Sri Lankan Rice
Yesterday (2 March 2015), The Taster had a crack at Sri Lankan rice parcels, which is handfuls of spiced rice bundled up in banana leaves.
Our efforts were inspired by the discovery that leek leaves are a good substitute for banana leaves. The principle is also not so far from Greek dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves) or a favourite dish of The Taster’s mother: sausagemeat wrapped in thin cabbage leaf and gently braised in a light broth. (We’ll get the recipe off her one of these days.)
The cooking techniques were straightforward frying and baking. The main hurdle was ingredients. Fresh coconut and rampa were substituted by tinned coconut milk and bay leaf. We could have fiddled around making ghee, but decided ordinary butter would do. (An element of impatience took over after the trek to town for coconut milk.) Also, curry leaves aren’t always the easiest thing to source in a tiny Welsh market town, but luckily Spice Kitchen had just sent us a packet (lovely company; take a look).
So: red onions and spices in the frying pan, joined later by rice, stock and further spices, with cardamom seeds added at the end. The combination of cardamom, lemongrass, cinnamon, bay, cloves and black pepper was significantly different from Indian or Thai spice mixes; particularly the absence of chilli and ginger. And then coconut milk: not too much – just brushed on the leek leaves.
There was a bit of a moment when we realised that, having carefully crumbled dry, spiky bay leaves into the mix, we then had to remove them all with tweezers. (Presumably fresh rampa is less spiky than dried bay.) And then – oh dear – some fool had crumbled up the cinnamon and lemongrass sticks, too. Back with the tweezers.
There was a second bit of a moment when the rice refused to stay put on the leek leaves, but several spearings with cocktail sticks got it in the end.
The final, porridgy-textured dish was warmed in the oven for 20 minutes. It came out steaming, fragrant and delicately flavoured: the absence of citrus, chilli or ginger allowed the lighter, sweeter flavours of lemongrass and cardamom to blossom. The leek leaves, kept sweetly moist by the milky rice, were very pleasant. Rather than have it as a side dish (where other flavours might overpower it), we’d recommend it as a starter, possibly with some crisp lettuce or cucumber to add a bit of crunch.
We took our recipe from Manel Ratnatunga’s book, Step-by-Step Sri Lankan Cookery (reviewed in our summer 2015 issue). If you want to try it yourself, it’s on Gazelle Books for £5.99 (use their search options to find the title). It’s an uncompromisingly authentic cookbook, but it’s been reprinted every year since it was first published 13 years ago and it contains many cool hipster cookery terms to amaze & astound your friends (siyambala is tamarind; cadjunut is cashew). It’ll keep any enthusiastic cook happily occupied in the kitchen for hours — and, should success strike, impart a wonderful sense of satisfaction at having produced a genuinely novel dish.
As ever — have a good one!