The Sri Lankan Arrack Martini – the Serendipitini

  
I have been working on this concept for a long time. It’s not a true martini, but it aims to serve a similar purpose, especially for those in Sri Lanka, perhaps without access to gin or vermouth.

I resisted pressure to name it the Tamil Tiger Martini (it’s fiery, complex and deadly) as this would feel wholly inappropriate after Sri Lanka’s bitter internal tragedy. Instead I have opted for the Serendipitini.

Serendib was the old Arabic word for Sri Lanka. It means ‘lucky surprise’ and is where the word Serendipity comes from. Sri Lanka is full of lucky surprises, not least its alcoholic delights.

 
Having previously lived in Sri Lanka I developed a strong taste for their national spirit: Arrack.

  
The drink is very distinctive, but then so is its production method.

Very early in the morning, toddy-tappers climb up coconut trees in certain parts of Sri Lanka. They are there to harvest a very special type of sap.

If you cut the flowers in a certain way they produce a light, sweet liquid which the British colloquially referred to as ‘toddy’. With its high sugar content this liquid starts to ferment almost immediately and has become alcoholic by breakfast time.

It can be drunk straight from the bottle, although you might have to scrape ants off the top layer – I’m afraid I’m not kidding.

  
It is totally organic, fresh and tastes heavenly. However, given its cheapness, some Sri Lankans might not approve of foreigners consuming it, depending on who you talk to. It is sometimes seen as a poor-mans drink (because it literally grows on trees) so you might be expected to try something more refined (i.e. produced in a brewery or distillery). However, you must persist and obtain some! It’s a delight to drink at the beach after breakfast. Spend the morning happily sipping it in the sun. However, note that the liquid will start to ferment to unhealthy levels by about 11am. If you drink it after this time, or consume any of the sediment that builds up in your bottle, you could end up with an upset stomach. You should also avoid sealing any containers which carry toddy. As it ferments, the pressure can build up and the container can burst. Don’t shake the liquid either!
So that’s toddy, the wonder drink that has been gifted to mankind.

But what if you don’t want to drink in the morning?

Large quantities of the liquid are extracted each morning and allowed to ferment naturally. This liquid is then distilled to create Arrack.

The beverage has been compared to whisky or rum in flavouring. It can be fiery, but with strong notes of caramel to mellow out the flavour.
During my time in Sri Lanka we would mix it with coca cola, ginger beer (very refreshing), fresh lime juice (with limes gathered from the garden) or we would drink it neat (sometimes referred to as ‘raw’ on the island). Trendy cocktail bars in Colombo (and even London) often pair it with a range of flavours such as mango juice or cinnamon.

However, I always felt that these flavours masked the arrack. I like to channel Marcel Proust; the aroma sniffed from a bottle alone is enough to transport me back to the lush green Hill Country or the transcendent beaches of Trimcomalee.

As such, I wanted to create a drink that enhanced the rich, syrupy arrack character rather than smothering it in a pot pouri other flavours. I also wanted to create a drink that contained elements of the classic martini, such as temperature and powerful subtlety. 

A cold drink is extremely welcome after a hot day in Sri Lanka so I keep the arrack in the freezer for a day before serving. If it’s good quality it shouldn’t freeze solid.

I also wanted to embrace the martini concept of simplicity so I decided to pair the arrack with only one other flavour.

A classic gin martini is very much enhanced by the citrus flavouring of lemon oil, squeezed from a strip of peel. Arrack is also enhanced by citrus so I decided to play around with the concept of lime-cello. This is essentially limoncello but made with limes instead.

  
Limes, known in Sinhala as ‘dehi’ are widely available and consumed in Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan garden can often resemble an overgrown forest from a distance, but upon closer inspection you will find that most contain a veritable cacophony of consumable fruits. If you can harvest your own for this recipe I’m sure it will taste much better.
  

  • Wash and zest 6 limes
  • Put the peel in a jar and add 400ml vodka

  

  • Seal the jar and leave it to infuse for 3 weeks
  • Give it a shake every couple of days

  

  • Strain the vodka and discard the zest (squeeze it out as much as you can first)
  • Dissolve 4 tablespoons of sugar in 100ml freshly boiled water
  • Not all of it will dissolve but don’t worry. Once the mixture has cooled down give it a shake  and add it to the infused vodka.
  • That’s it. It’s very easy, you just have to wait a few weeks for it to infuse.
  • Like the arrack, I like to keep it in the freezer for at least 24 hours before serving.
  • When it’s time to pour, take a strip of lime peel and squeeze it into a chilled martini glass, then rub it around the glass to transfer as much of the citrus oil as possible.
  • Add the lime-cello to taste (around 40ml) then top up with arrack (around 110ml)
  • Stir well using the lime peel (which you can then use as a garnish).
  • Serve

Be warned, it’s slightly bitter and very strong. Nonetheless, it’s definitely a nice way to end a day of working in Colombo, going on Safari in the country’s many beautiful nature reserves, hiking around the country’s rich architectural heritage or just spending the day at the beach.

In terms of selecting arrack I usually drank Very Special mark in Sri Lanka but i would generally get just what I could get my hands on.

A very good friend from Colombo brought me back some Ceylon Arrack. In a beautiful bottle and probably the most commonly seen in a cocktail bar I would describe the arrack as light, smooth and pure – a really refined taste and certainly the best one I’ve encountered for an Arrack-Virgin. Otherwise you may find some of the others to be a bit more viscous and/or fiery.
  
Note that in Sri Lankan drinking culture it’s almost sacrilegious to drink without eating something at the same time. There is an array of bites you could serve with this. Devilled prawns or cuttlefish spring to mind, or a simple bite mix    (usually referred to internationally as Bombay Mix).

  

It may not be Kandy, but this is as close as I will get to the island of Serendipity. Otherwise try Sekara in Victoria for authentic Sinhalese cooking, and a range of restaurants in Tooting and Croydon for good Tamil food.

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Salmon tartare canapés

Olives are the nibble most closely associated with martinis but I always think that seafood is one of the best matches. It’s fresh, cold and goes well with citrus, just like a good martini. Consuming seafood also brings its own element of danger (food poisoning? Mercury?), much like the danger associated with drinking a strong martini.

So here is a simple and easy recipe for a seafood canapé to serve when you pour a drink.

 

Salmon tartare served on ritz crackers combines chilled, zesty, silken fish on a crunchy carb base.

Finely chop the solid ingredients listed below then mix everything well and serve immediately.

For 100g of chopped, skinless, boneless salmon add:

  • The zest of a lemon
  • A squeeze of lemon juice
  • A finely shredded square inch of onion
  • A smudge of wasabi paste (optional)
  • A teaspoon of chopped capers
  • A teaspoon of chopped chives
  • A teaspoon of sesame oil
  • A teaspoon of Sriracha sauce
  • A pinch of sesame seeds (optional)

The mixture should be plenty for a large number of ritz crackers. Depending on how much you spoon on each it could make over 20.

You could also serve the mixture on miniature blini, which I like very much.

  
If you have to remove the salmon skin with a sharp knife you can roast it with a little bit of salt and oil for a crunchy side dish.

  
You can serve it as part of a full meal. Here I’ve dished it up with more salmon tartare and some grilled courgettes.

Or you could simply serve the roasted skin dabbed with a little sweet chilli sauce, which makes an unusual snack to serve with a martini.

Note that there are numerous variations of the above tartare recipe so I would recommend experimenting – although always ensure that the fish is extremely fresh!

A hot drink for a cold

Two days later and I’m still sick, at home, restless but lethargic at the same time. So here is a post about a hot drink I made to try and alleviate some of my cold symptoms.

You will need:
-Lemon
-Ginger
-Garlic
-Hot water
-Turmeric (optional)
-Chilli flakes (optional)
-Whisky or brandy or rum (optional)

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Take a piece of ginger around the size of your thumb. Use a spoon to scrape off the skin.

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Use a Japanese grater (one of my favourite kitchen utensils) and grate the peeled ginger to release all the juice. Squeeze out then discard the fibrous pulp.

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Pour the fiery ginger juice into a cup.

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Juice a lemon and add the juice to the mug.

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Peel then coarsely cut a single clove of garlic. Add the pieces to the cup.

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Add 1-2 teaspoons of honey.

Then, depending on your preferences you can add one or more or none or all of the following:

-1/2 a teaspoon of turmeric powder
-A pinch of chilli flakes
-A dash of whisky, brandy or rum

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It looks fairly alarming.

Top up with hot water, just off the boil, and stir to dissolve the honey and let the flavours diffuse into the drink.

Sip it slowly and be sure to eat/swallow the garlic. Yes it may give you very strong breath but if you’re feeling sick you should be in quarantine anyway.

The hot hot Sriracha martini

It’s a thing now.
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What do Thais and Texans have in common? A penchant for spicy food.

I have a good friend, currently in Texas, who recently announced his addiction to Sriracha hot chilli sauce, a fiery concoction from Thailand.

A US national and an Arabist, he has a very interesting career and academic background, with some very intriguing (and often hilarious) tales from London and the Middle East. Martinis are the best accompaniment to international storytelling so he is therefore a perfect martini guest.

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I remarked that I should try and make a martini out of the sauce for him. I have already talked about my love of Sri Lanka so it should come as no surprise that I love spicy food, while I have previously made spicy martinis here, here and here. However, I think my friend was appalled at the suggestion of a Sriracha martini. And perhaps rightly so: you shouldn’t mess with a classic, let alone two.

Nonetheless, I persevered, and I was pretty happy the first time round.

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– Take a strip of lemon peel and squeeze the oil out of it into a chilled martini glass.
– Add a measure of sweet vermouth
– Add a dash of Sriracha hot sauce (or to taste – it’s spicy!)
– mix the two together, then top up with chilled gin or vodka
– stir the drink with the lemon peel and add it as a garnish (you might want to shape it with a knife so it looks neater).

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It’s very spicy, with a hint of lemon, and is good for whetting the appetite.

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As far as accompaniments are concerned this martini goes very well with seafood. I would recommend chilled oysters, prawns or salmon as an accompaniment, possibly even with avocado. I think the cool, oily/fatty fish compliments the fiery drink. Here I served chilled king prawns on a bed of lettuce with Peking duck sauce with sesame seeds. I’m sure there are more sophisticated accompaniments than something I poured out from a jar but I just got home from work and wasn’t intent on doing anything more fancy. I also served some spicy broad beans as well.

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Another new snack I recently found in an Asian supermarket was roasted salted soy beans which was a nice, non-spicy accompaniment for the martini.

This drink would also be a good aperitif before some Thai food.

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You might even want to drink it while watching a live Thai dancing performance.

In fact, if you drink a few of them you could probably join in.

Chon Gow!

Spicy Martini with Brazilian Peppers

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I found some pickled Brazilian ‘little beak’ peppers (pimenta biquinho em conserva) in the supermarket and I knew instantly what to do with them.

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It’s a very simple variation on a spicy martini recipe I’ve made before.

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Notable ingredients include tabasco sauce or hot sauce. I use both but you could omit one if you wanted. The hot sauce adds colour, while both add a fiery element to the drink.

The recipe is as follows:

1 part sweet vermouth (or to taste)
4-6 drops of Tabasco (or to taste – I like it very spicy)
2-3 drops of hot sauce (or to taste)
4-5 parts chilled gin or vodka (I used vodka this time but this works with either)
3 pimenta biquinhos em conserva

Pour the vermouth, the hot sauce and tabasco into a martini glass and stir. Add the gin or vodka and stir again, then garnish with the pickled peppers on a toothpick or skewer.

It’s good for whetting your appetite before a meal, if you can actually finish it.

The Langoustini

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I’m currently visiting family in the Hebrides. This part of the world is known for its seafood, natural beauty and gargantuan drinking habits. This makes it a perfect setting for martini drinkers.

Unusually, much of the seafood caught in the rich Hebridean waters is transported to Spain. However, if you know which restaurants to eat at, or if you know who to speak to you can get yourself some of this bounty before it gets shipped away.

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We were delivered a bag of langoustines by someone in the town.

As usual, my first thought was: how do I incorporate this into a martini?

Luckily an adaptable recipe already exists. I came up with two variations.

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Firstly, boil the langoustines, then have your family peel them (you are exempt from this task as your duty is to prepare the drinks).

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If possible, take extra care with the langoustines bearing roe. Try not to crack the shells while you squeeze out the flesh. The intact shells can be served as an accompaniment to the martini and you can suck the eggs from the undersides between mouthfuls of drink. It feels Roman and decidedly decadent.

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Take a shelled langoustine for every martini you want to serve.

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Insert a toothpick and your garnish is ready. You can vary the shape and style of this garnish depending on the species of crustacean available to you so I imagine all sorts of variations might be possible here.

(For all the langoustines which aren’t destined for martini greatness there are countless ways you can eat them. We had them flash fried in garlic with chorizo and tomatoes, then tossed them in linguine for dinner after martini o’clock was over.)

Back to the martinis, I have two recipes. Both have:

1 part (or to taste) vermouth
5-6 parts (or to taste) gin/vodka

You can either add a few dashes (or to taste) of Tabasco sauce or you can muddle a teaspoon of sweet chilli sauce in the vermouth before adding the gin. With either variation stir the drink with the crustacean garnish before serving.

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We also had classic martinis as well.

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Thai cocktail

I like spicy things and intense Thai flavours, so when I went to Translate Bar in Shoreditch I ordered their Thai Mizza Healer cocktail. It contains lemon vodka, coconut, lime, chilli, coriander and lemongrass. It was sweet, sour, tangy, hot and refreshing all at the same time.

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Be careful you don’t drink too many and end up snogging the wall though.