On a scale of one to ten, one being easy and ten being cry-inducing frustration, having my family teach me to cook the food I grew up eating is a three–I’m not as precise as they are when it comes to cooking and they’re not afraid to tell me. Getting at the meaning or translation of the names of those dishescomes in at about a nine. Most recently I tried to get to the bottom of why Sri Lankans refer to this pilaf as “tempered rice”. I started with the internet to try to avoid a confusing investigation over the phone, but when I struggled to get anywhere online…
Mom: Nana just called it tempered. (Referring to her mother.)
Me: Well, actually it seems that lots of Sri Lankans refer to it as tempered rice.
Mom: Oh, really?!
Me: Yes. But what is being tempered in this dish? (Tempering is a term used in cooking to refer to gradually incorporating something to avoid a drastic temperature or chemical change, I wondered if there was a related meaning here.)
Mom: Well, you can just call it fried rice. You’re asking for the blog right?
Me: No, it’s tempered rice, I just want to be able to explain how it differs from fried rice. Or where the “tempering” is happening here.
Mom: Well…you know…it’s sort of…tempered.
This was years ago and I’ve since learned that the whole heating spices and herbs in fat to extract flavour thing that my parents (and other Sri Lankan and Indian cooks) do is also referred to as tempering. Here, that results in the rampe, curry leaves and onion scenting every kernel of rice and that fragrance is a big part of the overall flavour that hits you when you take your first bite. If I didn’t sell you with that, there is one other thing.
This rice is fried in butter.
So think of this as Sri Lankan fried rice, butter-fried rice, or, of course, tempered rice. It’s extremely simple to make once you get your hands on rampe and curry leaves, both found at Asian grocers and online too. The chilies might make you think this dish is not one you’d serve kids, but the larger dried red chilies used here are relatively mild and easy to pick around. Mostly they impart flavour, not heat, but you can of course reduce the amount used. I mention kids here because this is a go-to dish for the moms in my family–the kids ask for it by name. And I really want to be around when they ask about where that name comes from.
This story and the recipe that goes with it can be found in “SRI LANKAN 101”, ISSUE 003 of Le Sauce Magazine! Please get it here: http://www.lesauce.com/app