By TAN BEE HONG
TWO years after its first Jaffna Food Festival, A Li Yaa held its second event from Feb 17-19.
Again, executive chef Siva Suppaiya and guest chef Dr. Parvathy Kanthasamy put their heads together to craft an exciting menu.
Originally from Yalpanam Sri Lanka, Parvathy is a linguistics professor who now resides in Canada but visits her restaurateur son regularly in Kuala Lumpur.
In fact, she is the brains in the kitchen at A Li Yaa, so family favourites liberally punctuate the menu.
I watched as Parvathy made mint sambal the old-fashioned way, with a batu giling. She’s not a stickler for going by the book.
“I love experimenting, and I do incorporate new ingredients into old recipes such as rosemary, thyme, mint and coriander, which are not traditional Sri Lankan ingredients,” she said, throwing a bunch of chopped mint and peeled garlic on the batu giling.
On the first floor, stalls are set up with appetisers, vegetarian dishes, main dishes, dessert and a live cooking station.
Customers sip glasses of cold toddy before starting with appetisers ... banana blossom, mango sambal, odiyal kool (thick crab-shrimp soup) and rasam.
There’s even more at the cooking station at the end, with an amazing variety of sambal, including mint, cucumber, kick-ass mango, shallot, bittergourd, ginger-coconut and Jaffna-style eggplant sambal!
The thin slivers of eggplant are deep fried and tossed with caramelised onion, chilli, tomato and curry leaves.
Perfect on its own with a swig of beer or a sip of toddy. There are two types of ash plantain (banana) sambal, too.
Pittu is made to order. These steamed cylinders of ground rice layered with desiccated coconut are great, whether eaten with curry or jaggery (palm sugar).
I spot a new dish, jackfruit seeds. One bite, and I am hooked. It’s cooked to softness in a dry creamy sauce.
It sits with the vegetarian choices of mango curry, snake gourd and lentil, brinjal curry, beetroot varai, dry moringa curry, pumpkin, sodhi, bitter gourd and banana blossom, shredded and tossed with desiccated coconut, dried chilli and curry leaves.
Across the aisle, the table groans under the weight of chicken curry, swordfish curry, dry curried prawn, calamari and potato, mutton pal poriyal and two crab curries.
The fresh, crunchy prawns have the right balance of spices to bring out their best side.
The mutton is slow cooked in a well-balanced combination of spices. It is tender and scrumptious, and for those who enjoy it, there are marrow bones for sucking.
The Jaffna mud crab curry cooked in a sauce, is as exciting as it is dark, and finger-licking good.
The Blue Swimmer Crab comes in a curry gravy bursting with crustacean sweetness.
The dessert table is filled with sesame balls, kokis (crisp rice flour pastry), rava laddu, wattalappam and payatham paniyaram. Best of all, these aren’t overly sweet. I love the wattalappam, a soft jaggery coconut custard heady with spices.
There are two hot items: Rasavali kilangu (purple yam porridge) and mung bean with coconut bits.
I prefer the latter, as I am not fond of the strong aroma of cardamom in the yam.
But my all-time favourite is sweet appam, with generous lashings of coconut cream and brown sugar to give it a fluffy, moist heart.
Tan Bee Hong is a food critic-cum-blogger at fatphoenix.my. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.