Sri Lanka’s Tea Gardens, the Coast and Beetroot Curry

This is quite a long post so boil yourself some water and make yourself a cup of tea. Sitting comfortably……..then let’s begin.

No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without a stay in the tea gardens. The cooling climate, the rich green tea plantations and the slower pace of life is very appealing, especially after spending time in the hot dry lands of the cultural triangle. I loved the experience of staying in them when I visited Kerala so made sure they were included in our Sri Lanka itinerary. Many travellers head to Nuwara Eliya often referred by the Sri Lankan tourist industry as ‘Little England’, a nod to the British summer time retreat in the 1800, but instead we opted to stay in a few valleys away, near to a small town called Hatton. There is a train station in Hatton and if I were to revist I would take the slow steam train from Kandy to Hatton to admire the scenery and avoid the hairpin bends, which make even the most hardened traveller feel car sick. Tickets need to be bought in advance so think about this as an option even if you have a driver.

We stayed a night in Mandira Dickoya and a night in Mandira Strathdon both old colonial ‘planters’ cottages who managed the tea estates. Mandira Strathdon is best for those travelling with a family as there are adjoining rooms. On arrival you are transported to another era where the pace of life was slow and charmed.  The food at these boutique hotels is homely and authentic – check out these delicious bowls of curry that we had for supper.

Breakfast involved a freshly squeezed juice and some beautifully presented fruit – papaya with fresh lime being my favourite.

This was followed by buffalo milk curd and coconut treacle – I*N*C*R*E*D*I*B*L*E. Don’t be fooled into thinking it looks plain and tasteless. You’ll become addicted I promise you.

This was then invariable followed by the ubiquities rice hoppers with dal, chilli and pickle, sometimes with an egg in the middle. Tasty and certainly very filling.

 

 

 

In order to walk off breakfast, a guide showed us around the neighbourhood and the numerous tea plantations so that we could learn more about the tea, flora, fauna and general wildlife. Can I recommend that if you do this you wear long trousers and socks that pull up. My husband decided to take a stroll in shorts and ended up with the inevitable leeches, which caused his ankle to bleed for the proceeding three hours.

 

 

We met with some of the tea-pluckers, many of whom are the older women. The fear is that by the next generation there will be no one left to actually pick the leaves as the younger generation are not wanting to take on such hard labour. The tea plantations will revert to the forests that they once were before the arrival of the British, Dutch and Portuguese. To give you an idea of a ‘day-in-a-life’ of a tea plucker we learn’t that they rise before 6.30am and report to the factory where they are allocated an area to pluck tea leaves. They must pluck 18kg a day to get paid. For their labours they will receive the equivalant of £7 a day. As part of the job they will receive lodgings until their retirement.

A derelict tea factory stood alongside a hindu temple and tea pluckers cottages were painted in vibrant colours,  some with beautiful flower garlands adorning the porch area.

There was even the most beautiful Christian church that was still well maintained and cared for, with graves from British planters who called this corner of the world home; the views from the church were magnificent.

We visited Norwood tea factory and got to see the full cycle of a tea leaf, leaving with an enhanced respect for both the tea pluckers and the process involved to create the tea that is drunk the world over. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. 

On our return to our lodgings we chanced upon a rather fascinating festival where crowds of people had gathered. As the traffic was brought to a standstill we decided to get out on foot to take a closer look. From afar we could see young men tied to large bamboo poles that were leavered up into the air and then attached to small lorries. There was a lot of colour and noise and it looked intriguing if not a little surreal. The mind boggled as to what on earth they were actually doing. On closer inspection what appeared to be a rather jolly occasion looked, to the Western spectator (there was only us), to be dreadfully painful.

We discovered that the young men were actually tied up to the poles with small cleaver hooks going through their skin. Bizarrely it was our youngest daughter who first spotted this, who inquired whether we thought it would hurt. Bewildered and fascinated in equally measure, back at our hotel I discovered that the festival was called – Thirunaal, which coincides with the full moon around the 13/14th April and practiced by Tamil Hindus. I discovered that Sri Lanka is not the only country which practices such extreme religious devotion, it is also hugely popular in Indonesia and am sure it also takes place in India as well. The belief is that ones devotion to the hindu gods will free the body from pain incurred from the hooks. Being part of this festival the young men fulfil their vows to hindu gods.

Throughout the night, drums were heard and the festival continued as the full moon shone. It was certainly interesting to stumble upon, but felt a world away from Western civilisation.

The following day we headed for the coast, using the super highway from Columbo to Galle – 100km which takes no time at all owing to the fact that it was tolled and hence no one used it other than tourists, not even the sacred cows! As much as I love the hill stations and mountains I adore being near the sea – smelling the salty air, the sound of the waves and the palm trees gently blowing in the wind. We stayed in a small boutique hotel called Apa Villa, which is owned by Hans Hoefer – the photographer, designer and founder of Insight Guides.

It overlooks the sea, but due to the reef it is impossible to swim safely here. We didn’t mind as we had a beautiful pool to do some laps.

It was whilst staying here that we spent half a day with the kitchen staff at Hans’s other residence Apa Villa Illuketia a few kilometres inland, and which you can also stay in. This was the estate that Hans originally bought before buying his property on the coast. It has plenty of old world charm and we spent a peaceful morning with the staff, before sitting down to the lunch that we had watched being prepared.

Galle is definitely worth a visit, which was 15-20 minutes up the road from Apa Villas. This Dutch built fort town is walkable, absolutely charming and filled with fascinating shops, museum and churches.

It feels very European – well Dutch to be precise – once you get within the city walls.

We loved this great retro poster shop and thought this poster was rather apt.

We couldn’t resist a London priced cocktail at the Aman Galle Hotel occupying an elegant, 17th-century Colonial-style building to watch the world go by.

The beetroot recipe below was one that I was taught during the morning at Illuketia and works as a great accompanying dish with other fish/meat/vegetable curries or a simple dal.

Sri Lankan Beetroot Curry

2 tbsp rapeseed/coconut oil

1/2 red onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

10 fresh curry leaves

1 pandan leaf, cut into 4 strips

1/2 tomato, roughly chopped

1/4 tsp Sri Lankan chilli powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp garam masala

1/4 tsp turmeric

2 medium sized beetroot, peeled and chopped into batons

1/2 tomato, roughly chopped

pinch of freshly ground black pepper

25ml water

200ml coconut milk

  1. Heat the oil in a pan and add onion, garlic, curry leaves, pandan leaf and tomato and allow to soften for a 5 minutes.
  2. Add the chilli powder, salt, garam masala and turmeric and stir into the other ingredients.
  3. After a further five minutes add the beetroot and to help soften it add the water and coconut milk. Simmer gently for around 20 minutes so that the beetroot has softened and the liquid reduced slightly.

 


Baked Spiced Beetroot and Feta Samosas

IMG_0331

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed devouring vegetable samosas. They are basically the Indian vegetarian version of the Cornish pasty and are a great all day snack. At university I would regularly eat one for breakfast before heading off to lectures. Filling and wonderfully spicy, they were a great way to warm the belly and the soul.

 

 

IMG_0310

I often make them the ‘traditional’ way with potatoes, peas, carrots, spices and chilli, but sometimes for a change I like to make them with a twist. Beetroot works really well and if you combine it with feta, cumin seeds, chilli and fresh coriander then you have yourself a really tasty little treat. I thought they seemed quite festive and would make the perfect little starter/snack over the Christmas season.

IMG_0317

 

Making the filo parcels is a lot easier than you would imagine. If you look at the photographs below you will get the picture of how straightforward they really are to prepare.

 

IMG_0320

 

First you start by placing a tablespoonful of the cooked spiced beetroot and feta in the bottom right hand corner. You then need to glaze gently the sides of the filo pastry with melted butter so that the samosa sticks together well.

 

IMG_0321

By bringing the bottom right hand corner up to the left hand side you create the first triangle. Should it break at all at this stage do not panic as it will all be hidden as you go on folding the triangles.

IMG_0323

 

Keep folding the triangle over so that it alternates from side, upwards and then side again until you reach the top. Then add a little more melted butter to the top of the filo pastry and fold over one last time.

 

IMG_0326

Viola. Now you need to give the topside a melted butter glaze and then place on a baking tray lined with baking paper.

IMG_0329

 

After twenty minutes in the oven at 180 degrees you have beautiful bronzed samosas ready for eating. Eat immediately – or once they have cooled slightly.

 

IMG_0342

 

 

I often serve them as a starter/snack before serving a curry such as lamb curry, Indian greens and a tasty dal and spiced rice.

 

IMG_0336

They are also an irresistible after school snack (just remember to reduce the chilli if your children are not used to chilli).

IMG_0338

 

Baked Spiced Beetroot and Feta Samosas

350g beetroot

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1-2 heaped tsp cumin seeds

1 small fresh green chilli, finely sliced (1/2 if you prefer it less hot)

150g feta, diced

1/2 sweet paprika

handful of fresh coriander

8 filo pastry sheets (will make 16 samosas)

butter, for glazing

1. Wash the beetroot and leave the skins on at this stage. Cut the stems so they are short.  Boil in a pan of boiling water for around 20-30 minutes so that they have softened. Test with a sharp knife, if it goes in easily then they are done. The skins will also be able to come away easily when they are ready.

2. Chop into small cubes and place to one side. In a frying pan add the vegetable oil and when it is hot add the cumin seeds and fresh chilli. After 30 seconds add the beetroot and stir well so that they begin to be coated in the cumin seeds and chilli.

3. Add the paprika, fresh coriander and leave on a low heat for 5 minutes.

4. Add the feta and gently fold into the beetroot and spices. Leave for a minute before taking off the heat to cool. Leave to cool for 15 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.

6.Place one sheet of filo pastry on a chopping board and cut it in half lengthwise. Using the first pasty strip, lightly brush the pastry with melted butter around the edges and place a tablespoonful of the filling in the bottom right hand corner. Bring the corner up to the left hand side of the pastry therefore making a triangle shape. Then bring the triangle straight up to create another triangle before folding over once again so that the triangle folds over to the right hand side of the pastry once again. (See photos above)

7. Continue all the way to the top. With the final edge brush with melted butter and fold over neatly. Turn over and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Brush the exposed side of the samosas with melted butter.  Repeat until you have completed the process.

8. Place in the oven for 20 minutes or until the samosas has bronzed nicely. Serve immediately with  a chutney or two on the side.

Come back to my blog in a weeks time to get a fab chutney recipe.

Note: You can prepare them (pre cooking) and then freeze them. When you are ready to eat them simply glaze them with melted butter and place them in the oven for 20-25 mins until bronzed. 


Roasted Butternut Squash and Beetroot with Pistachio Pesto, Feta and Pomegranate Seeds from Persiana

IMG_9722

 

It was love at first sight. The vibrant butternut squash (the beetroot is my own addition) with dollops of pistachio pesto infused with fresh dill, coriander and parsley, crumbled feta and bejewelled pomegranate seeds. Simple and yet so very right. I did not even need to try it to know that I would love it and include it in my culinary repertoire from that day forth.

 

IMG_9731

 

It was served to me by the very likeable Sabrina Ghayour earlier this year at her hugely popular supper club that takes place in her west London residence. Twelve or so hungry diners feasted on a number of mouth watering Persian dishes that were lovingly prepared by Sabrina herself.  Her recipes and ingredients sing to me and I can honestly say that I actually want to cook and eat a large number of them. Dried lime, lamb and split pea stew or saffron chicken, fennel and barberry stew or bamia – bring it on.

IMG_9759

The recipes will really come into their own in the autumn and winter time as there is even a section dedicated  to ‘soups, stews and tanginess’, perfect to serve up and nourish the soul on cold, blistery autumnal days. That said, there are also sections on ‘salads and vegetables’,  ‘roasts and grills’, ‘mezze and sharing plates’, ‘breads and grains’ and finally ‘desserts and sweet treats’ so something for everyone no matter what hemisphere you are living in. The recipes are easy to follow and beautifully photographed. I also particularly love the cover which is not only eye catching with it’s title that rolls off the tongue, but it also has a very tactile cover.  As you pass your hand over it gives the impression that spices and rose petals have really been imbedded into it’s very cover.  Such a clever and original idea.

IMG_9770

This recipe you can eat as is, or accompany it with another in her book. I thought the ‘tray-baked rose lamb chops with chilli and herbs’ (above) would be a particularly delicious combination. If you want to learn more about Persian food and feel comfortable cooking it for yourself then I cannot recommend the book more highly. Sabrina’s chatty, informative and unpretentious style will connect with it’s readers and guide them through the very exciting world of food from Persia.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Beetroot with Pistachio Pesto, Feta and Pomegranate Seeds

adapted slightly from Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour

Serves 4 

1 butternut squash, halved and then chopped into about 6 large pieces (skin left on)

4 beetroot, gently cleaned (be careful not to damage the skin) kept whole and stems left intact

4 tbsp olive oil

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

150g feta cheese

100g pomegranate seeds

*********

for the pesto

100g shelled pistachio nuts

70g parmesan chopped into rough chunks

olive oil

1 handful of fresh coriander

1 handful of fresh dill

1 handful of fresh parsley

2 tbsp chilli oil

juice of 1 lemon

sea salt

1. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees if using fan oven or 200 degrees if not/gas mark 6.  Place the chopped butternut squash and intact beetroot on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper and cover the vegetables in olive oil, pepper and salt. Place in the oven for 50 minutes so the edges of the butternut squash begin to char.

2. Meanwhile to prepare the pesto, place the pistachio, parmesan chunks and a glug of olive oil into a food processor and mix together. If it remains quite thick in texture add some more olive oil to soften it.

3. Add all the herbs, chilli oil and lemon juice and blitz together with a sprinkling of sea salt. Taste to make sure the flavour is well balanced. Leave in the refrigerator until ready to use.

4. To serve, place the roasted butternut squash and beetroot (now cut in two) on a serving platter. Place dollops of the pesto on each vegetable portion, crumble the feta on each portion and around the  platter. Finish by scattering the pomegranate on top.

Voila you have the most pleasing of meals to dive into.


Beat this Borscht

I hadn’t planned on posting this Borscht recipe on my blog. I’ve cooked Borscht numerous times in the past and it’s always been…well…..fine…but never really much more than that. I then found a new recipe in my soup bible called ‘500 Soup Recipes’, ok my secret’s out, I AM A BIG SOUP FAN, but those who follow me I think you kind of already new that, right?

Anyway, this Borscht recipe is different from all the other Borscht recipes I’ve cooked in the past, namely that it is not smooth. Instead the beetroot are cut into thick strips, rather like chips in fact, along with the carrots and celery and because of this and the muslin bag full of herbs and spices, gives the soup an added dimension that really makes it a winner. I have followed the recipe loosely but the end result got the definite thumbs up from both myself and Mr B.

Beetroot is easy to find at this time of year and since I had just over half a dozen in my fridge that were beginning to look a little bit sorry for themselves, I decided to dedicate a recipe solely to them, well almost solely! The colour is a brilliant deep crimson and stains like crazy, so unless you like living on the edge, definitely don’t wear white when eating or cooking this dish.

As its January Mr B and I are on a bit of a health drive so we didn’t bother with the sour cream, with scattered dill or chives on top. It would have probably made a prettier photograph, but hey my waist line is thanking me for it.

Give it a try and please let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear what you think. Do you prefer it to the smooth variety that is more ubiquitous?

Borscht

Adapted from 500 Soup Recipes by Tim Smart and Bridget Jones

Serves 4-6

7 medium/small uncooked beetroot, peeled

2 carrots, peeled

2 celery sticks

2 tbsp butter

2 onions, sliced

2 garlic cloves, sliced

4 tomatoes, chopped

1 bay leaf

1 large handful of fresh parsley

2 cloves

4 whole peppercorns

2 pints of vegetable stock

75 ml cider vinegar, or to taste

sugar, to taste

salt and pepper, to taste

1 muslin

1. Peel the beetroot and carrots and cut into fairly thick strips. Also cut the celery into bit sized pieces. Heat the butter in a large pan and when it is melted add the sliced onion and stir on a low heat for 5 minutes.

2. Now add the beetroot, carrots and celery and cook for a further 5 minutes before adding the garlic and chopped tomatoes. Stir into the other vegetables and leave to simmer for a further 2 minutes.

3. Using a large piece of muslin, place the bay leaf, fresh parsley, cloves and peppercorns into the centre and tie the four corners together with a piece of string. Place the muslin  into the pan with the end of the four corners sticking out over the top of the pan slightly. Add the stock and make sure that all the vegetables and muslin pouch are submerged as much as possible. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 1 hour 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.

4. Discard the muslin pouch and add the cider vinegar. Pour in a little at a time and taste so that it creates the right balance of sweet and sour. Add a sprinkling of sugar if necessary. Season, stir and then ladle into bowls. Add a dollop of sour cream on top with either dill or chives.