Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka, a cookbook cum memoir by Cynthia Shanmugalingam, is filled with mouth-watering recipes for every meal of the day as well as party snacks and drinks. The recipes are a mix of traditional and modern and more than half of them are vegan. It is a wonderful introduction to one of the world’s most unsung cuisines. Her stories, honest, humorous and some deeply moving and tragic made me laugh out loud and cry in turn.
'I have not shied away from the country’s often painful history of war, colonial oppression, slavery, spice trading, poverty, and proselytising in these pages.These chapters too, are part of the story of our food. Rather than dimming the ingenuity and creativity of the island’s cooks, in successive generations our ancestors created Sri Lanka’s culinary songbook.’
The evocative photographs in her book transported me back in time to a fortnight I spent in Sri Lanka, in Thalpitya village, tasked with photographing the six new homes which the North Shore City Council had fundraised for after the catastrophic Boxing Day Tsunami (2004). I was booked into a small military beach front resort. A civil war was still raging. There were weddings as well as all night rowdy parties before the young soldiers went off to fight. A civil war as well as a natural disaster! It brought the reality of Sri Lanka’s painful history home to me in a very tangible way. And yet they were embracing life, eating, and drinking together, and making time to celebrate.
It was my first introduction to Sri Lankan curries. To be able to recreate some has been a wonderful but also nostalgic experience. I found the recipes easy to follow . The ingredients were readily available except for fresh curry leaves which are absolutely essential but eventually I managed to track some down in a vegie mart. Then I cooked up a storm of Sri Lankan recipes starting with an Arrack egg mutttai coffee, made by whisking fresh eggs into hot coffee spiced with crushed ginger and cardamon. Thick and frothy, it was meal in a cup and a nourishing energising start to the day.
Sri Lankans love eating all kinds of curries; vegetable, fish and meat, and the sambals which accompany them. First, I cooked the spicy chickpea curry which is very fashionable at weddings. Cynthia comments that after the wedding , a new husband could cook this for his sweetheart as a quick, delicious spicy breakfast before she boards her motorbike and drives to work!
Next the roast pumpkin curry which was, as promised, mild and fragrant. Best to roast the pumpkin first, to allow the natural sugars to come through and it will become sweet and nutty. The red chicken curry too was delectable. It was light, smoky, spicy, and warming .
Where there is a Sri Lankan party there will be plenty of Shorteats (Sri Lankan Party snacks) like Vadai doughnuts, mutton rolls and potato and leek spicy stuffed roti. We sampled her devilled party cashew nuts. They were very moorish!
Cynthia admits Sri Lanka is an island of sugar junkies! In her drinks and sweets chapter there is an abundance of sugar to delight sweet tooths including milk toffee, her version of the famous Sri Lankan Love cake, and a mango fluff pie.
I spent my last night in Sri Lanka in a rambling old colonial hotel in Colombo where I tucked into their lavish smorgasbord dinner with gay abandon. The desserts were served on small plates and in tiny glasses and I could not resist several helpings of watalappan , the most famous dessert in Sri Lanka, a luscious spicy, wobbly coconut custard spiced with cardamom and sweetened with kithul jaggery. Cynthia Shanmugalingam has given it a new twist and created a watalappan tart, a kind of marriage between a perfect custard tart and this Sri Lankan classic. It sounds amazing and it's one of many other recipes I can’t wait to try!
Reviewer: Lyn Potter