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Madame Mahsa Travels

Cooking with a Jaffna family affected by civil war + Recipe for Jaffna Chilli Crab

SRI LANKA | Thursday, 9 July 2015 | Views [1024]

This is a blog post about how a simple cooking date with one Jaffna family turned into a touching experience that I’ll never forget.


In the kitchen with Mythily and her niece.


On my first night in Sri Lanka’s far north, I was introduced to a local family who were generous enough to show me their secrets for making an authentic Jaffna-style meal.

Mythily’s family hails from nearby Delph Island and have always lived on the coast. So it came as no surprise that the dish that they were going to share with me was their famous Jaffna Chilli Crab.

Jaffna cuisine is a little different to that of the rest of Sri Lanka. The dishes are heavily influenced by the Tamil Hindu culture from neighbouring South India, so the curries are fierier and rely less on coconut milk. Fenugreek, cardamom and cumin are some of the most commonly used ground spices. And thanks to the abundance of the palmyra or sugar palm in the region, the locals make their own palmyra oil, flour and nectar, among other things.

A highly respected school educator, Mythily works long hours during the day then returns home by bicycle to look after her family. Her husband works on another part of the island, so Mythily lives with her teenage son, parents and niece. 

When I met Mythily, I instantly felt a familiarity and warmth that I do around my own mum. She welcomed us into her home with open arms and shared her special family recipes with conviviality and pride. 

Just like home: taking selfies while cooking up a storm.

Watch the behind the scenes video here


As is the case with so many Sri Lankan home cooks, Mythily learned how to cook from her mum and grandmother. Her recipes are steeped in family tradition, but that doesn’t mean the dishes haven’t changed over the years. Mythily tells me that every Sri Lankan housewife adds her own special touch to the recipes. An extra dash of spice here, or a unique curry blend there. Every woman makes just the slightest adjustment to make the recipe their own.

For the crab curry, Mythily’s niece first prepares the base ingredients from scratch. She extracts the coconut milk by shredding the coconut flesh by hand, and prepares the blend of spices by grinding roasted cumin and pepper seeds in a traditional mortar and pestle.

 

Learning how to grate coconut flesh like the pros. 

Mythily’s dad starts cleaning and shelling the fresh crabs in the washbasin outside. And Mythily’s mum steps into the open furnace they call the stove and starts roasting all the base ingredients in a large saucepan. She mixes together fenugreek, onion, curry leaves, green chilli, garlic, ginger, cumin, pepper, coconut oil and tamarind paste almost in one go – it’s hard to keep up.

 

The kitchen was getting a little too hot so Mythily and I took a break and started chatting a bit more in her lounge room. After a few minutes it became apparent that Mythily and her family had been through hell and back over the last several years.

During the civil war, Sri Lanka’s north was considered a battle zone. Sadly, many families, like Mythily’s, were forced to flee the area in search of safer surrounds. Finally, after seven years the family was able to return to their home, but by then it was completely in ruins.

Mythily tells me that the house we’re standing in is the very same one they left behind all those years ago. Life was not the same upon their return, but the family had no choice; they had to rebuild. As did the rest of the region.

A local vendor at the Jaffna markets. The region is slowly starting to rebuild after being affected by civil war. 

One of most iconic Hindu temples in the region. 

The spice trail in Jaffna. 

What struck me the most was that the family did not seem the slightest ounce bitter. And standing there in their lounge room, I didn’t see any signs of a war-torn past; rather a room filled with happy family photos, sacred heirlooms, and ornamental souvenirs brought back by family members visiting various European cities. 

As we stepped back into the kitchen, the crab meat and shells were being added to the pan. Mythily’s niece poured in the fresh coconut milk, and Mythily threw in her special Jaffna curry powder mix. After a little simmer, the mixture was taken off the heat and sprinkled with some salt and fresh lime juice.

The making of this delicious Jaffna dish was truly a family affair. Food brings people together all over the world, but it was hugely evident here in Jaffna. Seeing how this family came together over meal times was a special experience. It reminded me of my own family and heritage, and I couldn't wait to share the recipe with my own family and friends back home.  

The final spread. 

Tags: chilli crab, jaffna, sri lanka

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