Culinary Ambassador
Lankan spices and all that's nice in 'Burst of Flavors'
The day was sunny and breezy and the place was Doris Duke's Tudor-style mansion on the Atlantic coast in Newport, Rhode Island. The soup was perfect for that sunny day and the special guest was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The hint of ginger in the soup was refreshing against the slightly sweet and tart orange...

Asparagus Mousse:
Fit for Royalty

Sri Lankan master chef Kusuma Cooray concocted that special tomato-orange soup for Jackie O' when she was tobacco heiress Doris Duke's personal chef in the late 1970s.

Many years later, asked to prepare a special banquet for President Chandrika Kumaratunga as she hosted world leaders with Britain's Prince Charles as chief guest, she chose delicate Nuwara Eliya asparagus to create a tempting asparagus mousse flavoured with sweet, aromatic nutmeg.

Kusuma Cooray has spent the last 27 years away from home in faraway Hawaii, intermittently travelling around the world cooking for royalty and celebrities in turn. But she has never lost her taste for the spicy cuisine of her homeland and her first book launched last year celebrates the spices, both exotic and everyday, that flavour Sri Lankan cuisine.

The book was five years in the making. As a professional chef, she had all the culinary expertise at her fingertips but she also took the time to research extensively on the spices of Sri Lanka to bring out a volume where spices and herbs are used to enhance Western cuisine. Her husband Ranjith Cooray, who died last year, a botanist by profession helped immensely with the botanical names and the use of spices in Ayurvedic treatments etc. she recalls.

"There are lots of books written on cookery, but abroad people don't eat curries all the time and what I was aiming at was to show how spices can be infused with the Western style of cooking." Though the book was written primarily for a Western audience it is useful for people here too, as it shows them new ways with the spices and herbs they take so much for granted.

Kusuma Cooray is also Sri Lanka's consul in Hawaii and she felt the book would be an ideal vehicle to promote the expensive Lankan spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.

'Burst of Flavor' has sold extraordinarily well, surpassing her publisher's expectations and will soon go into its second print, she says. To novice cooks and experts in the field it is a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western, with recipes so delectable, they look straight out of a five-star kitchen, yet seemingly extraordinarily 'do-able', when presented in her clear, methodical style. Each recipe is introduced with valuable titbits and spicy nuggets of information. It is also beautifully illustrated. The photographer took one whole summer over it; he would only do two photographs a day, he was so meticulous, Ms. Cooray recalls.

There is sweet nostalgia as she describes the favourite dishes of her childhood. "I still remember the spice-rich chicken, beef and mutton curries I enjoyed as a child," she writes. "Each had its own distinctive blend of spices that gave it a special character. Chicken curry, the family favourite had a reddish-brown sauce poured over the chicken, which was almost falling off the bone. There were other times when the chicken curry was almost dry and had a dark, mahogany colour to it. We did not eat beef often, but when we did it, it was in thick succulent slices with lots of black pepper and golden brown onion rings." Stuff to whet the appetite certainly.

Yet, she is mildly critical of how little Sri Lankan cuisine seems to have adapted to the health demands and concerns of the present day. "Curries are still very oily," she comments, adding, "you don't really need coconut in everything."

Well-known in Hawaii, where she is associate professor and chief instructor of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, University of Hawaii, Kusuma Cooray's early interest in cooking was nurtured at home in Moratuwa.

As a young woman she pursued her interest in cooking, training at Le Cordon Bleu and the National Bakery School in London before moving to La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. Then it was off to Hawaii which is where she met and married Ranjith Cooray and began her career in teaching cookery. A stint as Executive Chef at the Willows and Banyan Garden restaurants in Honolulu helped establish her name in Hawaii. Over the years, she has trained hundreds of professional chefs and takes delight in the fact that she has introduced the magic of spices to them, for she does not believe in keeping Eastern and Western cuisine apart. "There is no unbridgeable gap between East and West and between Asian and other Pacific cultures of the world. Each has much to give the others. With appreciative handling, even the most foreign ingredients and flavours live together harmoniously and bring out the best in each other," she writes.

She is also a firm believer in cooks 'going by the feel, the smell,' of the food. "Don't be afraid to improvise, to substitute if you lack a particular ingredient," she urges.

Chef Cooray has also not omitted to share her expertise with Sri Lankan chefs and her university conducts regular exchange programmes with the Ceylon Hotel School Graduates Association.

So what of the future? "Once you start writing, it's difficult to stop," smiles this charming culinary ambassador for Sri Lanka and she is now just completing another book on cooking with fish.

Burst of Flavor will be launched on August 8 at 7 p.m at the Hilton Hotel.
- Renuka Sadanandan

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