Saturday, April 14, 2012

A cooking lesson.

It's been a while since I've posted to my blog but that does not mean that I've forgotten about the fact that In am going to Sri Lanka in a few months.  In fact, today, I attended a Sri Lankan cooking class.

The last time I was in cooking class was when I was in India in October 2010 so I was overdue to go to another one and fact that it is for Sri Lankan cooking could not be more timely!

  Flashback to just two days ago. I was at work and I got one of the food related e-newsletters that I subscribe to.  There was a announcement that caught my eye.


For a few minutes, I debated whether not to go especially since I had never heard of Skiz Fernando.  I Googled his name and the first few search results were for a guy name Skiz Fernando but he was a record producer, not cook or chef.

Hmmmm.....more searching and reading and I come to find out that it is the record producer/former music journalist/former rap musica mixmaster is also a cook. According to his bio, he was also the person who escorted Anthony Bourdain around Sri Lanka when Bourdain was shooting an episode of his TV series, No Reservations, on the cuisine of Sri Lanka.  I was intrigued by this man and if his palate can pass muster with Bourdain, it's good enough for.  So, I signed up for the class.

As for the Hill Center, I had never heard of it either.  So more Googling.  First result back was Hill Center's website - http://hillcenterdc.org/home/.

The center is housed in a former Naval Hospital that was opened in 1866 to treat soldiers wounded during the Civil War.  In 1991, efforts were begun to restore and transform the former hospital into a community center for the Capitol Hill, Washington DC neighborhood that it's located in.  On November 2011,  the Old Naval Hospital was repopened as The Hill Center with some 350 sponsors, donors, friends and potential users meeting at the site for the long awaited ceremony. Today, the beautiful Italianate three-story building and its landmark wrought iron fence hold a variety of events for the community.  As I found out today, there is a professional grade kitchen on the first floor that was built with cooking classes in mind.

Flash forward to today.  Class started at 11am and I arrived at Hill Center a few minutes after that.  Capitol Hill is extremely popular and it was a beautiful spring day to be out and about so parking was hard to find.   After driving around a bit, I managed to find a spot right in front of the building.  Luckily, I had enough quarters in my wallet to feed the meter for 3.5 hours of parking time.

I ended up wasting another 5 minutes trying to find the front entrance.  When I got to the door, the woman on the other side greeted me and escorted me into the kitchen.  I was the last to arrive but not so late as to miss out on anything.

There were eight other students in the class and standing behind the stove was Skiz himself, a very tall Sri Lankan dressed in street clothes and looking very relaxed.

I took a spot at one of the cooking benches.  A printed copy of the recipes we would be cooking was already on the bench. I quickly thumbed through the pages to get an idea of what we would be cooking.  It was a full meal with dessert!

Skiz began the class with a brief intro about himself and how he ended up in the food world.  Born and raised in Texas, he is on Sri Lankan descent.  A few years back, he decided to learn more about the cuisine of his heritage.  So he spent a year in Sri Lanka learning from all the women cooks in his family.  The result is his cookbook titled, "Rice & Curry" which he says is named after a classic Sri Lankan meal.

We soon got down to cooking - first with an introduction to the herbs, spices and other aromatics that are typical to Sri Lankan cuisine.  What I saw, laid out on the counter before us, were things that are common to South Indian cooking and to Southeast Asian cooking - mustard seeds, curry leaves, lemon grass, pandan leaves, ginger, turmeric, coriander seeds, onions, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and chilies, garlic and coconut milk.  The only ingredient that I did not recognize was Maldive fish which Skiz said is bits of sun dried bonito.  I took a whiff of it and it reminded me of the ikan bilis that we commonly use in Malaysian cooking.

Skiz also explained to us about the two different types of curry powders that are central to Sri Lankan cooking.  One is a roasted curry powder where all the ingredients are pan toasted before being finely ground.  The other is a raw curry powder which is the same ingredients, not toasted, but also finely ground.  The roasted version is used with meats, the raw version with vegetables.

As the cooking got underway, we were Skiz's sous chefs, helping him prep ingredients as he did the cooking.  My job?  Peeling the skin of a lot of chicken thighs for the chicken curry.  Skiz was trying to eat healthy otherwise, skin can stay on the thighs.

It took about three hours to run through his menu:  Yellow Rice (Kaha Bath), Chicken Curry (Kukul Mas), Sri Lankan Lentils (Parippu), Spiced Potatoes (Ala Thel Dala), Sauteed Greens (Mallun) which for our menu was kale, Tomato Cucumber Salad and Caramel Pudding (aka flan).

I knew that we were going to be eating what was cooked so I actually skipped out on breakfast this morning - more room for lunch :-)

As we got more and more dishes cooking, the smells wafting around the room were really, really making me hungry.  When the chicken curry hit the stove,  I just wanted to dip a spoon into the sauce and suck it up.  But I had to wait.....patiently.

Patience eventually paid off and we got to eat everything that Skiz cooked. I piled up my plate.  It was all good but what I liked the best was the yellow rice, the chicken curry (chicken had been marinated with Skiz's roasted curry powder),  the dal  and the kale.  I was so hungry and it was so tasty, I went back for seconds.  Dessert topped of the meal but truth be known, I would have gladly given up my serving of dessert for another helping of the main meal.  Really, really enjoyed it.

Before I left, I bought of copy of Skiz's cookbook and had him autograph it.  Skiz has his own website, focused on his food centric interests so check it out - http://riceandcurry.wordpress.com/tag/skiz-fernando/

All in all, I had a great time; it was the perfect introduction to the island's cuisine!  Now, I'm really looking forward to tasting Sri Lankan food in Sri Lanka!