Dr Parvathy Kanthasamy may be dressed to impress in a colourful silk saree, but she clearly isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.
Placing some ginger, shallots, curry leaves, grated coconut and dried chilli on a huge, sturdy grinding stone (batu giling), she sets about rolling the long, heavy pestle over the concoction until it forms a smooth paste, a tedious, back-breaking process that remains a labour of love for Parvathy.
“When I was growing up, we used this stone to make wet pastes and also for dry grinding. The machines came later, but somehow it doesn’t taste the same when you use the machines, ” she says.
The septuagenarian Parvathy is the mother of Abethan Kantha-samy, the owner of popular Sri Lankan restaurant Aliyaa Island Restaurant & Bar in Bukit Damansara, Kuala Lumpur.
She is also the person responsible for the restaurant’s wide arsenal of acclaimed Ceylonese meals.
“I taught the chef how to make all these dishes. He still calls me to check that he’s making everything correctly, ” says Parvathy, a professor of Tamil culture who resides in Canada.
On her most recent trip to KL, Parvathy imparted more of her Sri Lankan recipes to Aliyaa’s long-standing chef Sivarajan Suppiah, aka Siva.
This burgeoning recipe repertoire has now given rise to the Jaffna Food Festival, a three-day buffet experience at Aliyaa from Feb 17 to 19, priced at RM148++ per person.
One of the dishes you can expect to savour at the festival is Jaffna-style crab curry, a delicious aquatic affair that features perfectly cooked crabs slathered in a rich, spice-accentuated curry enlivened with the addition of coconut milk.
“This is a recipe that I learnt how to make in Sri Lanka but I’ve adapted it a little bit, ” says Parvathy, who grew up in Sri Lanka and learnt how to make the true-blue meals of her homeland from her mother, also an acclai-med home cook.
Vegetables will also form an integral force at the festival and much of this is down to Parvathy’s childhood, as her family home was surrounded by a lush garden filled with an assortment of home-grown vegetables.
“I used to love the traditional herbs and vegetables around our house, like the moringa tree.
“So I learnt how to make drumstick (the fruit of the moringa) curry from my aunt, my mum’s sister. Different people have different ways of cooking it, but I think her way is really tasty, ” affirms Parvathy.
And she’s right on the money – the drumstick curry is revelatory, the flavours held together by a house-made roasted Jaffna curry powder which gives it verve and dimension.
The drumsticks themselves are incredibly pliant and chewy and the pods within are sweet, with a pleasant pop.
In Sri Lanka, sambals are a recurring side dish available throughout the country and are typically made up of chillies, lime, salt, coconut and other variables, depending on what’s on offer.
Parvathy’s version of ginger sambal is a fresh, fun affair with a gingery underbelly and undulating coconut nuances – an addictive treat you’ll find yourself reaching for repeatedly.
Although she is now over 70, Parvathy continues to cook tirelessly, paying special attention to people who really need these delicious home-cooked Sri Lankan meals.
“In Canada, I cook a lot and give the food to elderly Sri Lankans in nursing homes, because they really long for the food and there is no one to cook it for them.
“I never tire of cooking for people, because I still have the passion and heart for it, ” she says.
PARVATHY'S DRUMSTICK CURRY
1tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, sliced
5 shallots, sliced (optional)
5 cloves garlic, crushed
3 green chillies, sliced
1 Thai red chilli, sliced
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp fennel
10 curry leaves
1/2 tsp fenugreek
1 tsp Kashmir chilli powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
2 tsp Jaffna roasted curry powder
2 drumsticks, slit and cut into 5cm pieces
2 large or 4 small tomatoes
2 cups coconut milk (from one small coconut)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp tamarind, soaked in water, juice extracted
1 teaspoon roasted cumin-pepper powder (optional)
In a large pan, add oil. When hot, add onions, garlic and chillies. When onions are soft, make a well in the middle of pan and add mustard seeds.
When seeds splutter in the oil, add fennel and stir till mixture is light brown. Then add curry leaves, fenugreek and chilli powder. Stir together for awhile.
Add turmeric, curry powder and drumstick and stir well to combine. Add tomatoes and fry until tomatoes have tenderised.
Add coconut milk and salt and leave to simmer for 15 minutes. Then add tamarind and pepper-cumin powder and cook on low heat for a few minutes. Serve hot.
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