On Sri Lankans, Filipinos, and Biryanis
Working has always been a way of life for us, we were taught to work hard and save money for when there was not enough work to go around. Luckily, somehow, there was always something to do, someone to help and cash to be made.
Before we left Malta I was confident that in Paris I would find work as my skills varied from cutting hair to making detailed psychological profiles for Schizophrenic patients. Cooking however ran in parallel to all the jobs I had done, it was an integral part of my life , and I knew that cooking was indeed what I wanted to do when I grew up.
About three weeks after we arrived I started working as a weekend commis de cuisine in a very busy café on the left bank, the intentions were to continue looking for work in other restaurants in the meantime. Little did I know that this would prove to be a very special place for me, one that I would spend the coming two years in. I grew up a lot there, and I have to say that apart from learning a lot about food and coffee I mostly learned that working with three men from different cultures in an enclosed area for multiple hours a day is not a walk in the park. It requires patience which isn’t always there and a lot of good will from everyone’s side for the day to pass as pleasantly as possible.
The ‘’brigade’’ consisted of four people in total; the head chef, was a twenty six year old of Sri Lankan origin, who had lived in Paris for the last fourteen years of his life, he spoke perfect English and French as well as his mother tongue Cingalaise that is synonymous with well to do families in Sri Lanka. Then there was another Sri Lankan who had come to Paris very recently, he spoke broken French (although still better than mine) spoke no English and his mother tongue was Tamoul, so begin with not even the two guys coming from the same country could understand one another properly. Third came the Filipino guy, he was known as baby seal in my books. He was barking mad, like really off the rails crazy, I still think of things he used to say to this very day and catch myself smiling. He spoke his own language which was a mix of Spanish, French, English and god knows what else. All I know is that he sounded like a Minion most of the time, but out of the three he was my favourite one, he was kind and certainly the most fun to work a ten hour shift with.
Although we used to have bad days, coupled with sometimes really awful ones, I still think that a generous portion of the time I spent in this particular kitchen was one I will cherish all my life. Apart from an unlimited supply of swear words in both Cingalaise and Tamoul, I also learnt a lot about the food these three guys grew up eating. The head Chef in particular taught me how to cook rice properly as well as the correct way to make a curry, these were all new things for me who grew up just dunking rice in a pot of boiling water and making curries from scratch was never part of my Mediterranean upbringing. I still have the brown copybook full with the recipes he had given me, mostly belonging to his mother. It was very kind of him to teach me these things and although he lacked in other areas, not being secretive about the food he liked to cook at home was certainly a winning point in his character.
Friday used to be the day we would all be in the kitchen preparing the mise en place for the weekend brunch, it was also the only day we ate together as a ‘team’. It was a spontaneous meal that happened organically after a hard week, usually it was the chef that cooked as the others would have a gazillion of prep work to finish as well as a four hour service, I would in the meantime be baking the weekend cakes and helping the others whenever they needed a hand.
Out of the dishes this guy cooked, his Biryani was by far the most exquisite thing I had ever tasted when it came to Indian inspired dishes. He did it with great care, without skipping any stages, which are numerous. The Biryani would then go to cook at extremely low temperatures on the plancha until service was over, and everyone could enjoy a big plate of this dish. We used to sit on the step leading to the dry goods store room behind the shelves, eating it with our hands using bread to scoop the rice. I used to eat it the way they did, both out of respect and because it really does taste better that way.
This was the only meal we did not share with the floor staff upstairs, it was only for us, whenever we had some left over we would give a plate to the manager of the place who floated between upstairs and downstairs but that was it. During the fifteen minutes we used to allow ourselves to eat this food, we somehow came together, everyone spoke the same language, had the same skin colour and all the machismo vanished. It was a magical moment that only food and eating together can create. The Biryani memory is one I hold fondly and choose to keep in place of less pleasant ones, and I know that as long as I’ll live I will cook this dish, eat at least a plate of it with my hands, sitting on a step whilst remembering the hilarious gibberish coming out of the Filipino’s mouth.
Recipe for Fish Biryani.
I am giving the recipe for fish Biryani as it’s the one we used to have most often. Its Keralan inspired, and the fish inside is interchangeable with any other ingredient, it comes very nice with Portobello mushrooms or summer squash too for a vegetarian version. If you decide to make this dish, do it with conviction, do not skip any steps or else do not bother making it.
500g fish fillets of mild taste (plaice, cod )
1 tsp dried chilli
1 clove garlic (crushed)
2 stalks of lemon grass (crushed)
Mace, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander seed, cumin. (7g in total) fry the spice mix in a dry hot skillet, it will intensify the flavour.
1 kg basmati rice, rinsed and drained
400g cashew nuts
1 bunch fresh coriander
3 tomatoes chopped
500ml coconut milk
- Chop the fish into cubes and mix in all the spices namely the chillies, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, mace, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin and set aside for at least 45 minutes.
- To cook the rice, wash the rice well until the cold water runs clear, then drain well. In a heavy bottomed skillet heat 60g of ghee and fry the rice till it turns into a richer shade of yellow, at least five minutes this is a crucial step, it toasts the rice and gives it incredible flavour, it also keeps the rice really soft after cooking basically it’s the same principle as to why we sear a steak before braising it. Cover with 1 litre of boiling water and cover, let the water be absorbed by the rice, on low heat, it should not take more than 15 minutes.
- To make the ‘curry’ part of the dish, start by frying off the raisins and the cashew nuts in 65g of ghee, when coloured fry off the bunch of chopped coriander till crispy but still really green, set aside.
- In the same pan fry the fish and spice mix, when the fish turns opaque add the chopped tomatoes and coconut milk, do not overcook so that the sauce does not split.
- To assemble the dish you need a large oven proof bowl or dish (unlike the chef I bake my Biryani in the oven because I do not have a plancha at home) , with a brush cover all the sides and base of the dish with ghee and then start building the layers (Biryani is for Indians what Lasagne is for Italians) on the bottom goes a first layer of fish curry, then a layer of rice then a layer of fried raisins and cashews, then repeat, until you have used up all the ingredients, see that the top layer is composed of rice and the nut/raisin mixture.
- Cover with foil and bake at 160 degrees Celsius for about 1 hour.
- Serve with naan bread and lots of freshly chopped coriander.
- Eat with your hands, whilst listening to Guantanamera.