The kurfuffle in the kitchen has calmed down since I (at last) remembered the old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth.
And acted upon it.
Sudeth and Kasun, our (pre) existing chefs, have stepped effortlessly into the gap created by the departure of a (Briefly) Big Enchilada and the pot is set again to simmer smoothly. Two Commis chefs have joined the team and the kitchen whirls once more with contented, timely creatively – rather than the sultry Gordon Ramsay B Side that is the alternative chorus of any kitchen.
Both Sudeth and Kasun are pleasingly talented and able; well organized, properly mindful of standards, hardworking and curious to prod the boundaries of our Menu Mantras.
Our kitchen is (I know I may be unjustly accused of bias here), the best within at least a 65 mile range, if not more. It’s certainly way better than anything in Kandy, Negombo, Matale, Gampaha, Kurunegala, Hatton, Dambulla, or most of the grand restaurants and hotels in Colombo. That’s more than conscionably good for a kitchen in the jungles of central Sri Lanka where finding pomegranate molasses can take the better part of a week.
Having eaten my way through more Michelin stared restaurant menus than any generous god could countenance, I‘ve rediscovered the blindingly obvious: you can’t beat simplicity, authenticity, routine.
Do a few things really well; keep to what you can buy that is really fresh and local; and take to heart that food is a tour (or at worst, an excursion) through a country, a district, a culture.
That’s it. That’s our menu Mantra. Entirely. No more. And definitely no less.
This means leaving other kitchens, in other lands, to fashion dry ice trompe l'oeil salads, pompadour cuts of preternaturally expensive meats from distant Japanese prefectures, mercurial seascapes daubed with caviar and served on mirrors dusted with blushing Anatolian salts; and all the other melodramatic dishes prepared for the jaded urban palates of this starving earth.
No., No. No. (as the lady who wansn't for turning more famously said)
Food may be fuel; but it sure isn’t entertainment, brief and flimsy as anything you might randomly catch flickering across the Netflicks screens before it is gone forever. Not unless you’ve run out of other things to do in a long and reckless life; and have taken to climbing the Munros or dropping in on the College of Hearlds to research your matriarchal family line. Food is culture; learning; life.
What I revere about our estate food is that all our ingredients are really really local (though the curd most certainly comes from heaven). The most perfect vegetables and fruit are sensually abundant just a stone’s throw or so away; most of the usual – but still more of the unexpected. The spices we pick from our gardens: cinnamon, cloves, pandom leaves, pepper. cardamom, vanilla, curry leaves, turmeric, goraka, curry leaves, ginger, cumin, chilli, . The herbs we grow ourselves.
With meats, we are very fussy. Good beef doesn’t happen on the island: it comes from thousands of miles away, tired, jet-lagged and an affront to any armchair environmentalist. Pork is challenging; locally sourced, easily disgraced. Lamb, like penguins, have yet to call this tropical island home.
But the chicken is excellent. And the fish, of course, better still. Sailfish swims off all the coasts, its flesh thick, steaky and white with none of the oily after taste of some sea creatures. And tuna – well, enough said. Tasty tuna can be seen off every beach doing backstroke, breaststroke, crawl, a gleaming Sri Lankan passport clasped between its teeth. Tuna is very very good.
And then of course there is rice.
Back west or down the sleek corridors of the G7 nations its mostly white. Intermittently wild,. Sometimes brown. Occasionally organic.
But here there is also Suwendel, Kuruluthuda Wee, Madathawalu, Sulai, Murungakayan, Pachaperumal, Sudu Heenati, Kaluheenati, Gonabaru, Kuru Hondarawala, Polon Wee, Guru Podi Wee, Kuru Ma Wee, Pulli Wee, Alagu Samba, Guru Wee, Pushpa Raga, Alagu Samba, Allei Perumal, Hapumal Wee, Mada El, Rasna Vaalu, Askarayal, Hata Da Wee, Rata Thawalu, Hathi El, Madei Karuppan, Rath El, Heen Deveradhari, Maha Maa Wee, Bala Goda Wee, Manikkam, Masuran, Bala Murunga, Heen Rath El, Rath Karael, Bala Samba, Heen Samba, Molagu Samba, Rath Mada Al, Bala Thatu Wee, Heen Suvuru Wee, Molligoda, Bata Kiri El, Hondarawalu, Motakarupan, Mudu Kiri El, Rathu Bala Wee, Beheth Heenati, Kahata El, Murunga, Rathu Sooduru, Kahata Samba, Niyan Wee, Kalu Bala Maa Wee, Kalu Bala Vee, Deveradhari, Kalu Handiran, Sudu Maa Wee, Goda Wee, Kottayar, and Wanni Dahanala. To name but a few.
As Van Goff might have said to a curious passer by: we are not short of colours. To shape a menu with all this around us is little short of joyful.
There are the obvious things you should never deviate from, like toast soldiers with boiled eggs; nutmeg with comfort macaroni cheese; proper homemade marmalade; freshly baked bread.
But the katsup with our lunchtime fish and chips isn’t Heinz -its homemade, with nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon.
Curries come with Mango & Rosemary Chutney.
Ice creams are flavoured with more than vanilla or chocolate – with cardamom or ginger; chilli & kitel or pepper & honey.
Sri Lanka’s melting pot history of Indian, Portuguese, Dutch or British flavours tosses such loved invaders as hoppers, milk rice, love cakes, bibikkan, samosas, gulam jamun, bhajis, and lassis onto our menu.
Soups made from carrot, cauliflower, beetroot, or pumpkin stir with the greater intensity of added ginger, cardamon, coconut or chilli. Island favourites like naran kawum, curries of cashew nut or vegetable, dishes of dhal, meats or classic dishes of tuna, cauliflower, spinach, salsas, potatoes, or beans are enlivened by a touch of lemongrass, rosemary & kitel, pineapple, saffron, tamarind or ginger, kittul & basil.
You just can’t not meet a bit of the real Sri Lanka when you eat from Kasun and Sudeth’s kitchen, despite choosing your food with the judgement of dowager. Even their breakfast fried eggs have little smiles on the yokes picked out in pepper grapes. Real food, as Julia Child so wisely observed, is a serious art form and a national sport.