Monday, February 06, 2006

Cooking with Mrs Mallika Joseph

Ok, so being ladies of 'leisure' but not layabouts, Madeleine, Angela and I took ourselves off to Mrs Mallika Josephs' yesterday for a crash course in Sri Lankan cooking. Mrs Mallika Joseph (no abbreviation permitted) is a local celebrity who has been running the Mallika School of Home Science for some 37 years ( . At this establishment, it is possible for young ladies of a certain inclination to learn such essential skills for their continuing education and enjoyment as: mirror carving; crystal ornaments; dress making - easy method; social etiquette and grooming; and of course, cold porcelain moulding. Sri Lankan cooking is not actually one of the usual courses offered, however as Mrs Mallika Joseph is also one of Sri Lanka's most renowned cookery writers, we were recommended to her and she kindly agreed to give us a 3 hour tutorial on Sri Lankan cuisine.

The location (her home) is a huge two storey house in Colombo 9 and on entering down the side gate we were greeted by Mallika and her 6 aides. Mallika herself is all of 5", a self-confident matriarch with a huge smile, no-nonsense style and Nana Maskouri glasses. Her aides, range from 16 yrs to circa 25 (her sous chef) and have various designated tasks (remember my earlier comments about rigid job structures) from which they digress under fear of death! We take a seat in what looks like her garage (but it might not be), between the main house and the kitchen. (Sri Lankan houses are set up differently from ours with the cooking facilities usually being outside, or removed from the main house to prevent cooking smells). In this garage, is a table which has been set up with a gas burner and various plates holding chopped vegetables, chillis, onions, spices etc - it looks promising. On one side of the table are Mallika and her aides, on the other Madeleine, Angela and I. The moment of initial awkwardness is broken by a 5 year old with squeaky flip flops who proceeds to come in and stare at us whilst squeaking her shoes constantly. This breaks the ice and mobilises Mallika into action - instigating the 5 year old's removal - the cooking begins!

The sous chef (whose name I don't learn) is terrified that she's going to poison us with chilli, so with every dish she and Mallika confer about the amount of chilli involved, and whether to add it or not. Just to be sure they check with us at each stage, and look sceptical when we always respond to put it in. Meanwhile the aides flutter in the background, removing dirty dishes, providing clean ones, chopping vegetables, whenever instructed and sometimes when not, and then copping it from Mallika if they've removed the wrong thing!

There is a constant refrain of "come sweetie" from Mallika as she tries to keep the show on the road. We learn about the strength of coconut milk (1st milk, 2nd milk, 3rd milk); roti; sambols; how Sri Lankan meals are made-up (at least 5 dishes, all of which are called curries, and at least one of which must have gravy i.e. a sauce); the difference between white and brown curries (brown has chilli, white doesn't). All good until when we are making the white curry we get to the stage where chilli is added. When I ask about this, Mallika laughs and says that, it only has green chilli in it, that's why we say there's no chilli. By now we're beginning to realise that no dish in Sri Lankan cuisine is without chilli.

Throughout the demonstration, I have to confess we learn nearly as much from Mallika's running commentary as we do from the cooking demo! Mallika is keen to share and asks all sorts of questions, starting around cooking, but soon digressing onto what I suspect are her favourite topics. We open with, You are not allowed to cook like this, no? Outside? You cook inside. (face wrinkle) and it smells, no?. Without waiting for a response she adds: Australian houses they smell so bad. I've been there. Now, my daughter, she can come here - I no want to go there again, better here. Whilst we're digesting this she moves on: Do you have 'girls' in your houses? When we respond 'no' she asks us Why not? It makes life so easy, I have 6 girls, they do all my cooking and washing, and cleaning and in return I train them, and she waves her hand expansively around the surroundings, before adding, I have to pay them you know. We're trying to mobilise our thoughts on why we don't have 'girls', but before we get there, she laughs as she recalls her offer to send a 'girl' to her daughter in Melbourne. Apparently her son-in-law (Sri Lankan) called her and, he told me I would get him into maximum trouble, it's not like that here, and she laughs and shrugs as she adds (somewhat triumphantly), but they still call me when they want recipes. Moving swiftly on, she tells us proudly about her youngest daughter who is a ballerina, but loves jazz and tap too, and her son, a computer programmer who is studying in London. But he has no girl, so I have to choose him a girl (eyeroll), he says he doesn't have time. You don't do this, no? I think it is best, parents know best, we choose. We all nod politely (my advice, never argue with a woman over 50 and under 5" - you'll lose every time).

As if there wasn't enough activity, throughout the session there is a constant stream of visitors enquiring about Wedding Cakes, another sideline in which Mallika is an expert. We are treated to a piece of her famous cake (tastes like the most beautiful christmas cake I've ever eaten - sorry mater!), which she ships around the world. One couple enquire about the costs, dimensions etc of a 600 slice cake. When we ask how could anyone know 600 people, she responds that is nothing, I recently sent 1,500 slices to London for a wedding!! I don't think she's boasting either!

At the end of the demo we tuck into the food, which is undoubtedly the best Sri Lankan we've ever eaten. After a quick tour of the house to view the crystals, paperwork, mirror carving etc we depart, the latest proud graduates of the Mallika School of Home Science.

Ash Plantain Sambol (side-dish size):
2x Ash Plantain (green bananas); 1 tspn salt; 1 tspn mustard seeds; 1 tspn cumin seeds; 10 curry leaves; 1/2 onion - chopped finely; 1 green chilli -chopped; 1/2 tspn saffron; 2 tbspns thick coconut milk; vegetable oil for deep frying

Chop the Ash plantain into bite sized pieces, wash then deep fry for 3 mins until soft and drain on paper towel. Add the mustard seeds, curry leaves and cumin to a spoonful of oil. Cook for 30 seconds then add the chillies, onions and 1/2 tspn of saffron. Cook for 2 mins, add the fried plantains. Meanwhile add the salt to the coconut mil, stir and add to the frying mix. Cook on high heat for 30 seconds and remove. Stir and serve.

White curry:
Take any vegetable or meat of choice

3 tbspns of sweet cumin (ground in mortar and pestle); 1 tspn mustard seeds; 2 tbspns vegetable oil; 1 tspn dill seeds; 1/2 tspn saffron; 1/2 onion chopped; 10 curry leaves; 4 green beans sliced (our vegetable); 1 tspn green chillies - chopped; 1/2 tspn salt; 1/2 cup thick coconut milk

Heat oil and add in turn: mustard seeds, dill and saffron. Cook for 30 seconds and add the onion, curry leaves and beans with the green chillies - cook for 3 mins over medium heat. Add the salt to the coconut milk and then add to the pan - turn heat to high. Cook for further 30 seconds then turn the heat off and add 1 tspn of the sweet cumin. Stir and serve.


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