. They wanted to eat seafood that Chantaburi is also famous for. We followed them and enjoyed a scrumptious seafood lunch of shrimp and crabs.

               (not the real place, Source: internet)


After the lunch, Mr. Pravit announced that “we are visiting Mr. Vejjajeeva’s orchard”. We were stuffed up to neck and wanted a nap but we did not want to miss the chance of visiting a fruit orchard either. When we arrived there we saw a huge Roman style mansion in the middle of a large mixed-fruit plantation. There was a long buffet table of fruits waiting for us in the middle of the entrance porch. The pride of the buffet was freshly opened durians. We feasted on durian and mangosteen just after shrimps and crabs. What a combination. That evening was my second time to regret. 


In Sri Lanka durian and mangosteen are considered as heaty fruits, but I learned that Thais consider durian as heaty and mangosteen as cool. Therefore they should be eaten together in order to get a perfect balance.

               (source: Internet)

In Sri Lanka, durian trees are very tall and you have to wait until ripe fruits fall down. I guess they belong to an indigenous variety. In Thailand, they grow hybrid durian varieties. They are just about 4-5m tall and branches are full of fruits.

In Sri Lanka people usually buy durian fruits that are just split open. In Thailand, no one buy durian fruits like that. Therefore such fruits are sent for producing sweets like candy, bars, cream etc. Durian experts tap fruits using a wooden stuck and listen for the hollow sound to determine its degree of ripeness. Opening of such a durian fruit is a great skill.

This summer I learnt that there are 4 popular hybrid durian varieties grown in Thailand. They are;

Chanee – oblong shape with a round end, green color

Mongthong – oblong shape with a pointed end, rusty green color

Kanyao – round shape, light green color

Kradumthong – oblate shape, green color

                                                                                Chanee

                                                                            Mongthong

                                                                                 Kanyao

                                                                            Kradumthong
(Read this article if you are interested in details. http://www.dit.go.th/agriculture/durian/varietie.htm)


The Mongthong variety is the most popular because the seeds are smaller and the flesh is thicker. I was told that a Mongthong fruit from Nonthaburi Province near Bangkok can fetch about 150 USD. Durian fruits from Nonthaburi are believed to be the most delicious among all. One has to order in advance due to limited production.



If anybody dares to drink durian in liquid form, here is a recipe for a delicious durian smoothie.


Ingredients

1 cup Durian flesh

1 banana

1 cup crushed ice

½ cup milk

1 tbsp condensed milk

Method

Put all ingredients into a blender and churn to the desired degree of smoothness.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Tea Persons and Coffee Persons

Last week I was waiting for my daughter near her friend’s house around 6 pm. The second test match between Sri Lanka and England was on TV. The friend’s grandmother saw me listening to the commentary and invited me inside the house to watch the match. I very gladly accepted her invitation. Then she asked, … “Are you Sri Lankan?” I answered, … “certainly”. Then she asked in Sinhala, … “ලංකාවෙන් ගෙනාපු කෝපි තියෙනව. බොමුද ටිකක්? (There is some coffee brought from Sri Lanka. Would you like to have some?).  It was within few seconds into our conversation that I accepted another invitation from her very gleefully. She went inside the house and brought me a steaming cup of black coffee. Its aroma and taste reminded me my beloved mother.



My mother used to make her own coffee powder. She had planted few coffee bushes in our back garden. She picked coffee berries when they were ripe and then sun dried for few days before taking the shells off. Then she stored the dried and split berries in a jar and took batch by batch for roasting. She roasted the coffee in an old frying pan heated on a firewood stove and then powdered it using a stone mortar and pestle. The coarse powder was kept in an air tight glass jar. It was sufficient for about a month. Around the time of sunset she prepared black coffee and served with pieces of juggary. The taste was very unique and divine. Even if they come as a team, Gloria Jeans and Costa could have never beaten the taste of her coffee.

We Sri Lankans are generally tea drinkers, not coffee drinkers. We are famous for producing the best tea in the world and selling under the famous national brand “Ceylon Tea”. We fondly say that ‘any time is tea time in Sri Lanka’. That means coffee is a drink for only special times. My mother’s special time was around sunset. Weddings and homecoming receptions are some others special times for serving coffee in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan version of iced coffee is usually the choice of welcome drink in such occasions. When I moved to Middle East I found that Arabs also use coffee as a welcome drink. Arabic coffee is bitter and spicy tasting for me. I have not got used to Arabic Coffee yet.

Coffee drinking is deeply rooted as part of the culture in some other Asian countries. Laotians are very proud of Lao coffee. They use coffee as a gift as we Sri Lankans use tea as a gift. The Vietnamese use coffee as an interface to socialize with friends and guests. Drinking coffee is part of the everyday life in Vietnam. Probably there is no other culture in Asia that use coffee for leisure, gossip, romance, business, entertainment and just simple conversation as the Vietnamese do. There are a large variety of coffee shops to suit different times, moods and purposes. The architecture and ambience of coffee shops also vary accordingly. They range from chaotic street cafes to very romantic venues with cozy and intimate ambiences. 








The Vietnamese coffee belongs to the Robusta family of coffees. Drinking the traditional Vietnamese drip coffee is an experience itself. It is a perfect aide for conversation. While the hot brewing coffee drips drop by to the cups or glasses partly filled with condensed milk, the conversation can go on and on. It takes quite some time for the dripping to stop. Then you have to thoroughly mix the coffee with sweetened condensed milk to produce that uniquely Vietnamese taste.  You can either enjoy it as a hot drink or pour over ice to turn it into a cold drink. The blended and stylized coffees like Cappuccino, Americano, Latte, and Mocha in upmarket coffee shops are no way comparable with that heavenly taste. 




Every time I visit Vietnam I make sure that I drink at least one cup of drip coffee per day.  I was first introduced to its wonderful aroma and flavor by my good old friend Nguyen Nam Son. Later some architect friends like Hai and Thong accompanied me to several coffee shops in Saigon and Hanoi cities. Those places gave me a complete sensory experience of sights, sounds, aromas, flavors and feelings in a variety of architectural ambiances. I brought with me the necessary equipment and coffee powder to emulate Vietnamese drip coffee but never succeeded in doing so. You have to taste a cup made by a Vietnamese girl and enjoy it in a Vietnamese coffee shop to experience that wonderful sensory experience. When I visit Ho Chi Minh City, I really like to sit in the Highland Coffee shop located in the top floor of a shopping center and observe people in the little garden in front of the Saigon Opera House. How wonderfully well the sight of classical architecture and taste of traditional coffee flavor blend together. 



Coffee drinking is becoming a lifestyle trend in some Asian countries. Thailand got into that trend several years ago. Very cozy little coffee shops have sprung up in many cities and towns. The Amazon Coffee chain is one of my favorites on the go. I guess Amazon Coffee is a franchise now. No two Amazon shops are similar in architecture but all of them have a common architectural language. They are mostly located in the travel service stations. The transparency of the shop core and the openness of the sitting area and the landscape design of the surrounding encourage travellers to come in and relax while sipping coffee. I dream of owning a place like that one day.




If that dream comes true, I will serve the Sri Lankan versions of black hot coffee and iced coffee.

Sri Lankan style Iced Coffee


Ingredients
1 small can sweetened condensed milk
3 tbsp freshly roasted Sri Lankan coffee powder
1.5 tbsp white sugar
1.5 liter boiled water
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp brandy

Method
Pour condensed milk into a jug and pour half the quantity of boiled water into it. Stir it to form the milk solution.

Put coffee powder in another jug and pour the remaining quantity of boiled water. Stir well and keep it covered for 2-3 minutes.

Mix the above two solutions and add sugar, vanilla and brandy and stir well.

Strain the mixture twice using a fine cloth or a coffee filter and then refrigerate it.

Serve without ice in cold glasses. 

(All the pictures in this post were obtained from internet. I thank the unknown owners of those pictures.)

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Visakha Bucha


The vesak week of 2014 is coming to an end in Sri Lanka. I wonder whether any other Buddhist society celebrates Gauthama Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinirvana as we Sri Lankans do. Vesak festival ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesak )is one of the most beautiful times in Sri Lanka. Many villages, towns and cities look so beautiful in the evenings when thousands of pandols, lanterns and other decorations shimmer with colorful light. Buddhist style carols and chants reverberate in the air. The aroma of lighted coconut lamps and incense sticks fill the nostrils. The scrumptious meals and herbal beverages offered by numerous dansal (charity food stalls) tickle the taste buds. These sensations please both body and mind alike. Hence it is a complete sensory experience.

                                                        Vesak Pandol in Colombo (pic from internet)

                                                               Vesak Lantern (pic from internet)

When I was a very small kid I remember that our eldest brother Ananda used to make small pandols in front of our house for the vesak festival. They were about 4 m high and imitated the much larger versions seen in Colombo and other towns. Lighting design was done by his best friend Karunarathne. Our cousin sister Rupakka did water color paintings for the pandol to show the incidents of Buddha’s life. Once our second brother Sarath even wrote few verses of viridu (a uniquely Sri Lankan form of poetry) emulating what he has heard near big pandols in Colombo. One of the verses I still remember goes as follows. 

උයන තුලදි මහමායා දේවිට බඩරුජා හැදී
සල් අත්තක් අල්ල ගැනීමට අත දිගු කරන ලදී

Vesak is a time for Sri Lankan people to engage in more pious activities, visit many temples and revere the life of Buddha. We used to visit famous temples like Warana, Attanagalle, Kelaniya, during the day time and visit Colombo and suburban towns in the evenings to admire wesak decorations. Visiting few dansal on the way was a sure itinerary on these excursions. We miss that amazing experience after leaving Sri Lanka for higher studies and work. We have seen vesak festivals with decorations and lights in Japan, South Korea  and Thailand but they were no way comparable with Sri Lankan way of vesak celebration. Particularly in Thailand where we lived over a decade, we never witnessed vesak celebration in such grand scale as in Sri Lanka.

Vesak festival is called “Visakha Bucha” In Thailand. It is celebrated on the full moon day of May as we Sri Lankans do. But it is basically a one day festival in Thailand. The most important event of the day takes place after the sunset. It is called “vian tian” ceremony. Vian means to circle and tian means candle.  Vian tian is performed by walking around an image house or a chedi (stupa) for three times while holding a lighted candle and a white lotus flower. This is done in clockwise pattern with the right side of the body turned towards the image house (vihara) or stupa (chedi).  We Sri Lankans call this pradakshina but never do it in such an organized way as Thai people do. Vian Tian ceremony is the grand finale of Visakha Bucha festival. It is a sight to behold and an experience to cherish. 


  

                               Vian Tian ceremony at Wat Yai Chai Mongkol in Ayuthaya (pics from internet)

When we were living in Thailand we used to visit Ayuthaya Historical Park on Visakha Bucha days. Ayuthya is the last royal capital of Thailand (1351 – 1767) before Bangkok became the national capital. The ancient city of Ayuthaya has been conserved by the Royal Thai Government with the help of UNESCO. Presently it is a UNESCO world heritage site ( http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/576  ). Wat Yai Chai Mongkol (ජය මංගල මහා විහාරය) was our favorite destination in the historical park. Any Sri Lankan visiting this temple will be very happy to read the information board at the entrance and learn that the central stupa has been constructed following “Lanka style”. Thai people have learnt this style during the Sukhothai period (1238 -1438). Before that, stupas in Thailand had influence from Khmer and Lanna styles. Perhaps the predecessors of Sukhothai Kingdom had religious and cultural ties with Anuradhapura Kingdom (377 BC – 1017) and Polonnaruwa Kingdom (1017 -1215) in Sri Lanka. The Lanka style stupas in Sukhothai and Ayuthya are bell shaped. There are no bell shaped stupas in Polonnaruwa as far as I know. Does that mean the inspiration for “Lanka style” has come from none other than Thuparama Stupa in Anuradhapura, the very first stupa constructed in ancient Sri Lanka? 
    

          Thuparamaya Stupa (210 BC) in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (pic shows the 1862 reconstruction)
                                                                                            (pic from internet)
                                            Wat Sa Si in Sukhothai (late 14th Century) - (pic from internet)

                                                    Wat Yai Chai Mongkol (1357) - (pic from internet)

According to chronicles, the Siamese monks from Ayuthaya Kingdom have helped Sri Lankan monks to re-establish Sangha order when there was a crisis during the colonial period in Sri Lanka. That has given birth to the Siam Nikaya (Siam sect) of Buddhist monks based in Kandy. Later the Sri Lankan monks have returned the favor when Siamese monks were experiencing a crisis. The new Sangha order established in Thailand is called “Lanka wong”. We were thrilled to learn such intrinsic details during our numerous visits to Ayuthaya. We also learnt that a venerable monk called Upali thero was the leader of the Siamese delegation that visited Sri Lanka to re-establish Sangha order. He has stayed back in Sri Lanka and passed away in Kandy. His former avasa ge (monk’s residence) in Ayuthaya was conserved by the Sri Lankan government around 2002. We were fortunate to participate in the inauguration ceremony. To my very pleasant surprise I could meet the most venerable Ambanwalle Pnnnasekara thero who came from Sri Lanka to represent the Malwatta Chapter of Siam Nikaya. He was the anu-nayaka of Malwatta Chapter at that time. He was my Buddhism teacher in grades 9 and 10 at Ananda College in Colombo. He said that “wherever I go in the world I always meet Anandian sons”. Needless to say that I was very proud and happy to hear such words from a former teacher.
 
This post is incomplete without some remarks about Ayuthaya’s cuisine. In Thailand, almost every province has a signature dish or a product. Ayuthya has three signature dishes, (1) Ayuthaya boat noodle, (2) Roti Sai Mai (A Thai Muslim sweet similar to cotton candy wrapped in a very thin roti)  , (3) Wing bean salad (Yum Tua Ploo). The third one is my all-time favorite. I have tried to make this dish several times but I never could achieve the authentic taste offered by many river side restaurants in Ayuthaya. Here is the recipe. You can try.


                                                                    Wing Bean Salad (Yum Tua Ploo)
                                                                   (pic from internet)
Ingredients

250 gm tender wing beans
3 twigs of cilantro coarsely chopped
5-6 shrimps peeled and deveined
4-5 red hot chilies
3 tbsp thick coconut milk
1 tbsp tom yum paste (can substitute with chili paste)
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
2 tbsp cashew nuts coarsely ground
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
4-5 dried and fried red chilies (for garnish)
6 thinly sliced red onions deep fry half (for garnish) and keep the rest
3 tbsp shredded and dry roasted coconut
2 eggs hard boiled and sliced/quartered


Method

Boil 2 cups of water and add 1 tbsp salt
Blanch winged bean in boiled and slated water for 1 minute and remove to a bowl of cold water for 1 more minute. Place in a colander to drain all water. Soaking in cold water will help to keep them green. Slice the blanched wing beans diagonally and thinly as possible.
Boil shrimp until just done. Do not over boil.
Warm the coconut milk.
Put sliced wing beans, boiled shrimp, sliced red onion, sliced red chilies, chopped cilantro in a bowl.
Add coconut milk, tom yum paste, sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce.
Lightly toss like a salad. Adjust sour and salty tastes as desired by lime juice and fish sauce.
Plate the salad on a flat dish and garnish with roasted cashew nuts, roasted coconut, deep fried dry red chili and deep fried red onion.
Plate boiled and sliced/quartered eggs on the side.