Loving to cook as I do, I am thrilled to be invited into the rustic kitchen at Gem River Edge by the two cooks. These elders are nicknamed “uncle” and “auntie”. Uncle is a skin and bones guy, his wide smile punctuated by missing teeth, his movements quick and efficient. Cooking is only one job. His real profession is electrician. He wears sarong and peers at me through thick glasses clouded with smoke and spatter.
His assistant, auntie, boasts a graying braid and a stocky figure. She walks with a slight arthritic hesitation. She smiles broadly, hugs me and declares that we are sisters. I feel welcomed, am offered a stool and tea, but choose to stand and watch.
Figure 1 Auntie at the chopping board
The main meal today is rice and curry. A vat sized pot holds plump red rice, already prepared. Along the counters are piles of vegetables, each the basis of a curry. Red onions have already been sliced and sit aside with some pods of garlic. A green vegetable that is new to me is sliced in 1/8 inch pieces. They look like a rectangular figure eights. Will I find these at Portland’s Asian markets? About eight cups of these slices are placed in a soot-blackened kettle along with approximately 1.5 cups of onion slices. Now a teaspoon of turmeric, a heaping teaspoon of curry powder, an inch of cinnamon stick, a generous sprinkling of salt and a half handful of fresh curry leaves are stirred in. Then about 3 cups of coconut milk, squeezed from freshly grated coconut mixed with water. I am surprised that no oil was used in this recipe.
Figure 2 spice cupboard
Uncle squats at the small fire heated stove, adding sticks and blowing through a tube to bring up the flames. He covers the kettle and turns to the next vegetable.
“Fifteen minutes”, he says. He explains that in this kitchen, very little chili is used. Guests can’t handle it and the owners of this restaurant believe that too much chili hides the taste of the food. Staff, who love chili, must supplement with pickles, sweet and spicy.
Auntie washes a huge bunch of small delicate leaves attached to tender stems. I will try to identify it, but experienced the same dish made with coriander leaves. She sets them to drain and begins to clean a stack of green onion stems. The small bulbs are removed and skinned, then the toughest outer leaves. Then the greens are chopped into 1 inch slices. These are treated as the figure eight vegetable above. Same seasonings, except that several green chilis are added, same process. These are set aside to wait their turn on the fire.
Uncle adds more coconut milk to the simmering pot, stirring vigorously. “Five minutes” he declares. Now he tackles a stack of small eggplants, halving them and slicing them into quarters. He slices some tomatoes and cuts more onion.
After the onion tops are cooked, a large kettle with about ¾ cup oil is placed on the fire. As it heats curry, turmeric, cinnamon are added to the eggplant slices along with salt and a teaspoon of crushed red chili. A teaspoon of black mustard seed is thrown into the hot oil popping loudly. The eggplant, tomatoes and onions are stirred in. Then a little water. Lid in place, the fire brings the kettle to a boil……Uncle stirs occasionally and drips sauce from the kettle into his palm for frequent taste tests.
Auntie has put a hand crank coconut grater in place. She holds half of a brown coconut to the blades and cranks vigorously. The resulting white heap will soon be added to the finely chopped leaves that she’d washed earlier along with onions, a hint of chili powder, a tad of turmeric and salt. She mixes these together with her hand, pops everything into a pot with a small amount of water to steam.
Another pot boils with slices of green mango. Uncle is toasting the spices he will add which included a heaping half cup of red curry powder, cardamom seed and cloves in addition to the spices mentioned before. He added sugar and juice from the boiling to the spices and poured all over the parboiled fruit for continued cooking.
For another dish, he threw a handful of turmeric into slices of eggplant and mixed well before deep fat frying until they were practically crisp. These were ingredients for a salad with additions of raw onions, tomato and lime/olive oil dressing.
What amazed me were his rustic tools. A coconut hull, drilled will a zillion holes and attached to a handle was the deep fry scoop. Newspaper served for draining, and newspaper rolls were his hot mitts. This kitchen is preparing three meals a day for up to 15 staff and guests with rudimentary equipment.
Carla, Portuguese wife of Muna, the founder of Gem River Edge, joins us in the kitchen to prepare dal and green beans for her one year old. I wondered if some better utensils might help. “He won’t use them. We’ve tried.” she shrugs.
She suggests that we eat together later. She explains that in the home Sri Lankans do not usually sit together for meals. They eat when and where they want. Some will fill their plates and squat in the kitchen, others may sit in a chair outside. No one expects the food to be hot.
However, when I join Carla for lunch we sit at a beautifully set table, our food presented in simple aqua tinted porcelain. We spread our hand woven napkins, serve our rice and curries and dive in. We could choose to eat with our fingers, going native. But this time, we fall back upon our own traditions. Forks, conversation and sweetened curd for dessert!NOTE OF INTEREST: Rice and curry buffets often offer an amazing number of different “curries” and several types of rice. Preparing each distinct curry takes a huge amount of time. Common additions include banana blossoms, jackfruit, long beans, pumpkin, potatoes, caramelized onions with chili, cauliflower, cabbage, fish, beef, chicken as well as several coconut based condiments. The amount of spice and coconut milk added to each curry is determined by custom and taste. There is a certain freedom in that!