“I wish the whole world was dead serious about food instead of silly rockets and machines and explosives using everybody’s food money to blow their heads off anyway”
—Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
If I were ever to become some form of foodie entrepreneur, I think this would be my manifesto. For me, food is the centre of the day, and mealtimes are the seedbed of connection. Connection to people, place, self, and time.
So much of our story — personal and ancestral — is woven through culture and tradition, and food informs that history. So much can be communicated through flavours, textures, scents and presentation, where perhaps spoken words would fall short. There is something so enticing about seeing “My Grandmother’s Gnocchi” on a menu, because it draws us into a story we would perhaps otherwise have missed out on. We may never have met the Grandmother, but we catch a glimpse of her life through the dish; a life that continues for as long as the recipe is shared and enjoyed.
Food retains the potential to delight, to inspire. And the last few years of my life in particular have led me towards making good food a priority. I really do see the belly as a second brain; something that needs to be treated with care if we want to be able to trust its information. Paying attention to “gut instincts” is also important to me, but these become irrelevant if I’m not cultivating a great relationship with my gut! When I’ve eaten a delicious meal—whether alone or in company—I’m much more likely to feel happy, and therefore make more creative and considerate decisions leading to a generally zealous life. If I’m hungry, or have eaten a meal made without soul, you probably don’t even want to talk to me…
RECIPE: Manioc with Pol Sambol
I’m fortunate to have grown up in a house where homemade meals were placed on the table almost every night. Both my parents are great cooks, but with very different styles. My Dad creates quite classic dishes, either on the refined end of the spectrum (roasted meats with red wine gravies, buttered potatoes and crunchy greens) or the comforting (grilled cheese on toast with Worcestershire sauce). My Mum was born and raised in Sri Lanka, so her curries have been a major part of my food story since childhood.
We finally visited the teardrop island together for the first time last year. Whilst backpacking around the South, we got to savour the real-deal versions of a lot of the food I’d grown up with, as well as trying a lot of new flavours and ingredients that we just don’t have access to in England. My favourite (whether made by my Mum, one of my Aunties, or the ‘Auntie’ at a street-side stall in Kandy) is Pol Sambol. Pol means coconut in Sinhalese, and is a prominent component in many Sri Lankan dishes. This sambol is traditionally made as a small accompaniment to plates of curry, rice or hoppers, but my Mum always had to make huge quantities of it when I was a kid, since I would devour bowls full like it was a curry in its own right.
I was introduced to this combination at breakfast on our last morning in Negombo. It was made for us by a man named Krishantha, who served it with Kiribath (rice cooked in coconut milk then cooled and cut into squares) and Lunu Miris (a hot, dried red chilli sambol).
Ingredients (for 2)
1 Manioc (also known as Cassava or Yuca)
1 teaspoon Turmeric
1 teaspoon Salt
2 cups grated Coconut (if using desiccated rather than fresh, warm a little milk and pour it over the coconut and leave for roughly 60 mins or until well absorbed)
1/2 a Red Onion, grated
Juice of 1 Lemon (if it's a juicy one, just add half to begin with then add more if desired)
2 inches of Ginger Root, grated
1 tablespoon Sweet Paprika
Chilli Powder to taste (I use 1 teaspoon of the hot variety)
Good quality fresh ground Black Pepper
Chop the skin off the Manioc and cut into blocks. (I usually eat this with my fingers but if you'll be using a fork, just cut the blocks at roughly 1 inch square). Bring a pan of water to the boil and stir in the Turmeric and Salt before adding the cubed Manioc. Cover, reduce the heat, and leave to bubble quietly until cooked through (about 30-40 minutes).
Add all the remaining ingredients to your bowl of coconut. Depending on the potency of your lemon and red onion, the proportions of salt and pepper will vary - my Mum’s recipe calls for tons of black pepper (go for more than you feel comfortable putting in), like 1-3 tablespoons, and usually a fair amount of salt. Like 1-2 teaspoons. But don’t add it all at once! Sprinkle it in incrementally, mixing and tasting as you go, until you reach your desired balance of flavour. This actually goes for all of the ingredients, so don’t shy away from adjusting the ratios to your liking!
The mix can be pulsed in a food processor or mulched by hand until all the components have blended together to form a fluffy, bright orange, couscous textured sambol. If squelching it together with your hands (and I highly recommend that you do), take your time. It need only take about 5 minutes to marry all your ingredients together, but I once stood over the bowl—deep in conversation with a long lost cousin—and absent mindedly squelched for almost 20 minutes. It tasted delicious.
Once your manioc is cooked, drain and leave to cool for a minute. Toss the manioc with some sambol until well covered and serve with your favourite chilli paste for an extra kick. If you have a Sri Lankan or Indian supply store near you, look for jars of Katta Sambol, Lunu Miris or Seeni Sambol - these are my favourites.
Wash it all down with a cup of sweet and milky black tea if that's your thing, or for a lighter alternative, steep plenty of ginger and coriander seeds in boiling water for 10 minutes and sieve before drinking.