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As the daughter of a South American living in the Colorado Rockies, I took part in an annual migration every winter. As soon as school let out, I was tucked under my mother’s wing and flown to a beach in Mexico or some Caribbean island where I was let loose while she defrosted for a week or two with a hat tipped over her eyes, a cold beer nearby. My days revolved around food, much as they do now. I’d take mom’s pesos and seek out the local fare, testing malted sodas and plantain chips, sucking on sugar cane. I think I accidentally ate a dove once.
It was on one of these trips that I discovered the true taste of fresh coconut. Artificial coconut has an appealing smell that evokes good times and summer fun—Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers, Almond Joys—but it’s nothing like the mild sweetness of the real thing. I was surprised by the size of fresh coconuts, too. Boys my age would climb up tall, limbless trees on the beach and deliver coconuts almost the diameter of a soccer ball, husky and green in color. The hard brown things we bought at Safeway were the more mature coconuts. And only aged coconuts have the dense white meat inside. The texture of fresh coconut is more akin to lox, shivery and slimy with the kind of mouthfeel that usually makes kids whine. But I loved it and still do.
Now I am living in Bhutan, where it’s so cold I don’t bother putting the milk in the refrigerator, where my shampoo needs defrosting, where I huddle around my space heater pining for summer even when it’s summer. So at the invitation of a friend, I tucked myself under my own wing and headed south for some warmth at a spectacular retreat tucked in the jungles of central Sri Lanka. It was a week of gazing at balmy waterfronts, walking barefoot on swept pathways, stepping over vipers, and night after night of amazing meals. We ate like King Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta must have eaten when she brought the Bodhi tree bough to the island two thousand years ago—organic locally grown curries served on banana leaves. We sat on a spacious rock by a fire eating under the stars while monkeys watched, casting curious shadows.
This piece of paradise is called Ulpotha, and it’s completely unplugged; there is no electricity, let alone Internet, no clocks, no amplified music, no refrigeration. It takes about a day to get used to the lack of buzz, and then it’s as if your humanity is handed back to you on a hand-hewn plate. Too many months in Bhutan had made me brittle, but Sri Lanka quickly undid it all. The warmth sank into my bones. There were others there, a violinist, a perfumer, a playwright. We bathed outside, dipping coconut ladles into copper pots. We did yoga under a banyan tree. We contemplated death by crocodile. We rode bikes through coconut groves.
Coconuts were everywhere; the coconut is the all-giving to Sri Lankans. The meat is eaten, then the husks are used in gardens, as lamps, for kindling. The shells are made into spoons, bowls, and other utensils. The oil is used for lamps and massaging. Almost everything we ate included some form of coconut.
Two of my favorite things were the hoppers and sambol. Sambol is a Sri Lankan condiment that is served at almost every meal. And hoppers are a sort of Sri Lankan crepe made of rice flour and coconut milk. Both are quite easy to prepare.
2 dry coconuts
2 small pearl onions or shallots, sliced
1 clove garlic
a few small green chilies to taste
red chili powder to taste
1 teaspoon salt
juice of 1 medium lime
Finely grind or grate the coconut; then rinse with half a cup of water and squeeze out all the liquid. Repeat once or twice. Save the coconut water for curries or making the hoppers. Then blend the coconut with the rest of the ingredients in a processor, or use a mortar and pestle.
1½ cups coarse ground rice
1½ cups fine rice flour
2 teaspoons salt
14 fl oz. coconut milk (use your sambol water or canned coconut milk)
2 cups water
The egg hoppers are more complicated, because the batter needs about 5 hours to ferment. The ladies at Ulpotha used rice flour and coconut water to make the base and added palm toddy to help it rise, regular dried or compressed yeast works as well. You can make your own rice flour in a coffee grinder. To make about 20 hoppers, soak 1/2 ounce fresh compressed yeast or 1 teaspoon dried yeast in 1/2 cup of warm water with about 1 teaspoon of sugar (optional) until it gets fizzy (about 10 minutes). Then mix with the remaining ingredients until smooth and let stand until it rises.
Basically you want a batter that has the consistency of paint. Add water if it’s too thick. Heat a pan over low heat. An open fire under a banyan tree is recommended, but your stove will do. The ladies rubbed their hopper pans (like a reverse crepe pan but more concave) with coconut oil using the end of a piece of sugar cane, but a small non-stick pan oiled with a regular kitchen brush will work fine. Try to stick to coconut oil.
Swirl the batter in the pan so that a very thin layer coats the surface, then place the egg on top of the batter and cover. The batter and the egg cook at about the same speed, so in 5 minutes you should have a beautiful little crepe that peels out of the pan cradling the just firm sunny-side-up egg. The edges can be brown and crinkly, but the base under the egg should be spongy like a crumpet. Sprinkle with salt and sambol and serve. It won’t be the same if you eat them indoors; you need the monkeys hovering and a balmy breeze to truly season the dish.
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