When we first took a young friend of ours for a sea bath and lunch to Hikkaduwa in the early 1970s, my father was surprised that the visitor was already a Professor at the University of Colombo. My father being from the earlier generation where they wanted to know the roots of the people, then put his foot-in-the mouth and asked where he came from. Our friend nonchalantly replied Panangala. To which my father said “you must indeed be a clever man then!” referring to some obscure held view that Panangala is the abode of fools.
While I cringed, the visitor did not take offence. He indeed was clever man and did go on to become a highly respected academic. He was none other than Vidya Jyothi Prof. V.K. Samaranayake. Good naturedly he laughed the episode off, had his sea bath, king coconut water from my father’s famous dwarf trees, lunch with ambul thiyal and declared that it was the best ambul thiyal he had eaten. The story didn’t end there. Many years after that, when VK visited us in Penang, he emphatically declared “Your ambul thiyal is not a patch on your mother’s!” A niggling nugget of truth that stayed with me for a long time. I then made a mental note to watch her making it and learn from her. Of course Amma’s preparation was the best, as she bought the fish fresh off the boats or got them as gifts from neighbhouring fisher families.
The gifts of fish were brought by the wives of fishermen who lived nearby. Invariably the women would borrow a couple of coconuts at a time during the monsoon season, get my mother to write letters for them (some were even to Danish lovers of their daughters!), borrow some jewellry to wear for a wedding, etc. etc. They would return the favours during the fishing season with gifts of fish. A good bartering format no doubt, for which we still get paid dividends in gifts like the fish above.
To get back to the cooking and rein in my wandering thoughts — what is so special about this dish. Ambul means sour and the origin of the word “thiyal” apparently comes from Kerala – where it means a burnt dish.
The essential ingredient is Goraka – Gambooge – the sundried fruit of a medium evergreen tree growing here and in some parts of Asia. The shrivelled, black acidic fruit acts as a preservative and was a way of keeping a cooked fish when there were no fridges. At our Hikkaduwa house, it is still cooked the day before an almsgiving in a huge clay pot balanced on the 3 bricks over a cinnamon stick fire.
Below is my mother’s original recipe as she showed me how to make it. She keeps ingredients minimum and simple and my notes say no cinnamon, garlic, onions, green chillies etc. I suspect this the way she learned to cook it from my paternal grandmother and her mother-in-law SK Pinto Hamy of Ambalangoda. Pinto Hamy might have made it for a husband KH Bastian de Silva,to take with him when he went on his business trips to the hill country in a bullock cart. Bastian was a building contractor, who is supposed to have constructed many houses for English Tea Planters, as well as the Nuwara Eliya Post office.
Ingredients & the way to do it
1 kilo tuna (Bala) fish – try to buy fresh with glistening skin and the eyes should be bright. If you open the gills under them the colour should be red.
Goraka about 5 large pieces, soften in a little hot water and ground to a paste — should form a ball about the size of a large lime!
Black pepper ground — about the same size of the Goraka
Chillie ( about 2 tspns) ground to equal half the size of the of goraka.
Wash the grinding stone and use that water to mix the ground ingredients into a thick paste. Now, your grinding stone might very well be a blender. So use minimum amount of water to make a thick paste.
The fish pieces are arranged in one layer in the clay “chattie,” Pour the thick ground paste over the fish, add salt and one sprig of curry leaves.
Do NOT add extra water. The paste should be thick.
Remember Do not add garlic, onions, green chillies, cinnamon, tumeric etc. When you add these, it becomes another fish curry!
Place pot over a slow fire to cook. After about 5 minutes on the fire, shake the pot so the pieces do not stick to the bottom of the pan. I remember the olden days, when they used a clay pot with burning coals on top, so the fish actually got baked slowly. Now, most of us cook on gas and the top clay pot is a forgotten entity and maybe not even in the memory of most.
The end result should be pieces of fish coated with a thick black sauce.
As I was writing this my memory turned, as it does on most days to my mother.
Whenever I visited her in Hikkaduwa, she would cook ambul thiyal,a big pot of my favourite kiri hodi — the coconut milk gravy and a lentils curry for me to take back to Colombo. The last ambul thiyal she cooked for me was on the morning of the tsunami day. I still hear her voice urging me to taste the ambul thiyal as she wanted to make sure it suited my taste for low salt. We were having breakfast laughing together sharing a joke about a trick my brother Prasanna had played on me.
After the first wave, and I was trying to get her to move to higher ground she said “All the food I cooked for you so lovingly must be spoilt now?” I had patted her hand, and put my arms around her hugging her saying “Not to worry, food can always be made later, let me get you to a safer place.” At that point, she and I both didn’t know Prasanna had left us forever or the enormity of our loss.
Amma was fiercely proud of her cooking but she never went back to cooking anything after that day.
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