Eating with Elephants & Elizabeth Taylor: It’s Dinner and a Movie Night, Ceylon Style!!

Hope you are hungry this week fellow kitcheners! Tonight’s post is all about a feast for the eyes, the imagination and the belly. Welcome to Week 8 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Welcome to Ceylon…

Last week we were in Canada making a Walnut Tart and learning all about maple trees. This week we are traveling 8,400 miles east to the lost land of Ceylon, the first stop in our Recipe Tour that involves a country that no longer exists. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The landscape itself still exists but the country has been renamed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. This automatically adds a sentimental bit of nostalgia to our cooking endeavors this week. So what exactly led to such a big change in our world history?

An old trading map of Taprobane. Photo courtesy of lankapura.com

In a nutshell, this is what happened. Ceylon was a British ruled country beginning in 1815. Before that, the country was known by a variety of different names including Taprobane, Ceilao and my personal favorite, Serendip, which is where we get the word serendipity from.  In 1948, Ceylon established independence from Britain but it wasn’t until 1972 that they changed the name of their country to something that was more reflective of their unique heritage. They chose the name Sri Lanka which means Island of Resplendence, a positive, empowering moniker that let the world know they were ready to shine proudly, brilliantly, and independently all on their own accord. Tonight’s recipe dates to 1971, the year just before Ceylon changed names and took on a new identity.

Camellia sinensis – the base of all tea plants

Most tea drinkers today know about historic Ceylon because of the famous tea that came from there- a black variant steeped in antioxidants that boasts all sorts of health benefits. As a favorite known around the world, Sri Lanka’s current tea industry contributes over a billion dollars a year to their economy. Other local treasures hail from this island nation too. Important food exports include coconuts and spices. On the International Vintage Recipe Tour this week we are featuring all three of these noteworthy commodities – two in recipe version (coconuts and spices) and one in movie version (tea).

1930’s Map of Ceylon

On the menu this week we are making Ceylon Curry – a spice infused chicken recipe that involves a marinade, a slow simmer, and a freshly made batch of homemade coconut milk. For entertainment, tonight’s dinner is paired with a sweeping 1954 melodrama of a movie called Elephant Walk, which stars Elizabeth Taylor and takes place on a tea plantation in Ceylon.

Liz plays Ruth, an English bride who moves to Ceylon with her new husband. There he runs a tea-plantation first started by his father years ago, called Elephant Walk. Filled with excitement and anticipation at this exotic new life ahead, Ruth, upon arrival, quickly discovers a world very different than what she had anticipated, and a husband very much changed from his wooing days back in England.

Natural beauty and a luxurious environment make up her new home, but Ruth learns almost immediately it is not a peaceful paradise.  As it turns out the plantation was built, decades ago by her father-in-law, right in the middle of the migratory walking path to water made by the local elephants during drought season. This off-handed act of careless  disregard for the natural instincts of the elephants has created a hostile environment between man and animal, leaving everyone’s defenses constantly on guard.  To make matters more uneasy, Ruth’s husband (played by Peter Finch) is still controlled by his dead father’s arcane rules when it comes to running not only his business but also his personal life.

Busy with the management of the tea business by day and carousing with his friends at night, he has little empathy for Ruth, a stranger in a new land, and little desire to restructure his life in order to accommodate his new wife. Curious and questioning, Ruth is the only non-native woman on the plantation.  An intelligent, independent, feminine creature, she is set adrift among a sea of old-school men who possess a boy’s club- type mentality. Nothing seems to make sense to her once she arrives in her new home. She doesn’t have any direction, doesn’t understand her purpose and doesn’t understand her husband, yet she is determined to figure things out.  Trying to navigate this complex world leads to a growing kinship that develops with her husband’s business manager (played by Dana Andrews), who also happens to be the only person on the plantation that will talk to her about anything important, including the ostentatious ways of her father-in-law and the mysterious and powerful hold he still has on everyone at Elephant Walk.

While the plantation environment is glamorous and decadent, Ruth must continuously adjust her attitudes and behaviors in order to keep her marriage together. When she can’t stand the peculiarities of life in this strange world one more minute and decides to flee back to England, a cholera outbreak occurs keeping her quarantined within the boundaries of the plantation. I won’t tell anymore about the story so as not to spoil the ending but you’ll see from this trailer that lots of drama happens throughout the movie…

Filmed on location in Ceylon, it’s is a wonderful glimpse into the exotic culture and landscape of vintage Sri Lanka. Some of the scenes were filmed in and around an actual tea company, so we get to see a little bit about how tea is made (or used to be made anyway!)…

Tea leaf gatherers.
Tea equipment on the right, brooding husband on the left:)

and there are lots of scenes that feature the lush and verdant country landscape…

Vintage clothes lovers will appreciate beautiful Liz and her Parisian wardrobe…

Originally, Vivian Leigh was scheduled to play the lead role, but she suffered from a nervous breakdown at the start of filming. Elizabeth Taylor was called in to replace her.

as well as the safari clothes and tuxedos worn by the guys…

That’s Peter Finch on the left and in top right corner. Dana Andrews is in the bottom right.

There’s a party scene that involves traditional dances and a kitchen scene so immense in size and scope it would boggle the mind of any home cook.  There was even a dinner scene complete with curry and rice!

If you aren’t familiar, curry comes in lots of colors. In this scene in the movie it was green. In our recipe this week it is red. But also in my pantry, I have orange curry, yellow curry and brown curry. That’s because there is no such thing as a universal curry.  Curry is a conglomeration of different spices all blended together. There is curry on the sweet side, curry on the spicy side, curry that is mild, curry that is intense and curry that has been infused with different seeds and aromatics.  Each version is unique in taste and scent.

The curry I used for this recipe is a red Thai Curry that was made of finely ground paprika, lemongrass, salt, shallots, galangal, cumin, coriander, chiles, pepper, cilantro, garlic, lime leaves, basil and spearmint. But you can use any kind of curry powder you like for this dish.  If you have a spice shop in your neighborhood, I highly recommend getting your curry powder there since it will be most fresh and flavorful, yielding an optimal culinary experience.

While Elephant Walk immerses us visually in the sights of Ceylon, this week’s meal immerses us in the scents of Ceylon. Tonight’s dinner is two recipes in one. The first is for homemade coconut milk and the second is for chicken curry. Both are easy to make but the coconut milk is labor intensive. If you are short on time, just buy a can of coconut milk and add it to the curry.

I have never made, or even thought about making homemade coconut milk before, so I was excited to try it. Basically it involves cracking open two coconuts, scooping out the meat and then blending it with water in the blender. It sounds simple. It sounds easy. It sounds like a 10 minute project.  I warn  you now this step takes some time (about 45 minutes per coconut) and it takes a little bit of muscle to crack the coconuts open and to scoop out the flesh. It’s a messy endeavor even if you are a meticulously tidy cook and it involves tools.  You’ll need a hammer, a heavy chef’s knife or cleaver, a strong butter knife, a vegetable peeler, cheese cloth and a medium to large funnel.

I made everybody a bit nervous when I posted a sneak peek video on Instagram on Sunday about the tricky aspect of chopping open a coconut. (If you missed it, click here and scroll through the sneak peek videos until you get to week 8.) It took about a minute and a half to crack open each coconut.  I used the backside of the cleaver so there really was no threat that I would chop a finger or a hand off, but I’m truly grateful that everyone was so worried for my limbs!  I’m happy to say everything is still intact, fingers and hands, and I’m more knowledgeable for having experienced the procedure. The whole task just takes a little bit of bravery, some good firm wacks with the knife and a steady determination to see the project complete. Eventually victory comes.  I’m sure this is one of those skills that improves the more often you do it. Maybe by the year’s end, we will all be experts at cracking those coconuts.

In the meantime, I must say, cracking coconuts was a pretty fun experience all the way around. There was lots of laughing during this process, bits of coconut shell went flying all around the kitchen and there was even a little impromptu competition between my husband and I about who could crack a coconut faster. He won. By a significant amount of time. So I’d encourage you to make your own homemade coconut milk at least once, just for the experience of doing it. Even though it may sound daunting and isn’t 100% necessary to the total overall taste of the recipe (a canned version would suffice just the same) you might discover a new sense of joie de vivre and camaraderie in the kitchen.

Coconut Milk Made in a Blender

(Makes about 4 cups)

2 coconuts

4 cups hot water

Once the coconuts are cracked open. Discard the water inside. Get out your hammer. Turn each coconut half skin-side down on top of a few sheets of paper towels and bang away at it until the shell either 1) falls away from the coconut meat or two separates enough that you can slide your butter knife between the outside shell and pry the meat out. This is the messy part, as coconut chucks may go flying around around your kitchen from both the hammering and the prying.

Once you remove the hard shell there will be a softer brown shell attached to the meat which you’ll peel off with the vegetable peeler. The recipe calls for two coconuts, however, you don’t need that much milk for the recipe, so if you don’t 3 cups of leftover coconut milk hanging around in your fridge, then just use one coconut.

how-to-make-homemade-coconut-milk-in-a-blender

Once the coconut meat from one coconut is peeled, cut it into chunks, toss it in the blender and pour two cups of very hot water over the meat. Blend it on high for about 3-4 minutes until thoroughly blended.

Line a funnel with cheese cloth and set the funnel inside a large mason jar. Pour the mixture into the cheese cloth in batches. When it has finished dripping into the jar squeeze the remaining coconut pulp that hasn’t drained through the cheese cloth directly into the mason jar to extract as much liquid as possible. (Note: at this stage the leftover coconut pulp looks and feels a lot like flaked candle wax.) Then discard the pulp and repeat until you have emptied your blender and there is no more coconut meat to process. Two coconuts should yield about four cups of coconut milk. Refrigerate coconut milk until ready for use.

Ceylon Chicken Curry

(serves 6)

2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken cutlets

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 one inch cinnamon stick

3 tablespoons curry powder

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

3 bay leaves

2 cardamom seeds (or 2 pinches of ground cardamom)

Cayenne pepper to taste (this is optional – I didn’t use it since my curry powder already ha some spiciness to it)

3 tablespoons butter

2 onions, chopped

1 green pepper, seeded and sliced

1 cup coconut milk

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Cut the chicken into small chunks and place in a bowl. Add the salt, pepper, vinegar, cinnamon, curry powder, garlic, ginger, two bay leaves (crushed), one cardamom seed or one pinch of dried cardamom, and cayenne (if using).  Mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to 24 hours. (I marinated mine for about 12 hours).

Heat the butter in a dutch oven or a large saucepan and add the onion, the remaining bay leaf and cardamom seed (or pinch of ground cardamom) and the green pepper. Cook briefly (about 5 minutes) over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Then add the seasoned chicken and cook stirring occasionally, until the liquid is partly absorbed (about 5 minutes).

Then cover and cook 45 minutes over low heat.

When the chicken is tender, add the coconut milk and simmer, covered for 10-15 minutes. Add the lemon juice just before taking the pan off the heat, but keep stirring until it has been incorporated. Then you are ready to serve it.

I suggest serving this curry over a bed of jasmine rice accompanied alongside a glass (or two!) of cold white wine – preferably a varietal that sits on the sweeter side.

As I’ve  mentioned occasionally on the blog before, I’ve been a big fan of curry for a long time and have tried handfuls of different recipes. This is by far, my most favorite to date.    The curry itself is so full of flavor, I can’t wait to try it with other types of curry powder to see how the tastes change. The coconut milk adds a brothy consistency that is lovely for sopping up with bread or extra rice and offers a creamy contrast between the spiciness of the curry.

Marinating the chicken ahead of time (a new concept for me!) makes each piece so tender. Just like a slow-cooked chili or stew recipe, it only tastes better the longer it sits in its juices. All in all, this was just a joy of a recipe. Even the tricky coconut chopping wound up adding a new theatrical element to the kitchen that was fun and unexpected.

While you are enjoying your dinner… the other thing I suggest is turning on the movie (you’ll find it on Amazon), and turning off your phone or any other ringing, blinging and beeping devices.  Just for the next two hours immerse yourself in all the sights, sounds and tastes of vintage Ceylon. By meal’s end, you’ll have experienced a brief encounter with a lost country through vibrant cinematic and culinary storytelling.

Cheers to vintage Ceylon and to magical movies and recipes that transport us! Join us next week as we head to China where we make an unusual dish that involves specialty papers and curious methods.

7 thoughts on “Eating with Elephants & Elizabeth Taylor: It’s Dinner and a Movie Night, Ceylon Style!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.