Now that I am about to leave Sri Lanka, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my last six months here. After my friends, one of the things I will miss most about Sri Lanka is the food. I fell in love with Sri Lanka’s underrated and fiery cuisine when I first came here in 2006, and even six months of eating nothing but rice and curry wasn’t enough to satisfy my appetite for it. I promised myself ages ago that I would take a Sri Lankan cooking course, but it never really ended up happening, so since this is my last week I decided I would try my hand at a bit of Sri Lankan cooking.
I had been staying at a Sri Lankan friend’s house in Unawatuna with my American friend Kristen. We have plenty of Sri Lankan friends who come in and out of the house regurlarly, and when we told them our plan to make my favourite Sri Lankan dish of idiappa (a type of noodle made from rice flour and served with curry), they were not quite as impressed as we had thought.
“Idiappa not possible for you to make. Very difficult,” our friend Kasun argued. But we were not to be dissuaded. I had seen my friends’ parents make idiappa before and it looked simple enough, we simply needed some special trays for steaming and a tool that squeezes out the noodles from the paste that it made from mixing rice flour with water. Since we didn’t have either of these things, we went to ask around in the village to see if anyone would lend us some. We asked a few tuk tuk drivers, but they were unable to help us, but eventually we found a shop who were willing to lend us all the things we needed. Now all we had to get were the ingredients.
We headed over to the fruit and vegetable market and explained to them in Sinhala what we wanted to make. They were more than happy to help, picking out our ingredients for us carefully, and telling us what would work best. For one of the curries we were making they told us that a good ingredient that rarely gets used is Maldives fish (a dried fish from the Maldives), which we could grind up and add to the normal recipe. Then they took us to the back of the shop to show us their vegetable patches where fresh chillis were growing. The man picked off some chillis for us and told them they were free of charge. We promised to bring him some of our idiappa when we had finished to thank him.
After we had all our ingredients we were ready to get started. We roped together a few of our friends and set everyone a different task. My American friend Kristen and I were making pol sambol (a blend of spices, tomatoes, onions, and our sneaky ingredient Maldives fish all mashed together with mortar and pestle), Kristen was making parripu (dahl curry), I was making the actual idiappa, and our friends Simba and Kumara would be making potato curry and helping us out with everything.
I got started on the idiappa, mixing the rice flour with water to make a paste, then pushing it into the strange metal contraption that pushes out noodle shapes. Whilst making the paste was easy, pushing it out of the idiappa maker was almost impossible. It required a surprising amount of strength and I found myself wondering quite how Sri Lankan women managed to do it. After a few attempts I was totally worn out and my fingers were stinging, so I had Kumara take over from me and he certainly did manage to do it a lot quicker!
The pol sambol was equally gruelling work. First the coconut needed to be cut and grated by hand, then the maldives fish had to be cut into pieces (not easy since it is as hard as a rock), then after that the garlic, tomatoes, spices, grated coconut, and onion all had to be smashed in the mortar and pestle. Kristen and I both took it in turns to do some smashing, but we found that our arms got tired extremely quickly.
When we finally finished we had been in the kitchen for almost two hours and were digustingly sweaty and tired. We sat down for dinner with our friends and they told us it tasted great and commented that we ‘would make fantastic Sri Lankan wives!’ It made me appreciate just how much time and effort goes in to making the dishes here and made me pretty glad that I am NOT a Sri Lankan wife!