Kitchen Sessions Sri Lanka at Sarong with Chef Will Meyrick

Believed as one of the hottest dish in the world, Sri Lanka cuisine bore a similarity with Southern Indian cuisine. Sri Lankan dishes however, are more liberate in using spices, and has wide different influencers, including Chinese and the Dutch! Most of Sri Lankan dishes are curry, or includes coconut in one way or another.

Just like Indonesian, Sri Lankan staple carbohydrate source is rice, however it also includes some types of bread similar with India. Sri Lankan cuisine also consisted of chutneys and pickles. They have a national condiment called sambols, made with mixing chili, maldive dried fish and other ingredients then grounded together and eaten with rice. Sounds strikingly similar with Indonesian sambals don't you think so?

Seeing the similarities, it's interesting to know that Chef Will Meyrick has completed another one of his culinary journey, and invited us again to the Kitchen Sessions table for a taste of his Sri Lankan influenced creations. Graciously sharing what he need to experience in weeks, into one saturated dining experience.

Unlike the last time, this Kitchen Sessions: Sri Lanka was held at Sarong; Will Meyrick's flagship fine dining restaurant in Bali.

About Sarong

Sarong is one of Bali's best restaurants, award winning, and is among the forerunner Indonesian restaurants on regional culinary scenery. Will opened Sarong back in 2008 as a testament of his love for Asian cooking. Compared with its sister venue Mama San, Sarong has a more elegant atmosphere, and thankfully higher lumens making carrying around the heavy DSLR worth it.

Walking toward the entrance, I look around searching for the garden patio where Sarong usually puts their spontaneous guests; those without booking reservation in advance. Some people at Trip Advisor website actually were wishing they could be seated there, but they could not since it wasn't available for advance reservation; making it more challenging due to its exclusivity.

Seeing the all-black uniform Sarong staff wears, I felt lucky I don't wear my usual black shirt that night, and managed to snatch my rarely worn batik instead. Batik is actually a quite safe choice for more formal occasions in Bali, as they're beautiful, and you can bet that Balinese will prefer to wear Balinese influenced outfits in their homeland.

Besides of Raechel, I also found the familiar smile of Adam Baxter that evening. However Chef Palm Amatawet was missing from the whole dinner. As with the guests, they're either new, or weren't in the same batch with me on the previous Kitchen Session dinner. However this time they're mostly coming from magazines covering Bali.

The Taste Journey

Our first dish of the dinner was Kirri Houdi with crabmeat. Kirri Houdi is a Sri Lankan style curry many foodies believes as comfort food, just like the American chicken soup. While I think the curry tasted a bit mellow, the crabmeat however was bursting with flavour, creating such a nice contrast.

The bitter gourd which came next, was surprising in its dried, jerky state. As it has lost most of its bitterness, drying further elevates its flavour, making it a nice chewy bits among the salad and its coconut vinegar dressing. This Bitter gourd and tomato salad with coconut vinegar, chilli, and black pepper dressing provided interesting surprise since usually in Indonesia bitter gourd is cooked with scrambled egg, stir fried, and many other ways but jerky.

The next salad got me thinking that it contains potato chips. However after some bites then I realized it was banana, non-sweet one, which better known as plantain. The addition of onion and curry leaf lend intensity to the rather plain plantains. This Crisply plantain salad with tomato, onion, chilli and lime also reminded me of having roasted lamb with fried banana, instead of rice, upon trying out the Sate Domba Afrika in Tanah Abang, Jakarta. That's when I became aware that banana is a staple carbohydrate source in many African countries.

Sweet potato with dried maldive fish, onion and curry leaf
was another interesting combo. The use of sweet potato instead of the regular, adds sweetness in between the pool of creamy coconut milk gravy. It reminded me of my mother's potato curry, only this time it is combined with dried fish that closely resembling Indonesian ikan teri; a combo that turned out works beautifully.

The Prawn curry with kelor leaf, fenugreek seed, curry leaf and green chilli looks strikingly vibrant, and very inviting in its orange-ish colour  It's sweet, creamy and savoury; one of the dinner's highlight. The kelor leaf included as garnish comes as a good talk piece that night, since many of the Indonesian audience that evening have already familiar with the phrase "dunia tidak selebar daun kelor" but none knows how it looks like. Turned out it tasted exotic, sweet with a tad bitterness, a quite flavourful complimentary to the savoury prawn curry.

Stir fried kangkung with turmeric, shallots and chilli is a simple and modest dish, resembling the familiar tumis kangkung taste usually found in Indonesian home kitchens.

The third round introduces us to a coin-shaped cakes made from shredded coconut, which instantly reminds me of wingko babat, an Indonesian delicacy from Eastern Java. It also tasted like one, except that it's unsweetened, and has dryer consistency almost like sago cakes. Wrapped in banana leaves then chargrilled, it traps the coconut aroma and smoke within, making each bite a pleasant experience. Combined with three different dipping sauces, and read bean dhal, it paired well with the curries as well. It is also among the audience's most favourite dish, another highlight of the dinner. I believe this Chargrilled coconut cakes wrapped in banana leaves is Will's take on Sri Lankan Coconut Roti.

Apple eggplant lend its sweetness to the creamy curry which came next, and resulted in an analogous flavour scheme. Ela Batu is the name of this dish in Sri Lanka, and is a quite common curry both in Sri Lanka and in Thailand. While it tasted all right with the coconut cakes, I think this Apple eggplant curry with pandan leaf, light masala and coconut milk pairs much better with rice.

Beetroot and bone marrow curry with mustard seeds looks a bit intimidating with its towering bone, and the blood-red curry surrounding it. Beetroot curry however, is one of Sri Lanka's national signature dish, hence its presence on that evening was quite necessary. Taste wise it tends to lies on the sweet creamy side, while the tiny bone marrow bits lend mostly its gelatinous texture, as it has no distinctive flavour itself, as the beetroot is quite overpowering.

The chicken curry that opened the fourth round promotes a very nice taste experience. Enriched with chilli and tomato, the curry gained its extra punch from tamarind, making the curry velvety, rich, and South East Asian exotic. Gaulle chicken curry simmered in tamarind, chilli, tomato and black pepper was among my favourite performers of that evening for sure.

Slow cooked lamb curry with coriander, cumin, lemongrass and curry leaves provided all the lamb curry goodness should: creamy, savoury, with succulent almost melt in your mouth lamb chunks.

Crispy eggplant relish with roasted shallots, mustard seed, dried salted fish, coconut vinegar and curry leaf provides a good closing with its tad sour dressing, closely resembling the bitter gourd salad that came earlier, only this time it included salted fish bites.

Kitchen Sessions: Sri Lanka was closed with selections of Gulab jamon, pineapple praline, and pineapple sorbet as desserts.

The Gulab jamon looks like wedang ronde with its mochi balls, only it is bathed not in ginger, but in sweet syrup heavily dosed with cardamom. And the balls are dark brown, made from milk, interestingly spongy, resembling very light watery doughnut balls. While the flavour was quite light, it provides a pleasing taste experience.

Pineapple praline is pineapple slices covered with praline nougat bits, somehow reminded me of Bandung, especially the Citarum's batter-fried jackfruit, and pineapple: among Bandung's unique snack that stands the test of time.

The sorbet was smooth and refreshing. A good closure to the all-creamy dishes that evening.

A note on Chef Will Meyrick's cooking

After two cuisines inside my belly, and referring to my Art History class back in college, I found Will's cooking closely resembles an impressionism painting: they're made of tiny colour bits, quite different one to another at times, however in the bigger picture they create a harmony.

Will is fond of stacking layers of contrasting taste in his cooking  He is also quite bold with herbs and spices, at times putting strips of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and even a whole bird-eye chilli! This practice provides the distinct, striking flavour burst that compliments the whole dish; just like chocolate chips bits on a cupcake.

While Will many times playing in the dangerous zone of almost too much, however in the end they helps in providing the necessary sparks.

The aftermath

Just like the last Kitchen Sessions Burma, this dinner too created a lingering experience, not on the dishes alone but on its ideas as well, which provoked some questions like:

Judging from the taste, and the fun, it's a wonder why Indonesian never included banana chips in their salad dishes just like in Will's Plantain salad; they're gorgeous, and many home industries in Lampung have shown that Indonesian can produce good quality banana chips. And it's not a secret that Indonesian loves crackers. Gado-gado with plantain chips anyone?

Foodies and cooks can achieve a lot of inspirations with such eye-opening dinners like this Kitchen Sessions, where chefs dare to be creative, and playful in their creations. Inspiration leads to imagination, and imagination is priceless. Something worth to follow by other creative chefs alike.
"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” ~Albert Einstein

As a closing note: sparkling mineral water fits perfectly with curries! (byms)