Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ceylonta - The low down on dhal

I am a relative newcomer to Sri Lankan food. I was drawn to Sir Lankan food after returning from India and searching for my favourite southern Indian meal – the Masala Dosa. This crepe-like concoction should be stuffed with a potato-based curry and come with a lovely yellow flavourful curry soup (sambar) and a light green coconut chutney. As most Indian restaurants in Canada tend to serve more mid- to northern-Indian fare, I never was able to find an authentic Masala Dosa on the menu. However, when I tried stepping away from the restaurants of the sub-continent and ventured into a Sri Lankan restaurant, I found that I almost always could find the elusive Masala Dosa done in an authentic manner. The reason for this is that southern India often shares more of its cusine and culture with its tear-drop shaped neighbour to the south than with the tandoori and kormas of the north.

Ceylonta on Somerset is no exception and does the Masala Dosa well. The Masala Dosa, however, is best suited as a one-person, one-dish meal and was not the sought after #34 on the menu. Instead #34 proved to be Idly, a steamed dumpling-like dish made from ground urid dhal.

Dhal loosely translates into lentils, but as a word and an idea is so much more. To say that dhal equals lentils and to leave it at that is the same as saying that Wonder Bread is wheat. There are so many different varieties of dhal and it is prepared in vast array of different styles. Dhal is also a core staple as well as comfort food in south-east asian cuisine. I have been part of conversations where someone lamented that they really knew they had hit rock bottom when their kitchen was empty of dhal, while another person described all the different dhals and dhal dishes that she was forced to eat when she was sick as a child: one dhal dish for malaria, one dhal dish for colds. Maybe dhal can be loosely translated into not just lentils, but also “chicken soup for south-east asian soul”

But I digress. At Ceylonta the Idly is made of fermented urid dhal. It is white, steamed and frankly rather boring. Not unpleasant, but a good uninteresting base upon which to build a spicy flavourful Sri Lankan meal. To accompany #34 we had an eggplant curry and chicken palandi. The curry was very flavourful with spices that were not too hot, but which augmented the natural flavour of the eggplant. And the eggplant was cooked to a wonderful mush that only eggplant lovers could enjoy. The chicken was crisp and spicy. Unlike your typical roasted chicken, it appeared that this chicken had been smashed instead of chopped into pieces and you had to be careful to fish out the shards of bone while you ate it. The sauce over the chicken was quite spicy and, as with the curry, a little on the heavy side with the grease quota. The Idly also came with a sauce and chutney. These were the ubiquitous masala dosa sauce and chutney: nice light green coconut chutney and a light yellow vegetable curry soup/sauce (sambar). These, as always, were wonderful. The meal was nicely rounded off with a mango lassi that was not too sweet, although was made from canned or bottled mango pulp instead of fresh mangos.

Overall, this was not my best meal at Ceylonta. It tends to be a place where it can either be a real hit or miss. Sometimes the food is wonderful and we seem to have ordered the right combination of spicy, oily and fresh dishes with the assistance of a very helpful staff that provides attention that is usually found in only much higher-end restaurants, or we order a mishmash of dishes that do not go well together, everything seems too heavy and the staff seem to be generally annoyed that they have to serve us. I guess it depends on the day.

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