Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Continuing culinary experiments: An Indian Journey

The minute I wrote that I was staying away from curries in my last post on my cooking experiments, I realized I was generalizing curries and that there is a difference in styles and taste from house to house. Without stepping into Sri Lankan cuisine, I decided I would try some Andhra cuisine with recipes from Sailu's Kitchen - pappu tomato and carrot kothimira pachadi. The dishes were a big hit at home and my mother seemed to enjoy them very much as it kind of reminded her of her grandmother's cooking.

Andhra meal: Pappu tomato, ava pettina aratikaaya kura, ullipaya pulusu with rice and pappadam
So, I decided to make some more Indian dishes and to make the experience more interesting for me, I decided to take an Indian culinary journey. I challenged myself to make up vegetarian dishes from each of the twenty-eight Indian states.

Rajasthani meal: misi roti, Rajasthani dal, bharwa lauki, gajar ki launji, kakdi ki sookhi subzi with basmathi rice
As my journey around India started, I found the responses of my family, particularly my mother, to the different cooking styles interesting. It seemed that besides Andhra cuisine, South Indian cuisine was generally preferred at home.

Kerala meal : beetroot thoran, aviyal, tomato rasam, cherupayar ularthiyathu
Kerala cuisine was quite a hit at home, particularly the beetroot thoran and aviyal as was Goan cuisine with mergol de quiabos and mushroom vindaloo.

mergol de quiabos
I also tried making some snacks - paal poli, Mangalorean ponsache patholi and gariyo, Gujarati rava dhokla  and Bihari litti which turned out quite decent.
Sooji Dhokla
ponsache gariyo
ponsache patholi
paal poli
With my confidence in cooking building up and my interest for trying to make new food expanding, I could see that my mother's eating habits were slightly improving, if only to taste a spoon or two of whatever I made. She seemed to find the names amusing and took pleasure in following the path of my Indian culinary journey and in procuring the raw materials that I needed from the market during her morning or evening walks.

Sikkim meal: momos and tomato achar
It was also interesting to note how the usage of spices varied as I went from state to state. The use of mustard, cumin, coriander, garlic and curry leaves in the south was quite similar to Sri Lankan cuisine as was the use of coconut and tamarind.

As the cuisine moved to the northern and north western states, the dishes became more time consuming to prepare and involved using multiple, comprehensive masala mixes in the dhansak, bharwa lauki that I tried making. The north also seemed to use a lot of curd in their cooking as I experienced while cooking the Lucknowi koftanadheir yakhean, veth chaman etc.

nadheir yakhean
The cuisine of the eastern states seemed to involve spices in a range in between the southern and northern cuisine particularly in the dalma and bengal channa that I tried out and particularly a mix of the sweet in the Bengali dishes which my family didn't quite take to.

The vegetarian recipes of the north eastern states were a pleasure to come across. Not only were they quite simple and fast to cook, they involved minimal spices. The common spices seemed to be the simple chilli, cooking soda and salt in Mizo bai, Manipuri ooti with a little bit of the five spice mix for the Assamese khar.
Nagaland black-eyed beans meh (substituting the betang in the betang meh)
cabbage bai
hawaitharak ooti
Overall, the Indian culinary journey turned out to be an interesting experience in not only encouraging my mother to eat better but also for me to have a slightly improved understanding of the culinary patterns across India.
Sindhi kadhi
It was particularly interesting to learn of my mother's tastes. I guess I have never really tried to identify that before. Her favourite from all the Indian food that I cooked was the popular Indian street food, pav bhaji, and she very much enjoyed all the dishes from Andhra Pradesh and some of the dishes from Kerala that I made so much so that she has made them a few times since.

pav bhaji
To celebrate the conclusion of the Indian culinary challenge, I decided to make a special dinner not focused on health food but rather as a treat, my favourite Indian food from my childhood - poori/ bhathure, chole and gulab jamun.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Fight Dance Sing: A Capoeirista's Story

I was in the mood to watch a dance movie so I typed ‘dance movie’ under youtube search and a whole list of movies turned up. As I swiftly browsed through the list noting those that I had already watched, a title caught my attention - Fight Dance Sing: A Capoeirista’s Story. I didn’t know who a capoeirista was but it made me click on the link.

I soon realized it was an independent movie, which was more like a home-made movie. However, something the way the story was evolving kept my attention and I watched it to the end.

A story about a capoeirista who has grown up in Bronx, NYC and how he deals with how his routine life is overturned after his aunt dies. I liked the way absurdist theatre is thrown into the movie, with the interaction between the protagonist and the man at whose truck window he throws a bottle at.

Kamal Robinson has done a good job over his first film and I think the story is quite interesting and keeps the viewer interested enough to continue. What is commendable is also that he has self-funded and produced his own movie. I also now know what capoeira is.

For the full movie posted by the film-maker, Kamal Robinson, go to Fight Dance Sing.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Culinary experiments

For the last couple of months, I have engaged in something that I would never have dreamt I would be doing. Cooking.

The reason it is surprising to me is that I have never enjoyed cooking. I always felt it was a waste of time to spend time in the kitchen and in the instances, when I have had to cook, I have always focused on simple, basic ten to twenty minute recipes like dal or a simple pasta. Further, I did not really have the patience to go through a recipe, understand what seemed like a secret, complex code and make something. Fortunately for me, whenever I am at home, Amma's excellent cooking and ownership of the kitchen spared me the need of venturing into that domain.

Apart from my dislike of cooking, I also had a mental block in my head that I should not be in the kitchen. I remember as a teen, my father used to make a fuss that as a girl, I had not ever stepped into the kitchen and would not be able to make anything in an emergency especially since he had been able to cook rice and a dal and sambol by the age of eight. Amma, a liberal minded person, never thought of it that way and said that when the need arose, each person would do what they could and that I didn't have to be in the kitchen. She preferred that I focused my energy on my studies and later on, on my career.

However, over the last few years, I had been increasingly worried about Amma's health. This year in particular, after returning home from some months abroad, I saw that she had become very frail. I felt that the fact that she hardly eats and when she does eat something, it is either a slice of toast or some instant noodles, is contributing towards her weakening health. Amma's excuse has always been that she has never been able to eat what she cooks as she feels full after cooking and serving food to the rest of the family. She says that that feels like as if she has eaten a full meal. I personally think she is anorexic.

For Amma's birthday this year in April, I felt I wanted to do something special. I decided to try my hand at making an apple crumble. As a friend had said that it was very easy to make and I love apple pies, I decided to make it. It didn't come out great but it was eatable and everyone at home was surprised. Amma particularly was quite proud of it. My sisters heard of it and started suggesting that perhaps I should think of making some food for Amma to encourage her to eat better.

I gave it some thought and since I had just completed a consultancy assignment and was at home, in between work, I decided I would give it a try. The problem was what to cook. Amma was anyway cooking complete Sri Lankan meals for us each day. There was no point in me trying my hand at making a curry when hers was the best. So, I decided to make my cooking chore fun for me while making it interesting and tempting for my mother. I enjoy travelling and decided that while I was at home, I would look at travelling through food.

I scoured the net and depending on my mood, would select a nutritious, mostly heart healthy, diabetic friendly recipe from a different part of the world each time. From simpler, healthier Vietnamese style tofu noodle lettuce wraps and savoury vegetable pancakes, I soon progressed to making okra and chickpea tagine, mushroom and barley risotto and spinach pizza. It didn't necessarily mean that my food turned out well all the time but at least, they were eatable, flavourful and different.

I particularly seem to enjoy baking. I love making Swedish kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls) and different breads such as vetebrรถd or mint and feta cheese bread as well as baking cakes or brownies.

Amma, while not having significantly improved her eating pattern, at least consumes a little of what I make and hopefully gets a slightly better nutritional balance. She is a very picky eater and I appreciate fully now the patience she must have had with us as kids to experiment and find what we preferred and to encourage us to eat balanced meals.

I still don't enjoy spending much time in the kitchen and try to finish up in an hour, when I do go and make something. What I am quite proud of though is that looking at a recipe now feels like reading in a language I understand. I can now decode.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Colomboscope and Jaffna music festival in March

This year, the organizers of the Galle literary festival decided to take a break so I did not go on my annual visit to Galle this january.

However, there is to be a 2 day festival in Colombo in March called the Colomboscope at the Park Street Mews on the 23rd and 24th March under the auspices of the Goethe Institute. While not much information is available on the programme, the Goethe institute website has the following brief information. The series of art, music, literature, dance events will be centered around the theme "identities".

The Jaffna music festival on the other hand has its own website and it is the second time that the festival is being held. The event will be held on 1st and 2nd March at the Jaffna municipal grounds and is a free event, where musical artistes from around Sri Lanka and around the world perform.

While it is a pity that GLF didn't take place this year, I am looking forward to the upcoming Colomboscope and JMF.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shatranj Ke Khilari

I watched this 1977 Satyajit Ray movie today. Using the game of chess as a metaphor, it focuses on the ineptitude of the ruler and wealthier citizens of Awad to protect their land from the company and colonization. From the friendship treaty signed by the British with the Nawab's ancestors for providing human resources, money and land to expand the company conquests in India, the movie focuses on each move of the British until the check-mate point with the Nawab symbolically handing over his crown to avoid blood shedding of his people.

While the main theme is the game of chess played by the British and the rulers of India's various states, the story is taken along through two wealthy landowners of Awad - Mir Ali and Mirza Ali - who have become addicted literally to the game of chess to the extent that they are blind to what happens around them - they are indifferent to what is happening in their country, their state, their village and even their own home. This last point is pushed home by the glimpses of failed marriages in the lives of the two men due to their addiction to chess. While Shabana Azmi and Farida Jalal acted well their parts, it is a pity that an actress like Shabana Azmi was only provided a very small role but then again, the film did not have much room for women to act as it obsessively focused on the games of chess played by the two men as well as the larger game played by the colonizers and the rulers.

Overall, Shatranj Ke Khilari is a beautifully filmed movie by Satyajit Ray.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tom Stoppard at GLF

'In conversation with Tom Stoppard on his life and art' started with a brief introduction by Shyam Selvadurai who introduced both Stoppard and the moderator, Tracy Holsinger. Two plays that I fell in love with during my contemporary drama classes at university were Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. For me, when a drama script engages me, I simply have to direct the drama and bring what I visualize in the words to life. I managed to direct Copenhagen but not Arcadia as I did not have enough cast members. What I admire most about Tom Stoppard's works are his witty play of words and how easily he manages to slip into the lives of the famous real-life characters he often brings into his plays and explores their views, by making the key protagonist a fictional character like Thomasina Coverly (supposedly based on Ada Lovelace) in Arcadia or an overlooked real life character like Henry Carr in Travesties. This is his unique style. While some plays may resemble other famous plays at a distance, like 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' and 'Waiting for Godot', 'Travesties' and 'Copenhagen', their content is so vastly different and has Stoppard's trademark wittiness and story flow.

Here, at the Galle Literary Festival, he read passages of Bellinksy from his epic play 'Coast of Utopia', which I have neither seen or read and somehow was not too encouraged to experience, from the brief reading. What I liked more about the conversation was Stoppard rambling on about some of his experiences, responding to questions etc. He mentioned that he had received an invitation to do a reading in Australia in December and to Sri Lanka in January and that 'as it is best for divorced fathers to stay away from home during Christmas', he decided to take up both the readings. He also mentioned that as he landed in Sri Lanka, he received news that Havel had died and he had thought about going back for the funeral but decided that he would stay on in Sri Lanka.

A lot of questions from both the moderator and the audience was around Havel and his birth country, rather than his art and life as a playwright. The moderator also irked me a bit as she seemed too absorbed in sharing her own views and would take a lot of the brief time of the session in framing her views and questions.

At one point, Stoppard remarked to the effect that 'I don't ever write plays thinking of the academic point of view. I don't think of the message. Art cannot operate at that level. It needs to go beyond'. He also rhetorically questioned the audience, 'And you, bless your hearts, why are you here to listen to a playwright?', 'Drama cannot be learnt from texts, it has to be experienced' and he illustrated it with an example from a play where an actor runs off across the water where lights had been installed to respond to the touch and as he ran off, it slowly illuminated the scene and ended with fireworks as he disappeared in the distance and that the script in the play simply said 'Exit Ariel'.

At the end of the hour, I went and stood at the book signing queue to get my old copy of 'Travesties' and 'The Real Inspector Hound' signed by him. This was the second time that I have solicited writer autographs. The first was to get my copy of Copenhagen signed by Michael Frayn, also at the Galle Literary Festival a year or two ago.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Setting up a business - the basics

For a year, I had been contemplating starting up my own venture and initiating the dream of self-employment. I finally decided to take some concrete steps and gave my notice at my workplace. From January 1st 2012, I was free to start up my own venture. While I knew what I wanted to do and I had experience doing what I wanted to do, I was not familiar with the protocol of setting up a business nor was I aware of the options. I had to read up a bit, go to various departments, talking to people before I got a sense of what needed to be done. As there is no information on these basics on the web, I thought of posting this for anyone who may be thinking of starting up a business in Sri Lanka. Hope this helps! : )

The very first step is to be clear about what you want to do and to be confident that you have the skills and can do what you want to do. From there on, it is basically the paperwork that needs to be in order.

Once you are clear about what your business is going to be, think through whether you need staff to carry out the work or can you manage on your own initially. Also, do you want your initial business investment to be small? Are you willing to take full liability or would you prefer there is a board of directors etc? These questions will help you decide whether you want to start up a sole proprietor business or a company.

As my business was providing research and consultancy services and undertaking social entrepreneurship projects and I wanted to start small, with minimal investment and gradually evolving as well as having the flexibility to take up full time jobs with other agencies, I decided to go for the sole proprietor option.

This is the easiest option to start off a business. Simply go to the Provincial council office of your respective province to the office for registration of business name and collect your form to register as an individual. You will need to pay LKR 1500 when you submit the form with the details of the name of your business, nature of business, postal address, contact number. Your business registration certificate will be ready for you in a day's time. Simple as that.

One hitch with the business registration certificate is that even if you submit the form in English, they give you the certificate in Sinhala or Tamil based on where your provincial office is. So, it is best to have it translated into English by a certified translator if you plan to work with organizations or companies where the working language is English.

Now that you have the business certificate, you can start working. : )

It is good to next look into the other basics:
While tax is only applicable once you reach a certain profit limit, it is good to have your tax file opened. For this, one needs to go to the Municipal council and fill out a form requesting a tax file to be opened. While the staff are not very helpful in explaining the process, what I gathered was that once the form is submitted, an assessment will take place before a recommendation for the file to be opened is given.

You will also need to have a bank account for whatever earnings you make and to be able to pay for any purchases you make under the business. This account needs to be in the name of the business and generally, business accounts are opened as a current account. Just remember that to open a current account in Sri Lanka, you will need to have another current account holder sign in certain places of the form as well as you will need to have a proprietor seal. This seal is specific in its design with the name of the business on the first line, space on the second line for your signature, followed by the words 'Sole Proprietor' on the third line. This seal will need to be small enough to fit the signature box on your bank form.

Now that you have your business registration, tax file, account, you may want to think about having a website particularly if you do not have an office presence. There is a wide range of options out there which can be quite confusing and I am still figuring my way around. offers a free website that you can set up yourself using their drag and drop editor. However, this service comes with a suffix similar to the blogspot suffix so you may not want it for your business website. You could buy your own '.com' domain through weebly but it costs nearly USD 70/ year and is around the same price as other leading hosting sites which include the weebly editor.

The first thing you need to know about setting up a website is that you need to have a domain. You will need to purchase your domain which will be around USD 10 per year. The domain is what gives you your unique website address with a '.com' or a '.org' or a '.net' suffix. If you are good at creating websites, then all you need to do is purchase a domain name and then go about setting up your website directly. If you are like me and need help, then you can read through the various hosting options. I went through so many reviews and websites for various hosting plans before shortlisting three hosting sites - fatcow (referred to as a very popular site for several years), InMotion hosting (referred to as the premier business hosting site) and Hostmonster. Just be aware that the total cost of going with any plan does not stop with the amount cited by the company. There are usually add-ons that are offered at the time of registering and these are not stuff that you can ignore - particularly as they mention 'domain privacy', 'spam filters' etc. - and each adding another USD 10/year to your bill. I did decide to go ahead and experiment with a hosting site plan than hire a web designer which would cost more. Particularly as my requirement at this point is to share basic information about my business than to have a top-notch site or electronic payment facility embedded which will require a higher level of security access. You will need to play around the self-create buttons and experiment with your website. Help/ feedback from web-designer friends at this stage might be useful.

Finally, just so that you have a complete foundation laid - get yourself your business letterhead, business card, receipt books, some files to maintain your business documentation.

With that you have the basics covered and from there on, you can always scale up.

Good Luck!