Vasanthy greets me with a smile and a light embrace on the steps of her bungalow. She wears a bright pink spotty dress and her dark blue eyes sparkle – apart from the greying hair tied back in a small bun, you wouldn’t believe she’s 55.
It’s been an exciting journey to get here, sitting on the back of her nephew’s scooter we toot and weave our way through the busy roads of Jaffna town, past the grand golden Nallur temple and into the paddy-field-lined outskirts. By the time we reach Vasanthy’s, the temples have become shabbier, rickety bicycles have replaced honking tuk-tuks and jungle is battling to recapture any free space. Vasanthy has recently moved into the house, which she shares with her daughter and two grand-daughters. Before that they were renting as their old family home was bombed during the Civil War. Both Vasanthy and her daughter’s husbands are noticeable by their absence.
Jaffna and the Civil War
Jaffna is right up in the north of Sri Lanka, and up until the end of the Civil War in 2009, completely off limits. The Famous A9 road linking Jaffna and the Northern Province with the rest of the island was closed at Killinochchi, the LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’ controlling everything beyond it. It’s only in recent years that tourists have started venturing up to the north and even now there are very few there in comparison to the jam-packed trains and beaches in the centre and south. Standing on one perfect, endless beach, it was easy to imagine how in just a few years the hundreds of fishing boats and fishermen’s shacks would be replaced by resorts and guesthouses.
Although the war is over, there is still a high military and navy presence in the area which, in my opinion, seems a bit showy. Bored officers with nothing to do now the war is over have been put to work building high-end hotels and ostentatious ‘bungalows’ for the Admirals and high officials. Driving along the coastal roads there are many bomb damaged and deserted buildings, but that is the only evidence of war. The Government is actively discouraging any war memorials in the area.
A traditional cook
Crab curry, or ‘Jaffna’ crab curry is typical of the area because, you guessed it, there’s a shit load of crab about. This is the food that Vasanthy grew up on. She remembers coming back from school to eat crabs, squid or prawns that had been freshly plucked from the sea by her father. This she would eat alongside several vegetable curries her mother had prepared for Vasanthy and her seven elder brothers and sisters. These were the salad days, Vasanthy says the crab curry tasted sweetest when she was 17 – free from school and still free from marriage. She would spend her days cooking in the kitchen with her mother, learning through osmosis the recipes and methods that have been passed down through generations.
Times are changing and younger generations are starting to eat more meat instead of the readily available seafood. Even Vasanthy admits to watching Indian cookery shows on which they cook fried or ‘devilled’ chicken, but she would never eat or cook herself. Apart from the odd show, everything else about the way Vasanthy cooks and prepares food is decidedly traditional.
Looking around Vasanthy’s kitchen I see wooden and straw utensils hanging from the walls which I learn are the traditional tools used for making string hoppers and pottu (I silently kick myself for not having met her earlier, I would have loved to see her making string hoppers!). A chopping board gathers dust in the corner as Vasanthy, like almost every other person I have cooked with in the last year, prefers to cut vegetables into her hand using a well-loved knife. Although her kitchen has both wood and gas-fired cookers, Vasanthy only cooks for tourists on the gas, believing that the wood-fired food is better for your health. I’m not sure about the health properties, but later on when I eat the various curries, the smoky flavour of the curries cooked over wood are far tastier than the gas cooked ones.
It has been two hours since I arrived at Vasanthy’s house and during that time she has deftly moved around her kitchen to produce seven different dishes. Not just for Cassian and I, but for two doctors, one nurse, any other tourists who order food through her son’s brilliant ‘Sky Park View’ guesthouse, and finally for her own family. “I do this every day!” she exclaims with a huge smile on her face. Even better, she clearly loves doing it.
Jaffna Crab Curry
4 soft shell crabs
A glug of coconut oil
5 garlic cloves
1 large green chilli
1 tspn fenugreek
1 tspn fennel seeds
1 sprig fresh curry leaves
1 sprig fresh marukkai
300ml coconut milk
3 tbsn chilli powder
Palm sized chunk of tamarind, or tamarind paste
Begin by preparing your crabs. Leave them whole, but take off the top shell, this should come off easily. Put them to one side.
Roughly chop the garlic, tomato, onion and chilli. Heat some coconut oil (other oil will also do) in a large frying pan or wok and then add the garlic, tomato, onion and chilli. Fry everything together on a high heat for about 5 minutes, or they are just beginning to soften and brown.
Add the fenugreek, fennel seeds, curry leaves and marrukai to the frying pan and cook together for another 2 minutes.
Reduce the heat then add the crabs to the pan, along with some generous pinches of salt. Keep stirring everything together. Stir in the chilli powder and stir together.
Place the tamarind in a bowl and add some water. Squeeze the tamarind so that the flavour and juice from the seed infuses with the water. Now add the tamarind water to the crab curry. If using tamarind paste, dilute it slightly in some water before adding to the crabs.
Now add the coconut milk, Vasanthy used about 300ml but you can put in more or less depending on how much liquid you want (I thought 300ml was the right amount though).
After giving everything one last stir, add the lid to the pan and leave to simmer gently for about 10 minutes. You will know when the crabs are cooked because they will have turned red.
Once done, do not serve immediately, but leave to one side for at least half an hour so that the curry can settle and thicken up. Once slightly cooled, squeeze in the lime juice and check the seasoning and overall deliciousness before serving up along with some rice and a cucumber and onion salad.
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I’m still very much a beginner with video (so bear with me!), but check out this cool vid of Vasanthy cooking crab curry in her kitchen.