One of the reasons I became a chef was for the prospect of being able to travel. I saw cooking as a way to see the world and get paid while doing it, and so far it is working out reasonably well. I was lucky enough to be invited to judge at the most recent Hotel Asia cooking competitions in Sri Lanka. Having never visited the country before was relishing the opportunity to see the competition entries, meet some new fellow chefs and to hopefully get out and about and see a little bit of the city while I was there.
Sri Lanka has for a long time been in a state of civil war and is just starting to enjoy the positive influence peace time brings. As we were driving along some of the streets in Colombo to and from the event centre where the competitions were held I asked one of the chefs I was with what Colombo was like. He said now it’s great. The country is becoming prosperous again and growing with increased foreign investment and in the next few years the city is going to grow and will be the place to be.
Colombo is an interesting city in a developing country. The poverty gap seems quite large. In the central city there are grand 5 star international hotels but you drive past slums on the way to them during the hour’s drive from the airport. This is the same as many Asian countries although here you feel that the place is still trying to catch up from the mess that is war. You won’t find the same massive shopping centers as in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore but you will find smaller shopping centers and shops, much the same as in Bangkok or Saigon.
Colombo is on the coast and the temperature although humid, is actually quite nice with the sea breeze. Getting around is easy and there are a lot of tuk tuk’s if you’re not going too far. Although be careful to check out the distance of where you are going on the map first and always agree on the price beforehand or go on the meter. Crime doesn’t seem to be a massive problem unless you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time although unless you’re careful you will probably get ripped off. The best bet is not to accept anyone’s help and to be informed about where/what you want to do and look up how much it will cost before you head out. There are some nice parks in Colombo and some beautiful Buddhist temples with Buddhism being the major religion. The artwork in some of these temples is amazing and it is customary to remove your shoes before entering and to give a small donation for the privilege.
I love Sri Lankan food and for me it is like a mix between Indian and Malay cuisine with beautifully fragrant curries with their own unique curry blends and the frequent use of coconut and rice for both sweet and savoury dishes. If you get a chance do try a hopper. Hoppers are very much the Sri Lankan version of a crepe and my favorite had an egg cracked into it, cooked and folder over and served with a very spicy sambal.
All is calm now and it’s easy to forget the troubles that aren’t that far in the past. Apparently driving around now takes 10% of the time it used to as now the road blocks and bomb checks are no longer there, although there is still a very visible military presence. The hotel I was staying at was nice I remarked to a colleague, a little bit tired but the lobby seemed a bit newer. Yeah that’s because it was bombed a few years ago and the General Manager killed was the response. Walking around the lively city civil war almost seemed worlds away.
We are probably all familiar with the most famous Indian dishes such as the North Indian butter chicken and South Indian Biryani and Vindaloo but the term Indian cuisine actually encompasses a wide variety of different and unique food styles. Each region has their own flavours and ingredients from a country covering a vast swathe of land. Different parts of the country have their own specialties using ingredients common to their particular location. For example Kerala has more use of coconut, Rajasthan uses more milk and ghee than some other regions and Gujarat has it’s own unique mostly vegetarian style.
I was lucky enough to live in Kuala Lumpur and experience food cooked by Indians who make up a significant percentage of Malaysia’s population. In KL the Indian cuisine is generally speaking a “greatest hits” of dishes from different regions using a great variety of ingredients that would often not be available in the geographically separated regions in India. This is the style of cuisine that we serve at the resort.
One of my favorite dishes is Lamb Rogan Josh from the Kashmir region. It’s relatively mild heat and use of fragrant spices really appeals to me and of course as with everything, is better is cooked using meat on the bone. Some of the dishes we serve include Chicken Shorba; a lightly spiced clear chicken soup with coriander, Dal Makhani; whole black lentils simmered with ginger, garlic, and herbs and Keema Mattar which is minced lamb cooked with peas, onion, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, spices and herbs with fresh coriander.
We are lucky enough here to have a full show kitchen including a Tandoor oven and a skilled Tandoor chef who cooks to order Naan and Tandoori chicken to have with your meal along with a range of accompaniments such as raita, mango chutney, lime pickle and poppadom. Raita is a yoghurt sauce made with cucumber and often a little cumin or mint and acts as a cooling agent to have with your meal, especially helpful if you’re a bit of a softie and can’t handle your heat!
Salamat Datang Ke Malaysia.
Welcome to Malaysia… Kuala Lumpur, what a wonderful city. For me it is one of my most favorite places in the world. Having worked and lived here it has fond memories for me and is a fantastic place to be. KL is a melting pot a different cultures, food, sights and smells. More developed than Vietnam but less developed and sterile than Singapore, in KL you can find anything you want. Kuala Lumpur is a place of great variety and contradictions but this is where in lies its charm for me. One moment you can be in a sprawling shopping mall walking past (but not often into for me!) shops named Gucci, Versace, Dunhill and 5 minutes walk away can be in an area with open drains with people washing dishes and cooking on the street. Whatever your preference and price range you can find it in KL and this goes also for food and drink. You can have dinner at a 5 star deluxe Shangri-La cooked by an ex-French Laundry chef for several hundred dollars and then walk 5 minutes down the road and have some amazing street food sitting on a plastic stool on the road paired with a cold Tiger or Carlsburg for a fraction of the cost of your starter.
If you’re into shopping the two most up-market malls are Suria KCLL which is part of the Petronas Twin Towers and Pavillion which is at the end of Bukit Bintang and accessible by an overhead walkway to and from KLCC. Other more value for money shopping centres are BB Plaza, Lot 10 and Sunei Wang which are all on or near Bukit Bintang. If you want to go for a more local and cheaper experience then Chow Kit Markets are fun and about a 15minute (15rm) taxi fare away but be prepared to barter especially if you look like a tourist!
The main street where all the action is is Jalan Bukit Bintang. Jalan translates to something like “way” and you can “jalan” yourself if you are going somewhere. Behind Bukit Bintang is Jalan Alor, this is a whole street just full of street food, whatever you want here you will find it. If there is a heaven I think it will be some sort of ground hog day with me sitting here having some amazing food with great friends all washed down with some cold bottles of beer. After you’ve eaten yourself silly you can then head down to Jalan Ceylon where you will find a lot of bars and more up-market restaurants. My favorite place on Jalan Alor is Restoran Dragon View and their crab is awesome. A great snack to be found everywhere are charcoal grilled corn with salt and butter and a Ramley burger although probably the reason for many heart attacks can’t be beaten, especially after a few pints on Jalan Ceylon, just make sure you get ‘the works’! If Indian food is more to your taste then off Jalan Ceylon is Jalan Nagasari where there are a few good curry houses open 24 hours. The best of which used to be Nagasari Curry House.
If you love food and haven’t been to KL, hurry up and book your ticket.