One of the most intimate — and educational — experiences in a foreign country is to cook a local meal from scratch. What surprised me about Sri Lanka is that the whole experience of doing so didn’t feel too different from home. Having said that, I don’t go into the Indian Ocean to catch my lunch on a daily basis.
It was my third day in Sri Lanka, and by then, I had gotten quite accustomed to the crazy heat, the peacocks and monitor lizards running around the resort like pariahs, and the untameable beast of an ocean. I shall always remember the mad waters around the country — a sea crashing into an ocean, an ocean marrying a bay, violently, unabashedly – and this was the second time I had landed up on the island, and found myself — for the second time — in Galle, one of Sri Lanka’s southernmost townships.
It was my third day, and like I said, the heat was crazy. My agenda for the day was to go fishing with some local fisherfolk, to, well, fish for my lunch. A local restaurant offered its guests an immersive experience of cooking an authentic Sri Lankan meal by themselves — under the guidance of a trained chef, of course — and I had requested to take it a couple of notches higher. So, I was going to fish the fish and crabs, then head off to the wholesaler’s market to shop the vegetables and groceries, and finally, choose a chicken of my choice from a local poultry. All of that had to be done before I actually started cooking my lunch. It was a packed day, and I was up quite early.
I doubt I will be able to adeptly describe the experience of being in a fishing boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean on an early February morning. The sun was tiredly trying to wake up, the wind was a hurricane, the waters relentless. Other than the fishermen, I had a Dutch photographer for company. He didn’t speak any English, so there was, thankfully, no scope for conversation. I was soaking in everything around me, and also holding on to my dear life. Fun times. I watched the fishermen deftly fling the nets out into the sea and drag hundreds of various varieties of fish and seafood. The boat kept filling up, and a bunch of fish jumped around near my feet, desperately trying to stay alive. A few flew off into the waters too. The fishermen weren’t too bothered.
A rough wave tousled the boat so hard that I lost my balance, and flew right into the water.
This is a food column, so I shall not get into further details on the incident. Let’s just say, much like a gigantic fish, a net was used to haul me back into the boat. The Dutch photographer clicked a bunch of photographs and thought the whole thing was quite funny, making me severely question the Dutch sense of humour.
Once back at shore, a quick check was done for broken bones, and having found none, my very worried attendant hurriedly made me buy the fish, and we were off to the vegetable market. If I did not have the experience of spending weekend mornings at a vegetable market, assisting my father (that basically means carrying the bags stuffed with the week’s stock of fresh goodness), I would have been overwhelmed. Much like the Indian markets, the Sri Lankan ones are also boisterous and loud, wares are pushed into your faces, haggling is a blood sport, sellers swearing on their dead mother to attest for the freshness of brinjals — it’s all the same. I was quite amused at how natural it felt for me, and how at home my father would have been in this setting, a hundred miles away from his home. Although I am quite good at bargaining, doing so in an unknown language wasn’t an option. Supposedly I had overpaid for everything, my attendant tut-tutted. “If the shopkeeper is smiling when you are paying him, you must know that he has robbed you,” he wisely shared. We stopped at a roadside shack, and ordered a dry, spicy chicken stir-fry, hoppers, and a couple of Lion lagers. The next stop was the poultry. After we had bought the eggs — duck and hen — my attendant had, what seemed like a cheeky conversation with the owner, and came over to me and asked, “Do you want to catch the chicken now?”
“Umm, what?” I thought something had been lost in translation.
“Catch the chicken. You want chicken, you can catch.”
“Can”, right? Not that I “have” to?” I knew I wanted the authentic experience but this was stretching it.
“It will be fun. You young man. You can catch. Come.” The decision had been made for me. I was representing India in The Chicken Games, and evidently, couldn’t chicken out.
What followed was a messy twenty-minute bout of my running around a pen, filled with fat hens and roosters, trying to catch one of them. It is not that they were necessarily fast, but that I was so out of sorts in the situation, that I had no idea how to catch one, and prevent myself from getting beaked (or do you get bitten by a bird?) By the end of it, I had chased one towards the entrance of the pen for the owner to scoop it up by the wings. Everyone, obviously, had a good laugh.
When we finally got back to the restaurant, I looked like a poultry farmer myself, and after a quick clean up – and two glasses of the driest red – it was time for us to cook. Sticking to the authentic mood of the experience, clay pots and utensils were being used. The therapeutic process of cooking helped soothe my nerves. It could also have been the wine. We cooked a delicious – but outrageously spicy – chicken curry, made a light stir-fry with boiled eggs, liver, and potatoes, slathered a whole fish with a spice rub and baked it in a traditional oven, made a rustic crab and squid fry, tossed in spices, and finished off on the open flame for an intense char, I learned how to make hoppers, made a Sambol from scratch, and then we sat down for this feast, with wine, some jazz, an open sea in front of us, a cool late afternoon breeze, and an experience of a lifetime.