Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Let me entertain you

There is not much in way of entertainment in Jaffna. As a matter of fact, there is next to nothing: two local restaurants boasting 10 page menus, that really all taste like two dishes, both of which close shortly after 9pm (people are still used to that old curfew and old habits are hard to break). There is one bar-type setting, the only one that serves alcohol (namely beer), and where patrons can plug in their own ipod for music, a bar frequented mainly by internationals, and which, coincidentally, was located at the guest house where I spent my first month here. You can understand that I’m not yet eager to rush back and spend any idle evening there. I might add that these three food and drink settings are outdoors, and the heat and/or the humidity quickly make it uncomfortable to linger too long.

As a step away from this fray, those of us here on our own (translate: internationals as this is a no-family duty station) try to break the lull of daily routine by meeting up for the occasional non-Sri-Lankan dinner or drinks at one of our houses. While I was without a home, I was on the receiving end of a few of these kind invitations, and now that I had finally put together all the main pieces of my flat, I felt it was time that I held a dinner of my own. The exact words in my invitation were “I keep waiting to make sure the flat is in good shape, and have now resolved that it is probably as good as it’s going to get”. The second part is probably what moved them into happily wanting to join “though it will be Halloween, unfortunately, the only scary thing offered will be the couple of dishes that I am attempting to cook for the first time”. Yes, I believe that must have been what tipped them to accept my invitation. My mother would be proud of that magnanimous offer of hospitality.

With those provisos in place for my biggest fears of failure, I set out to put the evening together, so to speak. On the day, I rose early in part so that I would have ample time to do the necessary grocery shopping and cooking, and in part so that I can put my mind at ease that I would be able to find some essential items for the dinner… such as a large pot and a glass casserole dish. In a town like Jaffna, I was pretty sure I would find all the food items I would need for the dinner (I had, after all, fashioned the menu around what could be found in the local produce market), but you can never know if anyone held your desired kitchen ware in stock. Though I was aware I’d need these two items for the only two Lebanese dishes I was making that night, I did not, in truth, have the opportunity to go out looking for them on any earlier day. Which brings us to that morning…

I didn’t want to waste any time walking to town (a good 40 minute stroll one way) so I called the tuc-tuc driver that one of my Sri Lankan colleagues had referred me to. Sri was a lovely older man who was my colleague’s trusted transportation when her husband was too busy to drive her around, the only problem was that he spoke no English. I met Sri and we exchanged phone numbers, he was directed to my building, and we agreed that any time I called, I would just specify a time, and hour, in which I wanted him to arrive, and he would either agree or respond with another time if he could not make it as requested. Thus our phone negotiation would simply be an exchange of numbers on a clock. I must confess that I delighted in the novelty of this type of communication that I didn’t even ask if my colleague knew any other driver who spoke English.

This system with Sri was tested on that morning. The only tiny mishap was that he arrived an hour too early, but then it was easy to communicate through my security guard and instruct him to return later. Sri would turn out to be quite a lifesaver mainly because the skies opened up to buckets of rain as I emerged from my very first shopping stop. It was where I was thrilled to find the glass casserole dish, though I suspected it might be too large for my electric oven, and made sure it was clear in every language that I could return it if that was the case. The fragility of this glass item, and the 4 flimsy wine glasses I had just purchased, now became my obsession as I waded through the quickly flooded street to where Sri was waiting. It poured as I went to the vegetable market, where the sellers became quite amused with my enthusiastic piece-meal increase in the quantities I was buying, fearing as I saw each bunch weighed that it might be too little for dinner (I was wrong, and ended up with stocks and stocks of onions, tomatoes and eggplants for the week to come). It poured as I squished into the store where I gleefully found my pot, and it stopped raining ever so slightly about an hour later as I got back into Sri’s tuc-tuc for the ride home. Perhaps I should mention that, since it was clear skies when I left the house that morning, I had gone through this day with no umbrella, but was happy to report that my new Crocs paid for themselves.

Finally home with my stocks (again, since I had to make a u-turn back to the first store because the casserole dish was indeed too big for my oven), I set out to prepare the food.

I truly wasn’t making anything too complicated, I just wanted to give the others a small taste of Lebanese cooking, so had planned to make ‘moudardara’ (since lentils were in abundance here) and an improvised dish of lightly fried or caramelized vegetables in pomegranate paste. As my guests hailed from various countries, none of them Arabic, I feared that (a) I would make the dishes perfectly, but they wouldn’t like them, or (b) that I would mess up the dishes, or (c) that there wouldn’t be enough food (nothing to do with their tastes or ethnic backgrounds, just a constant fear of mine when I entertain). So, as a backup, I had asked the cleaning lady at our office, who is an excellent cook, to make a large quantity of a Sri Lankan dish that I knew a few of my guests had not tasted before. This helped assuage my fears, and proved an amazing contribution to deflect fear (c) as I ended up with such abundant leftovers, I could have quite easily held another dinner the following day (or two).

All in all, the dinner was a great success. It’s true that I forgot to bring out the juice and soft drinks from the fridge, thinking that I would have the clarity of mind to serve people as they came in (what was I thinking?!), and it’s true that the lentils didn’t quite cook through (who knew I had to soak them the night before and not just for a couple of hours?), and it’s true that we almost ran out of plates (despite the bunch I had borrowed from the office’s kitchen)… but the rest of the food was good, the other drinks were a-plenty, and the company was quite entertaining.

I flopped into bed that night relieved that all had gone relatively well, before I felt a particularly painful crink in my back, and realized that I had absent-mindedly spent the whole day on my feet … my body retaliated and I spent the following day on my back.

Ah well, all for a good cause… and good thing I won’t need to be entertaining again anytime soon!

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