It is the season of parties, not to be left out, we are arranging one. Is it any different in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lankans do not seem to plan their diaries too far ahead nor do they always respond to invites but they turn up on the dot. There is no angst about who to invite and there is no angst about who should come. If you have friends staying, you take them along.
Here we failed. The Christmas tree is only 2 feet high and has 10 shiny red baubles on it. We brought out some coloured lights which stretch halfway across the window. Our half-dozen balloons were admired.
There is no M & S pre-prepared finger food to take off the shelf. Those good standbys of cheese and crisps are not available as nibbles but there are alternatives. There are crisps made from manioc, that’s the root used to make tapioca. They are tougher than potato crisps.
Cooked and flavoured chick-peas are good and popcorn is popular out here and at 20p for a large bag, a good buy. There are plenty of peanuts and the Sri Lankan speciality, cashew nuts.
We do have the advantage of a cook. She will come the day before and stay the night and the night after if necessary. There will be dahl, curries, rotis, parathas, salads of various mixes, eggs, aubergine, snake gourd and other vegetables unknown to me. There will be rice ‘Sri Lankans expect rice, Madame,’ she told us. So many Sri Lankans are vegetarian but there will be chicken for us carnivores.
The first crisis of the day arose at 7.00 am when the gas bottle ran empty, and on a Sunday too. Our tuk-tuk man came round for the empty and then went to Sam’s closed shop. Luckily Sam is a trader and, Sunday or not, he likes to trade. It was not long before a full bottle arrived.
Madame had somehow managed to buy the one and only electric induction cooker in Kandy. She was soon busy frying up tasty little pasty- like things.
The prepared flapjack has been a flop, soggy and crumbly. Is the oatmeal different, is the local sugar syrup, Thikul, to blame or is it that the oven temperatures are wrong?
Watalapppan is a desert to which Crème Caramel comes a poor second. It is a cardamon, clove, and nutmeg flavoured custard made with egg an coconut, often with cashew nuts added.
Today we tried to cook a cheesecake made with lime and ginger. We managed to find some imported cream cheese which looks OK. There is some local cheese but it is too salty. Must be careful with the ginger and lime, the flavours of the local products are so much sharper than we are used to. The cheese filling is not stiff enough, maybe it is the temperature or maybe the whipping cream is not really whipping cream at all. It tastes good even if we have to eat it with a spoon. The recipe calls for a base of crumbled ginger nut biscuits, we have crumbled biscuits often in the UK but Sri Lankan ginger nut biscuits are different. They are properly gingery, hot almost. Then they are wonderfully crisp, you can dunk them in tea and the centre remains hard with a soft outside. Try crumbling them. We put them in a plastic bag and beat them. We have no rolling pin so used a bottle of ice from the freezer. We managed to get the job done before all the ice melted.
The most important component of any party. Some regard it as more important than the guests. In a hot country, plenty of fluid must be provided and people drink water. Wine is taken by the ex-pats, some of them need a lot, we know who they are. If you enjoy a glass of vintage claret, I am afraid you will be disappointed. French wines are rare, anything Australian is regarded as a connoisseur’s wine; Chile provides the bulk.
Fruit juices and cordials abound. Orange juice is for the well-off but mango, pineapple, papaya, soursop, a kind of soggy sweet and sour apple, and nelli, a form of gooseberry. The king of all is lime, fresh lime juice with soda is an all-time favourite.
Sri Lankans, however, are swayed by American drinks, Coca-Cola, 7-Up and Sprite are popular but so is their own EGB, Elephant Ginger Beer, an excellent fizzy drink.
Tea is drunk later. There are choices and BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) and Black Tea are popular, served with plenty of milk, even condensed milk and thick with sugar. Our favourite is cinnamon tea but, green tea, China tea and Dust tea are available.
Milk and dairy products in general, are a problem. High yielding cattle do not thrive here due to the heat and the grass. The cows produce a quarter as much milk as our cows. Buffalo milk is available but we used powdered milk. This year, cream is available for the first time.
It is 170 years since the coffee disaster in Sri Lanka but now there are a few estates starting to grow it again and very good it is.
The most important ingredient. Sri Lankans really enjoy a party. They will turn up, no matter what, kick their shoes off get straight into the spirit of it. The women in elegant saris and some of the more adventurous men in outrageous shirts.
The ex-pat drinkers form a group as usual and talk more and more rubbish as the evening wears on. There are a few ladies noted for their knowledge of matters scurrilous and everyone wants to talk to them.
Then there are a few who have opinions to voice and how mightily they voice them, even though you heard it before. These people wander from group to group, disappointed that people interrupt and don’t listen.
Then there is the flirting and flattering and humour, discussions about books, films, fashion and events. Catching up on who’s doing what. Politics is not part of Sri Lankan’s life. They know it is there, that it is corrupt and best ignored. Ten years ago, forthright political opinion could cost your life or a spell in gaol. That is less likely now.
We do not have the Chandlers Ford standby conversations of House Prices and My Latest Visit to the Doctor and, as for Brexit, ‘they must be mad’ is all that is said. Much talk is about places visited and new shops.
We have no TV or radio or CD player so we hired a band for the party. The last time we hired a band I met the leader and shook his hand and tried not to look dismayed for it was a prosthetic hand. A band with a one-handed guitarist, how does that work? It worked very well for he plays a Demian-style accordion or harmonium where the right-hand works the bellows and the left operates the keys. The other two members of the band play guitar, violin and drums. He did not come this time, all our musicians had two hands each.
It is a prosthetic hand because he held on to a lit bundle of fireworks for too long when he was a child. I knew you were wondering.
Last time someone brought along their Tabla, drums, and another was persuaded to sing. Having got him to start singing, who was going to suggest that he should stop, that we had had enough? He stopped when the band packed up and went home but he left behind a copy of his latest CD for us.
Kandy is shut down by Nine o’clock in the evening, tuk-tuks do not operate, the streets are dark. Only private coaches carry waiters and hospitality workers home. So our party will be at lunchtime. ‘Don’t let them get at the food too early,’ advised a friend. ‘Sri Lankans are inclined to scoff and off. Let them get at the food about half an hour before the end.’
The Party’s Over –
Phew, that was great fun. Everyone we asked turned up. We had Sri Lankans, English, Welsh, Scots, Australian, Spanish, Italian, Indian and Canadian. Our tuk-tuk driver’s family came to help out, it will be one of their last outings together as one son leaves for the army next week. Several new friendships were made; the Australian planter discovered he had a Scot as a near neighbour.
The band turned up half an hour late and demanded time for a smoke. This is quite normal for Sri Lanka. Madam did her Memsahib colonial act and insisted that they start playing. They played beautifully until half an hour past the appointed time. The Spanish girl sang for us, she was a singer in an earlier life.
All the food disappeared, the left-overs in packets to take home by the tuk-tuk family. Our delightful cook, Ira, worked hard and cleared up afterwards.
Everyone has gone, the evening is ours alone. We sat on the verandah as dusk fell. Bats patrolled up and down past the security light, larger fruit bats came flapping silently up the valley. The cicadas, crickets and grasshoppers began stridulating as darkness fell. There were no croaking frogs tonight as the weather has been hot and dry. The heady scent from the Datura tree soothes all ills.
We watched the hillside opposite as, one by one, lights were switched on. The only sounds were the distant barking of dogs and a priest chanting his mantra down in the valley. A Church tolled its bell four times. Nothing could be more tranquil than sitting together with a glass of red wine.
I really would not mind if I never returned to the divided UK with its dislike of foreigners and hate for half the population.