One recent evening, I invited myself over to a stranger’s house for dinner. At one end of a long table that could easily seat 10, four place settings had been elegantly laid out for our group. There was cutlery for every course, and a printed menu with the list of dishes we would be trying. An eye-catching mural on the wall provided a striking backdrop, even as traffic snaked along Galle Road and the bejewelled city sparkled 23 floors below. The evening was setting itself up to be an exquisite one, save the minor detail that I had only met the person who would serve us our multi-course dinner five minutes earlier.
A living room might not be the most predictable location for fine dining in Colombo, but that fact only heightened the charm of the experience. A few days earlier, I had chanced upon the Facebook page of Contemporary Ceylon, a home-catering service with a difference. Launched by 25-year-old Andrew Speldewinde, a business consultant with Virtusa who is also an aspiring chef, the venture is a showcase for his distinctive, modern take on classic Sri Lankan flavours, served in the comfort of his home. Having speedily cobbled together a small group—the usual minimum requirement to book a Contemporary Ceylon dinner is six people—I prepared for the surprises that lay in store.
The biggest of these, of course, was the concept itself. Neither a fussy, restaurant-style meal nor a casual, home-cooked one, this one was poised to break fresh ground. A few days before the dinner, I swapped notes on the menu with Speldewinde, editing the line-up of dishes with additions and deletions keeping the dietary preferences of our group in mind. True to his signature style, he had a repertoire that consisted of a small number of highly intricate dishes. Of these, we ultimately settled for a five-course meal with more seafood courses than meat.
A warm yet professional host, Speldewinde preceded each course with a short description of the dish that he was about to serve. The first of these was tuna thel dala, a ceviche-style dish with raw tuna, inspired by the traditional technique of stir-frying everything from fish to potatoes. Served in small, asymmetrical bowls, the pieces of raw tuna came on a bed of gotukola and pea puree, topped with a lime foam. Having been marinated in oil with the concentrated flavour of onions and curry leaves, the fresh tuna referenced the oily flavour of the thel dala without actually soaking in oil. The puree and the foam lent a sharp counterpoint and much-needed freshness — eaten together, it was a dish that was startling in its subtlety and intelligence.
It was a sophisticated ambassador of Speldewinde’s unusual and evolved cooking style, which marries a deep respect for Sri Lankan ingredients and traditions with a passion for modern techniques and gadgetry. His Sri Lankan roots assert themselves in each of his creations, such as the dhal soup that was our second course. Most members of my group were sceptical about this dish before they tried it – it sounded too much like watered-down parippu curry. But Speldewinde had mentioned that his version had a base of Japanese dashi (or seafood broth) — I was intrigued. It’s hard to describe the depth of its flavour, and the enormity of our collective surprise. Mining a Burgher tradition followed in his family of adding a little bacon to dhal for Sunday lunch—(what a genius idea, who knew!)—his version of the universal classic had a compelling richness from bacon strips added to the soup, and a huge hit of umami from a tuna-and-seaweed stock. Bold yet perfectly restrained, this was a dish we had no difficulty imagining on a chic restaurant menu.
For most home cooks with professional ambitions, one of the biggest challenges is to make their food look as appealing as it tastes. This is a fact that Speldewinde seems to have wholeheartedly embraced. Inspired by his culinary idols, Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck and Ferran Adria of the now-shut El Bulli, he admits to putting a great deal of thought into the aesthetic appeal of his food. “I’m a huge gadget nerd,” he told us, except that in his case, that means a mini sous vide machine to cook meat and a canister for foams and espumas. There is an astonishing amount of visual and textural detail that goes into his cooking. “Each of my dishes has a minimum of four elements,” he said.
To his credit, each element is well thought out and flavours are meticulously paired. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the prawn in vanilla curry that was our third course. Drawing from the French tradition of cooking seafood with dairy and spices (such as a beurre blanc or a beurre noisette), the prawns were poached in a vanilla-infused butter sauce, and served with a prawn reduction. The surprise element was small cubes of naarang jelly made of the sharp local mandarin. Popping in the mouth like candy, they brought bursts of citrusy freshness to the dish. It was the equivalent of a squeeze of lime on grilled prawns, but in an innovative new format.
In the few months that he has been hosting these dinners, Speldewinde says one of the biggest challenges has been to “change the mindset of people”. “For no fault of theirs, Sri Lankans are quite conservative about food,” he said. “Food is one of their closely guarded comforts.” For his part, he believes that it’s important for classics to keep evolving. At least one Sri Lankan classic gets a completely contemporary makeover in the dish that he considers his signature: seeni sambol pork chop. The beloved sambol is broken down into three, extremely intricate, components: a seeni sambol gel, dehydrated seeni sambol flakes and onion flowers. The gel, which he says takes nearly three days to make, lends the first level of caramelised onion flavour; the dried flakes add a big hit of Maldive fish, and the onion flowers accentuate the rich onion flavour. Together with a clean piece of pork cooked sous vide on a bed of steamed rice, it is a dish that compels you to think about its flavours.
For Speldewinde, food is a lot more than flavour alone. “Food plays a key role in serving childhood memories and rekindling visits to faraway places,” he says. “Nostalgia is a big part of cooking.” A walk down the fond memory lane of childhood is exactly what we got with our fifth and final course, simply called Textures of Milo. In his homage to the beloved malt drink, it features in every element of the dessert: a light-as-air cloud of Milo-flavoured mousse dusted with Milo powder, on a bed of Milo shortbread biscuit crumbs. Each bite of the multi-textured dessert is a throwback to simpler times. Even those among our group who didn’t share my nostalgic fondness for the drink couldn’t resist the back-to-basics pleasure of this dessert. It was a fitting finale to a meal that caused me to bust my well-guarded stash of superlatives.
While Speldewinde’s carefully portioned plates may not appeal to those with a penchant for buffets, none of us left hungry. We were satiated, in the nicest possible way. More importantly, serving up strands of history, tradition and nostalgia in an utterly modern avatar, it was the kind of meal that was as cerebral as it was sensual. For that thrill alone, Contemporary Ceylon gets my unstinted praise.
(Visit the Contemporary Ceylon page on Facebook for contact details. You need a minimum group of six to sign up for the dinners. They cost approximately Rs. 3,000 per person depending on the number of courses desired.)
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