Some serendipity was involved with this month’s Ethnic Exploration. As Chrystal and I were planning out our EEs for the rest of the year, we were tapped by someone on Twitter out of the blue. A man named Tim, the founder and owner of White Lion Imports, hit us up to see if we’d be interested in trying out a Sri Lankan spirit he just started distributing in the U.S. It’s no secret that the Duo loves a libation. Always down to try something new, we decided to give it a go. As the three of us chatted further, though, it became clear that we should collaborate on a culinary exploration of Sri Lankan cuisine. For the first time, we’d have an expert at our disposal, serving as a direct liaison into this new food world on which we were about to embark. Off we go!
The Sri Lankan spirit he was referring to is called White Lion VSOA. It’s a single ingredient coconut arrack made from the nectar of coconut tree flowers. After the flowers are carefully collected from the coconut tree tappers, who bravely climb 80 feet to the top of each tree to nab these precious buds, natural fermentation begins almost immediately. 2 years later — after chilling in native Halmilla wood barrels, combined with the handy work of master craftsmen with centuries of artisan techniques at their heels — this caramel colored gem is born.
Even more remarkable, this coconut arrack is so unique, it’s never been offered away from the island of Sri Lanka until only recently. In fact, as I write this post, Tim’s White Lion Imports is the only distributor of it in America. With a story like that, you can understand why we were more than eager to try this spirit. That would have to wait, sadly, until we met up with Tim and nailed down our Sri Lankan menu.
Per Tim’s recommendation, we met at a Sri Lankan market in Tarzana called Sri Lankan Delight on a warm November Saturday afternoon. He was accompanied by his mother-in-law, Pearl, who is from Sri Lanka, who had a collection of authentic Sri Lankan recipes in hand along with Southeast Asian cookbook. Upon entering the market, we were greeted by bursts of unfamiliar goodies immediately to our left and right. From canned goods, to teas, candy, drinks, fresh produce, and even some cooking supplies, this quaint market was lined wall to wall with Sri Lankan delights. Thankfully, Pearl and Tim were on hand to usher us around the store and answer our many burning questions about Sri Lankan cuisine.
After some lengthy deliberations on what to make, we decided to cook a whole spread. Paripoo was our first choice. It’s a yellow dal lentil curry that’s infused with coconut milk, fresh curry leaves and several spices. Instead of serving it over simple rice, though, there were a few alternate rice dishes in the Sri Lankan canon we could choose from. The most intriguing to us was the appa, pronounced “opp-ah,” or also know as the hopper. It’s a bowl-shaped, crepe-like thin pancake made from a rice flour and coconut milk batter. It’s popular to crack in egg in the bottom of the hoppers as they cook, and they can be eaten at any time of the day as a snack, with a savory meal, or as a sweet ending. We would need a special hopper pan in order to tackle this one, but they were available at the market.
Now this is where we got ourselves into a little bit of a pickle. Pearl, who makes hoppers regularly for her family, suggested we get the non-stick hopper pan. That is what she uses at home and the non-stick surface makes for a stress-free cooking experience. We of course, being the audacious adventurers that we are, decided to grab the aluminum non non-stick pan instead. It’ll be fine, we thought. We’ll just season the pan beforehand. We asked Pearl and Tim if they had any suggestions on seasoning the pan. When neither of them, nor the store owner, had any clue, we probably should have taken that as a sign from the heavens above to get the non-stick pan and be done with it. But no, we confidently threw the aluminum version in the basket and kept it moving.
The hoppers batter can be made from scratch, but like anything in the world, a ready-to-go mix is available. Pearl showed us her favorite mix to use in a pinch. She said she likes to soak a piece of white bread in coconut milk overnight and mix it in with the batter. It helps bind it all together and give the batter that finished texture she’s used to from the homemade version.
To go with our meal, we would lastly make a popular Sri Lankan condiment-of-sorts called pol sambol. We’re told it’s probably the most popular dish back on the island, so we had to have it on the menu. It’s made with freshly grated coconut, lime juice, red pepper and ground dried fish. You can imagine the distressed looks on our faces when we read that last ingredient in the recipe. We don’t have a pleasant history with dried fish. It’s been incorporated in some of our previous Ethnic Explorations, namely Japanese, but seafood that isn’t fresh from the sea or freezer is not seafood we commonly have in our kitchens. No worries. We decided to sub it for dried shrimp. It has the same essence and flavor of the fish, but does not pack such a bold punch of that “fishy” pungency we both were trying to avoid.
The key to successful pol sambol is use freshly grated coconut. Period. Tim cautioned that the jar or canned variety just isn’t worth it. It’s fresh or bust. Looks like we’ll be popping open a fresh coconut. The market sold coconut graters, too, for this very purpose. Pol sambol is sprinkled on top of most dishes, hoppers, curries, really anything and everything, adding a zing of brightness and spice.
Now that our shopping basket was overflowing with Sri Lankan goods, we were ready to go home and get to cookin’. We thanked Tim and hugged Pearl for their assistance and encouragement. Off we went to begin our cooking adventure.
First things first, we unscrewed the White Lion VSOA the moment our aprons were tied on. Tim offered us a handful of cocktail recipes for the White Lion. The one we sampled was for a drink called the aria, which he described as being the signature VSOA drink that everyone loves.
Being an avid whiskey drinker myself, I thought the White Lion VSOA had a striking resemblance to whiskey. The best way to describe its flavor is to envision an uncannily smooth whiskey with a little hint of je ne sais quoi. The aria is a simple blend of VSOA and kithul jaggery syrup with a splash of water and twist of lime. It’s a refreshing, light drink that easily showcases the smooth flavor of the liquor. The kithul syrup is a thick sweetener, similar to tamarind syrup. It’s like maple syrup but instead comes from the kitul tree. Simple syrup is a fine substitute if you can’t find the kithul.
Next, Chrystal worked on the lentils while I prepped the pol sambol. That meant strapping the coconut grater onto my small side table and flexing those muscles by cracking open the fresh coconut. Here’s a link with some helpful tips on opening a coconut. I found it easiest to use the back of my butcher’s knife and tapping along the “equator” of the coconut. After several plonks and bangs, we had lift off. It split open into two perfect halves, and we saved the water to use in our hopper batter. Why not, we thought. Chrystal and I took turns grating the coconut, however, as it required some elbow grease to get all the meat out of each half.
The pol sambol and lentils went off without a hitch. When they were finished, we set them aside and moved on to the hoppers. So…remember how we bought the aluminum hopper pan? Tim did some research and shared with us a couple tips on seasoning it, both of which involved rubbing vegetable oil along the inside. One suggested heating the pan on a medium flame until the oil smokes, then allow it to cool and wipe down completely. The second method suggested heating the greased pan in an 250 degree oven for 2 hours. It was my task to season the pan before we started cooking, so I opted for the latter option.
Well, needless to say, after our first hopper burned to the pan we wished we had just gone with the non-stick. A few more attempts yielded similar results. Clearly our pan wasn’t seasoned enough. Oh well. We chugged the pan aside on the counter and grabbed my non-stick small saute pan. We’d have to manipulate the bowl shape of the hopper by serving the finished dish in a serving bowl. Upon some more research, we also learned our pan was probably too hot. The goal is to maintain a medium to medium-low flame through the cooking process. If the appa starts to burn and stick to the pan, your stove is probably too hot.
Even though it didn’t work out this time with the hopper pan, we’re determined to try again very soon. For our spirits yes, but mainly because those hoppers were mighty tasty. The sweetness of the coconut was pronounced in each bite. Additionally, the sides were light and crispy, adding a pleasant change of texture when eaten with the soft lentils.
The pol sambol was anything but “fishy.” The bright, lime flavor was dominant throughout. Plus, the recipe we were given called for 2 to 3 teaspoons of cayenne pepper and a sprinkle of black pepper. (Yes, you read that right, 2 to 3 teaspoons!) Packing that much heat, the “fishiness” of the dish would be the least of our worries. Chrystal and I love a zap of heat but this dish was Spiiiiiiiiiicy with a capital s! Pearl did mention to us that even spicy dishes in Sri Lankan restaurants here in the States pale in comparison to the level of heat most plates have back east. Of course, adjust the heat to your own liking.
All in all, our Sri Lankan attempt was definitely a success. Chrystal and I refilled our bowls with seconds and thirds throughout the evening. Every item we made, including our cocktails, was made with or from coconut. The coconut gave a pleasant amount of sweetness and an unexpected richness to the whole meal. Even if you can’t get your hands on every one of these specific Sri Lankan utensils, you can still whip together these dishes with a few shortcuts. Don’t let that stop you!
If you’re in the LA area, Tim recommended a Sri Lankan eatery to try if you want to experience the authentic fare for yourself. Baja Subs Market And Deli in Northridge is his pick. “Don’t let the Yelp ratings fool you,” he told us. “They are all based on the ‘front’ menu [of] sandwiches and Mexican fast food. The owners are Sri Lankan and their food is not only outstandingly, but exceedingly authentic to what you would find in Sri Lanka itself.” Doesn’t get better than that — boom!
We also made a video detailing us cooking the appas and cocktails for easy reference and inspiration.
For more, you can check out another quick video of a pro making appas on the streets of Sri Lanka. In addition, when we were at Sri Lankan Delight, Tim and Pearl gave us some more tidbits about the country. We threw together some of their info in a short video from the market. In the interview, we discuss the differences between Sri Lankan curry powder and Indian curry, what to do with rice flakes — an unfamiliar ingredient we spotted at the market — and Tim breaks down appas for you.
Check it out and make a appa for yourself!
Sri Lankan Delight
19016 Ventura Blvd
Tarzana, CA 91356
Paripoo (Yellow Dal Curry) – Serves 4-6
1/2 pound yellow dal lentils, washed and drained
2 cups water
1/2 onion, chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, diced with seeds removed
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, crushed with side of a knife (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup coconut milk
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
1 sprig curry leaves
1/4 mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
Boil the water in a medium stock pot. Stir in lentils, chopped onion, peppers, garlic, lemongrass (if using), cinnamon stick, cardamom and turmeric. cover pot and let simmer for 20 minutes, or until the become soft.
Stir in coconut milk and salt and cook the mixture for another 5 minutes, being sure to stir occasionally.
Meanwhile, while the lentils cook, heat oil in a medium, flat pan. Add onions and curry leaves, sauteing until the onions begin to turn translucent, about 6 minutes. Stir in mustard seeds and red pepper flakes. Cook for an additional 2 minutes or until the mustard seeds being to pop. Mix in the onion mixture over the pot of lentils. Serve warm.
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste depending on desired spiciness
1 tablespoon dried shrimp
6 ounces shredded fresh coconut
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
Juice from 3 limes
In a food processor, pulse onions, peppercorns, cayenne, and friend shrimp until onions are finely chopped. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add in coconut, lime juice, and salt, mixing until well combined. Sprinkle over the finished paripoo.
1 teaspoon dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
5 teaspoons warm water
1 3/4 cups rice flour
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 1/4 cups coconut milk
Canola oil, for greasing pan
In a small mixing bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in the warm water. Let sit for 5 minutes at room temperature. Meanwhile in a separate large mixing bowl, sift together the rice flour and salt. Mix in coconut milk until well combined, followed by the ready yeast mixture until completely smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place around your kitchen overnight, at least 8 hours.
When ready to cook the appas, heat a lightly greased non-stick, small wok, or a well-seasoned hopper pan over medium heat. Pour about 1/4 cup of batter into the pan, swirling it around to let the batter evenly coat around the pan and form a light, bowl-shaped crepe. At this point, crack an egg into the center of the pan if desired. Cover with lid and let cook for about 4 minutes, or until the edges begin to brown and light bubbles form throughout. Using a butter knife or small spoon, loosen the edges of the hopper and remove from the pan. Repeat until all batter is used. Serve warm.
Aria – 1 serving
2 ounces White Lion VSOA
1 ounces hithul treacle syrup
4 ounces chilled water
Juice from one lime
Mix together all ingredients, and serve over ice.
Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by White Lion Imports, LLC. We received drink samples, various food ingredients, and compensation for participation. All opinions given are our own. Some information provided by White Lion Imports, LLC.
Click HERE for printable recipes.