I’m (sort of) back

So nine months after my last published blog entry, I’m finally back. 

Why the unexpected hiatus? Put simply, real life took over and chronicling various meals devoured became less important. 

K and I took possession of my apartment again (purchased in 2010, rented out to tenants while I was living in Sydney) and did a pretty intensive DIY-renovation over a month and a half. This included:

  1. stripping back, patching, and sanding all walls and ceilings
  2. ripping up all carpets and replacing with floating floorboards
  3. replacing all skirting boards and trim around doors and windows
  4. gutting out both built-in wardrobes and building a new wardrobe system
  5. removing all existing blinds and curtains and replacing it with plantation shutters.

Once all that was done, we obviously had to furnish and decorate the apartment, given that we had given away or sold all our furniture when we left Sydney and went travelling. 

During renovations, there came news of another significant life change. Our little family of two and a cat is expanding – K and I expect our first human child any day now. Naturally, this has become all-consuming in the past nine months with hours of research, education classes, appointments and shopping. 

Combined with renovations and family planning, there came also a particularly busy period at work where I (pretty much) single-handedly planned, organised, and ran a 400 person conference on top of my regular work duties. This called for many late nights, and an overwhelming desire to not stare at another computer screen by the time I got home.

All that’s now over. However it does beg the question – what will become of this blog now that my goals in life have shifted and my lifestyle will fundamentally change?

Food blogger may not be the right term to use anymore. I won’t be eating out enough to justify that. I have purchased a new All-in-One slow and pressure cooker though, so there may be recipes to share as I learn to master the art of pressure cooking.

Yet I don’t think I’ll ever be a mummy blogger. However, there’s no doubt there will be parenting-related posts when this child is born and I’m left both pulling my hair out in frustration and consumed by maternal love. 

Let’s just call this a chronicle of life. In the meantime, I’ll try to finish off and publish the nine (!) drafts of blog entries that have been languishing in the back end since March.

Review: The Gallery Cafe, Colombo, Sri Lanka

On our last day in Sri Lanka, the last members of our family tour group who were still in Colombo decided to go our separate ways for Christmas lunch. While most of the group went to Ministry of Crab for a meal, my father decided that it wouldn’t make sense for our group of four (father, brother, husband and I) to go as neither he nor my brother eat crustaceans! It would be a waste of money for them to pay $60AUD for a crab-based buffet lunch.

While I was a little bit disappointed as a crab-lover, I was also excited as it meant that we could visit somewhere that has become an icon for those who appreciate Sinhalese design, architecture and art – the Paradise Road Galleries.

The complex includes The Gallery Café where we ended up having lunch, but also includes an art gallery with rotating works, a shop with hand-crafted goods, and more.

The real highlight of the Gallery Café is the fact that it has been created out of the former offices of the great Sinhalese architect Geoffrey Bawa, arguably one of Sri Lanka’s most well-known and respected household names. The building itself then, is as much of a destination as its inspired international menu.

A sense of soul restoration begins as you step through the main doors into the first pavilion where a serene water feature somehow seems to melt away all the noises from the outside streets. Even though this area isn’t air-conditioned, it’s been designed in such a way to keep out most of Colombo’s stifling heat and humidity with a good amount of shade and consistent airflow.

Stepping into the restaurant, we were greeted with a wonderful display of cakes and sweets. It’s partly Christmas themed with some more season-appropriate cakes and puddings available, but your standard crowd pleasers of chocolate mudcakes, lemon meringue tarts and the like are still available.

We had an early lunch reservation commencing at 12pm – as we’d experienced elsewhere in Sri Lanka, it was a very early dining time for locals and so it wasn’t until about an hour later that tables started to fill up. Of course, most of the Sri Lankan population are Buddhist, so the family groups that came out for lunch were not dining out to mark Christmas as we were – they were simply there for a good meal. 

Iced Coffee (625 Sri Lankan Rupees), Virgin Frozen Strawberry Margarita (995 Sri Lankan Rupees), Virgin Colombo Sunset (525 Sri Lankan Rupees), Homemade Ginger Beer (445 Sri Lankan Rupees)

We started off with some drinks all around. Interestingly, while the menu did include alcoholic drink options, the waiter did inform us as we were being seated that they were not serving alcohol on that day. We weren’t told precisely why – perhaps it was a Poya Day? Whatever the reasoning, it didn’t affect us much as we were more than happy to go alcohol-free for our beverages. In the hot weather, having a chilled non-alcoholic beverage was actually preferable to a beer or a cocktail as it was more hydrating. 

Some soft white bread rolls to start – nothing fancy and potentially not baked in-house. The pats of butter were still very chilled, which made it particularly difficult to spread. It’s a minor problem, but does indicate a slight lack of attention to detail as leaving the butter out for just half an hour before serving it to guests would make it more spreadable.

Broccoli salad with avocado, lime and honey vinaigrette (945 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Three entrees to share – the first a Broccoli Salad with Avocado, Lime and Honey Vinaigrette. It’s an unusual salad and an unusual way of serving broccoli as a chopped, diced green mash. Though it may not look particularly appetising, the lingering crunch of the fresh broccoli and lettuce worked well with the soft avocado. The sweet yet sour honey vinaigrette simply set it all off.

Vegetarian Mediterranean Salad (995 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Another salad, as I tried to make up for ten days worth of not having enough green vegetables on our family tour around Sri Lanka! This Vegetarian Mediterranean Salad was a great combination of fresh cucumber, chickpeas, Spanish onion and raisins, with a similar honey vinaigrette dressing with a touch of mustard. What a great combination of textures – while I wouldn’t often use raisins in a savoury dish, the sweet softness worked really well with the crunchier cucumber and chickpeas. I like it, and I might use raisins in salads more often!

Batter Fried Whitebait (935 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Fried salt and pepper whitebait is a dish that you’ll often find on menus in Chinese restaurants. The trick is to keep the batter light, and to serve it when it’s still piping hot. I ordered this Batter Fried Whitebait to show Dad what fried whitebait in a non-Chinese style would taste like. The batter was a bit thicker in this fish-and-chip style fried whitebait, and was herbed for flavour. The accompanying aioli was just the right touch to give it a bit of a flavour booster. Dad’s verdict? Not bad, but not as good as Chinese-style fried whitebait! 

Beef goulash with green peas and potato mash (1675 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Beef Goulash isn’t a dish that I would normally associate with Christmas, but for some reason it was advertised on their Christmas specials menu. I won’t complain too much – I ordered this for Dad as he loves slow-cooked beef, and he was well-pleased with his dish. The buttery pea and potato mash on the side worked a treat for soaking up some of the rich goulash sauces, and the beef was cooked to the point of simply melting in one’s mouth.

Lobster, prawn and fennel lasagna (1975 Sri Lankan Rupees)

K opted for another seasonal special which again, isn’t one that I would consider a standard Christmas dish – Lobster, prawn and fennel lasagna. There’s one thing about it that does make it a remarkable Christmas dish though. The richness of both the tomato and bechamel sauce made it a particularly indulgent meal which is what Christmas is all about – overindulgence. 

Grilled lamb cutlets with potato wedges and mint sauce (3695 Sri Lankan Rupees)

My brother opted for some Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Potato Wedges and Mint Sauce. An easy and safe option, executed well with crispy crunchy seasoned wedges and well-grilled cutlets that had just the right amount of tender pinkness inside.

Grilled garlic jumbo prawns with potato wedges and green vegetables and garlic butter (2995 Sri Lankan Rupees)

I chose the Grilled Garlic Jumbo Prawns, again with potato wedges but green vegetables (bokchoy) as well. Unfortunately the garlic butter that was supposed to come out with my dish was only sent to our table ten minutes later, by which point I had already finished off half the plate. Still, it may not be a bad thing that I didn’t slather my prawns with garlic butter as they were more than tasty enough with its smoky grilled garlic flavours. 

Passionfruit and mango sorbet (865 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Onto dessert! One each naturally. K got the Passionfruit and Mango Sorbet, a seasonal special that is entirely reminiscent of the flavours of an Australian summer – or Australian Christmas. This was a wonderfully light dessert, a perfect palate cleanser for the warm weather with contrasting tart and sweet flavours.

Coffee Ice-cream (795 Sri Lankan Rupees)

Dad loves coffee, so ordered the Coffee Ice-Cream, served with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Just one bite of the ice-cream had him rolling his eyes with happiness – the coffee flavour was very strong and sharp, just like a particularly aromatic espresso.

Paradise Road Banana Split with Palm Sugar and Coconut Icecream (795 Sri Lankan Rupees)

I chose the house special of the Paradise Road Banana Split, which comes with the signature palm sugar ice-cream and coconut ice-cream. It was a particularly rich dessert with a strong sweet and caramel flavour base. A bit too much whipped cream for my liking though, and I would have preferred more of the chopped nuts on top for some texture. 

Strawberry Sundae (Strawberry red wine icecream with mascarpone, fresh strawberries soaked in red wine and almond praline (795 Sri Lankan Rupees)

My brother chose the Strawberry Sundae, which like the desserts that my father and I had, featured particularly strong and rich flavours. In this case, the overpowering flavour here was the alcoholic red wine which particularly permeated the strawberries making this a dessert which could leave you quite woozy by the end. 

Gallery Cafe offers something quite unique – high quality Western-style meals that are tinkered with to freshen and lighten them for a hotter and more humid climate. They use high quality produce, and cook substantial and tasty meals that satisfy all palates. Their varied ice-creams are a highlight, and I would always recommend ordering some of their refreshing and interesting salads to share.

It’s worth noting here that while the prices at Gallery Cafe are not outrageous by Australian standards, they are far beyond the average salary of local Sri Lankan. We paid more than four times the average daily minimum wage for a main meal – not even counting the cost of drinks, entrees and desserts. It’s a privilege to be dining at the Gallery Cafe, and I was hyper-conscious that we were having an experience that many locals would never get to enjoy.

So, if you’re lucky enough to visit Colombo, I do recommend the Gallery Cafe as a lovely place to have a meal – for the location and serenity of the venue as much as anything else!

The Gallery Cafe is located at 2 Alfred House Road in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Travel Tales: Sri Lanka Family Tour, December 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

I can count on one hand the number of family vacations I’ve been on. For most of my formative years, my family’s financial circumstances and the sixteen hour days, 362 days of the year that my parents worked in the takeaway shop meant that they couldn’t justify taking the time or money to go on holiday.

We took precisely two family holidays between 1991 when we arrived in Australia and 2004 when I turned 18. Once in 1998 when I finished primary school and my parents decided to go back to Hong Kong and Cixi to see our family. And once in 2004 when I finished high school and my parents decided to do the same thing again.

That was the last time I travelled with my whole immediate family.

Since my mother passed away, my father has been travelling more to see our family overseas – partly I think, to escape an empty house. What it does mean is that he’s become more comfortable with the idea of taking time off to travel and see different parts of the world.

Travel is of particular appeal to my father when he can do it with his loved ones. So not just myself, my husband and my brother but our extended family – my aunts, uncles, cousins. And so, before long, our planned family trip to Sri Lanka for my cousin’s wedding turned into a larger and longer family tour around the island in a big tour bus.

Our tour group numbered 23 people in all and included two sets of aunts and uncles, cousins, cousin’s partners, family friends, and our new Sri Lankan relatives. The logistics of travel with a group of that size will always be difficult as you try to cater to everyone’s preferences – which naturally, are very diverse. The difficulties are then amplified when you’re travelling in a country like Sri Lanka where everything runs on ‘island time’ and the travel industry is still very much in its infancy. Add in the fact that the tour guide will try to bend to everyone’s wishes to be polite rather than ruling the tour group with an iron fist as is usually warranted with a group of that size – and it’s a real perfect storm.

It would be fair to say that the first few days were not without their hiccups. Veteran travellers in the group wanted to have more street food and more authentic non-tour-group experiences. Trying to take everyone on that authentic journey is near-impossible when you’re eating at small un-airconditioned stalls that can’t cater adequately for a tour group of our size. On the flip side, the older members of our group really struggled with the oppressive heat and humidity of Sri Lanka, and found it difficult to stay out of air-conditioning for much more than an hour. You can’t see much of the country from air-conditioned hotel rooms and tour buses. Finding that balance between the two opposing dichotomies was an interesting experience.

While the logistical aspects of a big family group tour had its challenges, there were definite highlights to the trip as well. My own personal highlight was a twilight safari tour we did in Kaudulla National Park where we saw herds of elephants by the water, birds in flight, and even a fox feeding on a carcass. Interestingly, one of the herds of elephants was moving around and mingling with a herd of cows that had once been domesticated but had escaped into the national park years ago.

I also enjoyed the time spent on a train to Nuwara Eliya (motion sickness not withstanding) – an old blue train winding its way through lush green forests and jungles, past distant waterfalls and into tea plantation country with curved waves of tea plants lining the hills as far as the eye can see. The time in Nuwara Eliya itself with its beautiful Colonial-era architecture was particularly pleasant with the higher and cooler climate proving to be a nice respite from the humidity elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

I’m a big nerd for cultural and historical facts as well – so I enjoyed visiting temples and the ruins of ancient Sinhalese cities. I would have preferred more of that style of historical tour to be honest, but that kind of learning-based tour wasn’t to everyone’s taste so we cut short visits to some places where I would have liked to spend more time. There’s always next time!

One final highlight – visiting and climbing Sigiriya, the site of a former palace of a dictator Sinhalese king, Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura. It is breathtaking in sheer physical size and you feel a real sense of achievement when you manage to climb all the way to the top of the rock. What I enjoyed though was the history that you could see in every part of the grounds – from the foundations of the ancient water gardens and palaces to the crude wall paintings hidden halfway up the rock. Hearing the details of the story of this dictator king was a real highlight, and helped to bring some of Sri Lanka’s history to life.

Food-wise, after a few missteps with attempting to feed 23 people at streetside stalls, we ended up eating primarily at air-conditioned, hygienic and overpriced restaurants that could cater for large tour groups. While sometimes that meant Sri Lankan curries (some of my go-to favourite options were the stir-fried kang kong and an eggplant dish called Brinjal Moju), other times it meant having a slightly bastardised Western-style meal. Not ideal, but practical…and if I’m being honest, even in those tame tour-friendly restaurants, I found it hard to have a bad meal!

At the end of the day, whatever challenges we faced along the way are the same challenges that you might face with your family under any circumstances – no matter if it’s on holiday or at home. Finding that balance between generational and personal preferences is what family relationships are all about.

I wouldn’t give up the trip for anything. Looking back now, or in five, ten or twenty years time I know that there will be only one thing that comes to my mind – the quality time I got to spend with my extended family. As K and I start to look towards the next stage of our lives and the possibilities of starting our own family, opportunities for being with extended family will begin to fade away. I’m grateful for the time that I had with them – heaven knows I didn’t get to spend enough quality holiday time with my mother before she passed away.