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Proposed elevated highway across wetlands provokes uproar

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Environmentalists warn that if the second phase of the proposed Elevated Highway runs across Thalangama Environmental Protection Area, Ramsar Wetland city status of Colombo may be at stake. Residents lament that one of the most residential and peaceful areas of the city will be essentially made unlivable causing irreversible damage to the ecosystem.

by Randima Attygalle

The construction of five new flyovers and the four-lane Elevated Expressway connecting the New Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya was launched by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last month. The flyovers and the Elevated Expressway are planned to ease traffic congestion in Colombo, its suburbs and Kandy. The contract for the four-lane Elevated Expressway from the New Kelani Bridge to Athurugiriya entailing a budget of LKR 134.9 billion was awarded to the China Harbour Engineering Corporation (Ltd) to be completed in 36 months.

The 17.3 km long expressway is to be implemented in two phases- Phase 1 from New Kelani Bridge to Rajagiriya and Phase II from Rajagiriya to Athurugiriya. Phase II of the project has created controversy and uproar among environmentalists and the public as it’s to be built over the Ramsar listed Thalangama Environmental Protection Area (TEPA). Out the 10.4 km stretch of the second phase, 3.15 kms of road crosses the Averihena tank and paddy fields which are part of TEPA.

Despite Sri Lanka being a state party to the Ramsar Convention the proposed highway project is a gross violation of the provisions of the charter, charge residents from Thalangama and Averihena. Colombo District has already lost 40% of its wetlands resulting in massive floods and the proposed construction is a double whammy, they point out.

“Already water flows into our gardens when it rains heavily and erection of intrusions such as concrete pillars to accommodate an elevated highway will make things worse,” points out Prithiviraj Perera, a retired professional from the UN International Civil Service and Sri Lanka Public Services Institutions. Being exposed to noise and air pollution 24/7 would affect the quality of life of residents living on either sides of the wetland, whose homes are presently covered by trees and green habitats, Perera says.

Thalangama wetland is one of the few remaining green patches near Colombo. It is also a birds’ paradise and a haven for nature photographers. “It is a picturesque site of scenic beauty which is popular for filming of TV programmes, films and taking of wedding pictures. The area is also popular for jogging, star gazing, bird watching and environmental educational tours,” points out the senior professional who notes that destruction of an internationally recognized Ramsar Wetland will impact directly on the Green Development Principles which are championed by the government under the ‘Vistas of Prosperity’.

He says that the best alternative for the Expressway is to take the route from Makumbura, Kottawa through Ruwanpura and over the existing four lanes in Pannipitiya, right up to Battaramulla, which has already been mooted by several authorities. “This shall cause least damages to residents, housing and sensitive ecosystems with any extra costs of rerouting being financed through the issuance of ‘Green Bonds’ as done in many other countries.”

The second phase of the highway will plough through one of the most residential and peaceful areas of the city and will essentially make the area unlivable lament residents. The proposed route affects the residential property that has been in lawyer Rehan Almeida’s family for at least four generations. “According to the current route, the highway will go right across our property along Kaduwela Road in Battaramulla, completely destroying my home and partially destroying my father’s home. My brother’s house is narrowly missed by a matter of feet and will be rendered uninhabitable. The affect to our property is fatal. No amount of compensation can replace the damage caused. We will essentially lose everything, as we have been advised that the property will not be suitable for residential purposes any longer,” says Alemeida.

Several more houses and a sizeable number of small scale businesses will also be destroyed with absolutely no option to relocate, he says.

By plotting a route through the Thalangama wetlands, the country is also losing an asset which cannot ever be replaced, points out the lawyer who questions the logic of “cutting a peaceful community in half” and exposing residents to all kinds of pollution when an alternative route has been proposed by experts who have studied the impact and consequences of this project.

Almeida also charges that destruction of the environment by a project of this nature is a violation of the directive principles of state policy which are safeguarded under the Constitution. He further says that the solution is not to re-gazette the Thalangama wetlands to allow constructions but to find an alternative. “The task of the government is to safeguard our natural assets, not bulldoze them.”

Many farmers from the area who have been cultivating their ancestral paddy fields for generations lament the irreversible damage the proposed Expressway could cause to the eco system of the area. Most farmers in the area who cultivate traditional rice varieties also fear the threat of flooding if the proposed highway is realized.

It is also learnt that the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) had filed a Writ petition in the Court of Appeal seeking an order preventing the construction of the Elevated Expressway over TEPA. It is also gazetted as an Environmental Protection Area by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). Despite this, recently the Cabinet approval was given to re-gazette the area enabling the construction of the expressway whilst ‘preserving the environment.’

Director General, CEA, Hemantha Jayasinghe told the Sunday Island that the gazette is now pending observations of the Legal Draftsman’s Department. “Once the Legal Draftsman’s Department reverts with their comments, a careful EIA will be done by the CEA before relevant authorities decide if construction would continue or not along the TEPA,” Jayasinghe said.

To recognize the importance of cities and urban wetlands, Ramsar Convention introduced the Wetland City accreditation scheme in October 2018. It provides an opportunity for cities that value their natural or man-made wetlands to gain international recognition and positive publicity for their conservation efforts. Under this scheme, 18 cities including Colombo have been listed as the first Ramsar Wetland Cities. Colombo is the only Ramsar wetland City in South Asia and the only capital city to be accredited.

“Thus it is important for Sri Lanka to continue to protect the wetlands in Colombo in order to maintain this status. If the second phase of the Elevated Highway is to be built, it will cause significant impact to TEPA, one of the two protected wetlands in the Colombo Ramsar City site. (the other is the Jayawardenepura-Kotte Sanctuary),” points out Prof. Devaka Weerakoon from the Department of Zoology, University of Colombo. Prof. Weerakoon, an authority on wetlands, warns that such a move may result in withdrawal of the Ramsar Wetland city status of Colombo.

“This will be most unfortunate as many agencies worked very hard to achieve this status. Therefore, de-gazetting the EPA and building the road that is currently one of the options being considered, should not be taken as a major achievement but another example of a short-sighted decision taken under the label of development.”

TEPA provides many ecosystem services, especially functioning as a water source for paddy fields that are cultivated under the tank, source of food (freshwater fish), flowers, recreation and associated livelihoods and flood retention especially for highly populated metropolitan Colombo urban area. The proposed route across TEPA will not only spoil the aesthetic beauty and tranquility of the environment but also affect the air quality along the flyway corridor, points out Prof. Weerakoon. “The proposed flyway will have a significant negative impact on the quality of life of the inhabitants who are currently settled along the flyway corridor.”

The need for Phase I of the proposed Elevated Highway is very clear affirms Prof. Weerakoon. “It is quite beneficial to those who enter Colombo through the new Kelani bridge via the Katunayake Expressway en route to Borella, Rajagiriya or Battaramulla where most of the state agencies are located. Commuters have to spend a considerable time on the road due to traffic congestion in Dematagoda, Borella, Rajagiriya and Battaramulla resulting in unnecessary fuel usage and increased emissions. The expressway will provide fast access to these areas and suburban centres such as Pelawatte, Thalawathugoda and Maharagama. Further this will enable a large pool of motorists fast access to the Katunayake Expressway. Therefore the need for Phase 1 is very clear.”

However the controversial Phase 2 cutting across TEPA which will entail a heavy environmental cost needs to be reassessed including a detailed analysis of viable alternatives, maintains Prof. Weerakoon.

Pix credit: C. Kirinde



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‘Manamala Hendewa’ at Nelum Pokuna today

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The Nelum Pokuna Performing Arts Theatre will once again play host to the solo music concert titled “Manamala Hendewa” by the popular vocalist and musician Keerthi Pasquel on occasion of his birthday today.

The concert titled “මනමාල හැන්දෑව” will likely be Keerthi’s most successful performance to date. The show’s music will be provided by a seasoned band led by Nalaka Saji Jayasinghe, with guest appearances from artists like Chandralekha Perera, Nirosha Virajini, Samitha Mudunkotuwa, and Dammika Bandara for duets. Each member of the audience should leave with a lasting impression of the performance.

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A fish that sparked a national obsession

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Bacalhau (salt cod) is a deep part of Portugal’s culinary identity. But the fish is found far from the country’s shores, so how did this love affair come to be and continue today?

On a cold winter’s evening in Portugal, it might come to your table com natas – fresh from the oven and bubbling in cream – layered between fried potato and sliced onion and spiced with nutmeg. Weaving through Lisbon’s steep and cobbled streets, it wouldn’t take long before you found someone serving it as a light and crispy fritter, dusted with a little coarse salt and dished up with a pot of pungent aioli. You could buy it shaped as mouth-sized fried potato dumplings pastéis style, flavoured with parsley and garlic, for a walk along the banks of Porto’s Douro River. You might even come across it as part of a hearty southern bread soup, topped with coriander and a poached egg.

That’s because bacalhau – or salt cod – which sits at the heart of all these dishes, runs deep through Portugal’s culinary identity, with the country consuming 20% of the world’s supply. In fact, so central to Portuguese hearts (and stomachs) is this ingredient, that the saying goes “there are 365 ways to prepare salted cod, one for each day of the year”.

But for a fish that is found only in the icy depths of the North Atlantic Ocean – far from Portugal’s shores – the country’s love affair with salt cod is a puzzling one. How exactly did it end up on Portuguese plates? The answer is wrapped up in more than 500 years of intriguing history.

Take a trip today to most restaurants, markets and cafés across the country and you’ll find salt cod in one form or another. It even plays a starring role at hip Lisbon restaurant Alma, which earned its first Michelin star within nine months of opening and added a second star soon after.

“It’s funny, sometimes Michelin star chefs or high-end cuisine chefs don’t value salted cod because they don’t see it [fitting] within this type of gastronomy,” said Alma executive chef and owner Henrique Sá Pessoa, of the typically humble comfort food. “But I always have and always will have cod on my menus.”

He assures visitors that a salt cod creation will also feature on the menu of his new restaurant, JOIA, which will open in London later this year. But though bacalhau is a traditional and well-explored ingredient for many natives across the country, Pessoa is still finding ways to push Portugal’s love for it into new territory.

Case in point: his “most Instagrammable” creation, Cobblestreet Cod, named for its likeness to the centuries-old streets outside Alma’s front door in the historical Chiado district. It’s a modern twist on an old peasant dish and one of the country’s most beloved salt cod recipes – bacalhau à bras – where typically shredded salt cod, fried matchstick potatoes and onions are all bound together with scrambled egg and garnished with black olives.

“I knew I couldn’t call it bacalhau à bras because the Portuguese are quite traditional, and people sometimes get offended when you play around with classics,” he explained. “I wanted to get inspired by this dish but elevate it presentation-wise, texture-wise and detail-wise into something more delicate and elaborate.”

The outcome is far removed from the version you’d find on family dinner tables. A creamy mixture of salt cod, fried potato, egg and onion arrives at the table hidden under a veil of wafer-thin slices of cod that have been coated in a black olive tapenade to create a cobbled visual. A final surprise comes when you break into the cobbled dome and spilt a confit egg yolk that has been resting in the middle of the salted cod mixture.

“I wanted to dislocate all these elements of the dish and try and make it as perfect as possible. When we launched it in the restaurant, it was an instant success. It was especially popular on social media because visually it is quite striking,” said Pessoa.

He assures visitors that a salt cod creation will also feature on the menu of his new restaurant, JOIA, which will open in London later this year. But though bacalhau is a traditional and well-explored ingredient for many natives across the country, Pessoa is still finding ways to push Portugal’s love for it into new territory.

Case in point: his “most Instagrammable” creation, Cobblestreet Cod, named for its likeness to the centuries-old streets outside Alma’s front door in the historical Chiado district. It’s a modern twist on an old peasant dish and one of the country’s most beloved salt cod recipes – bacalhau à bras – where typically shredded salt cod, fried matchstick potatoes and onions are all bound together with scrambled egg and garnished with black olives.

“I knew I couldn’t call it bacalhau à bras because the Portuguese are quite traditional, and people sometimes get offended when you play around with classics,” he explained. “I wanted to get inspired by this dish but elevate it presentation-wise, texture-wise and detail-wise into something more delicate and elaborate.”

The outcome is far removed from the version you’d find on family dinner tables. A creamy mixture of salt cod, fried potato, egg and onion arrives at the table hidden under a veil of wafer-thin slices of cod that have been coated in a black olive tapenade to create a cobbled visual. A final surprise comes when you break into the cobbled dome and spilt a confit egg yolk that has been resting in the middle of the salted cod mixture.

“I wanted to dislocate all these elements of the dish and try and make it as perfect as possible. When we launched it in the restaurant, it was an instant success. It was especially popular on social media because visually it is quite striking,” said Pessoa.

Pessoa’s bacalhau

dish is just one of the latest evolutions of a long culinary legacy, one that’s wrapped up in centuries of history little-known to those outside the country. It started towards the end of the 14th Century, when the Portuguese navy found that the dried and salted fish could be stored for years in holds, making it the perfect food for long ocean voyages.

In the mid-1500s, during Portugal’s maritime explorations and hunt to find the coast of India, they stumbled across waters rich with cod around Canada and Greenland; a major discovery that kickstarted Portuguese cod fishing. But by the 16th Century, Portuguese fishermen were pushed out by the French and English.

In the centuries that followed, Portugal became heavily dependent on England as the main exporter of cod, and by the 1800s, the ingredient was something enjoyed only by the aristocracy. However, cod’s popularity expanded in the 20th Century during the reign of Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, who wanted to bring it back home. His “cod campaign”, launched in 1934, looked to reignite Portugal’s fishing (and drying) industry and instate cod as a national symbol. Thousands of Portuguese fishermen were sent to Canada and Greenland to fish for cod, with some bringing back up to 900 tonnes per boat.

But this was long, gruelling and often dangerous work, and many men never made it back home to their families. It continued even during World War Two when one Portuguese lugger – the Maria da Glória – was bombed as it headed towards the fishing banks on the west coast of Greenland, killing 36 people on board. These conditions still plague the industry today, with global fatality rates thought to top 24,000 a year, according to the Seafarers Rights International.

It’s this complex history that makes Portugal’s love for cod so deep-rooted, and it’s why Portuguese food expert and chef Leandro Carreira dedicated more than 50 recipes to the product in his new book Portugal, The Cookbook. In total, it features more than 550 traditional recipes from across the country, including a raw salt cod salad, which mixes bacalhau together with barbecued red bell peppers, onions, garlic and parsley.

“If I didn’t include [salt cod], I would have been in a lot of trouble,” said Carreira. “Cod has become so embedded in our culture over the centuries, since the trade of salt began so it was so hard to choose which recipes would feature in the book.”

That love of salt cod still rings true today. “I know people who have eaten cod for more than 30 years every day,” Carreira said. “My grandmother used to eat the same cod dish – cod with boiled potatoes, raw onion, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and parsley – every single day for lunch. Even I, and everyone I know, had cod at least twice a week.

“Cod is an incredibly flexible product. You can grill it, steam it, bake it, deep fry, you can make a cake with it, have it raw after soaking it in water. So, if you combine this with its affordability and its accessibility, you can see why [it’s popular].”

You can grill it, steam it, bake it, deep fry, you can make a cake with it, have it raw after soaking it in water.

Portugal today imports around 70% of its cod from Norway; the Norwegian Seafood Council describes Portugal as “by far the biggest market for Norwegian cod”. They add that out of the 100,000 tonnes Norway exports annually to Portugal, 95% is salted.

In Norway’s remote and icy fishing island of Røst, they even have a name reserved for the heaviest of cod catches: “Portuguese cod,” said Pessoa, who, as a former ambassador for the Norwegian Seafood Council, visited the island several times. “They know Portugal will pay the best price for that cod.”

This is echoed by Rita Karlsen, chief executive of Norway’s Brødrene Karlsen, which has been exporting salted and dried cod to Portugal since the company’s beginning in 1932. “Portugal is very important [to Norwegian cod exporters]; it’s the most important country that we sell to,” she said. “We couldn’t have survived without Portugal.”

This influence has spread far and wide to countries like Brazil, which imported 8.6 tonnes of salt cod during the Easter period alone in 2019, or Angola, which imported 308 tonnes of salt cod from Norway in 2012, according to the Interpretative Center of the History of Cod, Lisbon’s museum dedicated to the fish. In Italy, they even hold a salt cod festival, Festa del Bacala, every year near Venice, and in the Tuscan region they favour classics such as baccalà alla livornese, which marries salt cod with a rich, garlicky tomato sauce.

For other chefs in Portugal, salt cod bridges the past and present. Like Marlene Vieira, MasterChef Portugal judge, head chef of two Lisbon restaurants and the only female face within the chef’s wing of Lisbon’s Time Out Market, where her salt cod pataniscas (fritters) have won her accolades.

She explained how the fritter recipe was passed down from her grandmother, who came from a poor background. This meant she typically used the cheaper tail cuts of the fish in the batter, which had less moisture and resulted in a crispier finish “like tempura” – an excellent companion to the roasted red pepper and garlic mayonnaise that Vieira now serves with it.

As a child, she remembers helping her grandmother in the kitchen “to do the things she wouldn’t like to do”, like peeling onions, garlic and of course carefully picking out any bones left in the salt cod.

Today, while nodding to tradition, Vieira is keen to further promote the fish along with seafood local to Portugal – and her high-end restaurant Marlene focuses on just that. She even cooks it at home for her daughter, who, she said, “loves, loves, loves cod” – proof perhaps that despite the lengths the country has to go to secure this North Atlantic fish, the passion for it will continue to flow through Portuguese veins for generations to come.

–BBC

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Chef Heenkenda, Thai Mama and Chef Singh join Mövenpick’s galaxy of shining culinary experts.

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Mövenpick amplifies its Japanese, Thai, North and South Indian offerings

In the city hotel’s endeavor to continually provide guests with novel and refreshing gastronomic experiences, three talented chefs – the famed, Chef Heenkenda, the much-loved Thai Mama and Indian culinary wizard Chef Mangal Singh have joined Mövenpick’s galaxy of shining culinary experts. These brilliant Chefs who have excelled in their respective gastronomic genres have joined the hotel’s exceptional culinary team to provide guests with unforgettable dining experiences. Culinary Services Director Chef Priyantha Weerasinghe heads the handpicked culinary team at Mövenpick.

Chef Heenkenda who has introduced incredible Japanese offerings in multiple hotels has transformed The Robata, Thai and Japanese Restaurant with an outstanding culinary repertoire of Japanese Cuisine with over 30 exciting sushi dishes along with 115 new dishes that will take tastebuds straight to the land of the rising sun. Having excelled in Japanese Cuisine for nearly 2 decades he has worked in local 5-star hotels and overseas as a mentee under Japanese chefs. In Abu Dhabi Chef Heenkenda worked together with Michelin Starred Chef, Chef Eric Hunter who was his mentor for 5 years. Chef Heenkenda is a talented culinary maestro who excels in the entire gamut of Japanese Cuisine, including Sushi, Teppanyaki and Hot cuisine. His wide culinary experience will combine to make unique and inimitable, Japanese creations that Mövenpick guests can savour and enjoy with friends and family.

To greatly augment the Robata repertoire Mövenpick also welcomed Chef Arjee Jithman famously known as Thai Mama, who has transformed Thai cuisine in Sri Lanka. Hailing from Bangkok Thailand, Thai Mama discovered her passion to pursue culinary arts at an early age while helping her mother cook authentic Thai dishes at home. She later moved to Sri Lanka to further her knowledge and has made this her island home for over nine years, tantalizing both local and international tastebuds with her exceptional Thai culinary skills, taking guests on unforgettable gastronomic journeys infused with delicate herbs and sweet and sour tones. Thai Mama is delighted to provide diners at Robata with a brand-new array of her notable Thai dishes such as the spicy Tom Yum Soup, Pineapple Fried Rice, Thai Papaya Salad, Chu Chi Goon and fish fresh from the sea, marinated in curry chili paste infused with special Thai herbs.

Chef Mangal Singh, who specializes in South and North Indian cuisine, has been curated the most flavorsome Indian cuisine for a decade at Sri Lankan 5-Star resorts and trendy restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi. Chef Singh will be heading the brand-new Indian Restaurant to be launched at Movenpick. Chef Singh has also studied under Chef Bruno and Chef Anack during his career stint in Thailand. With 13 years of experience in preparing Indian cuisine from the North such as Chicken Makani, Biriyani, Goan Curry and Mutton Roghan Josh, Chef Singh’s Indian repertoire is wide and colourful. Guests can expect special Thalis featuring both North and South Indian favourites. Having grown up in the snowcapped misty Himalayas, Chef Singh was inspired by his mother’s recipes, many of which will be delightful features at the new Indian Restaurant to be launched at Mövenpick. His favourite dishes that promise to tantalize guests include, Mutton Biriyani, Rasams, butter chicken, including a very special Indian homemade chutney.

For over half a decade the famed Swiss Brand has introduced guests in Colombo from across the world to an intriguing and fascinating gastronomic journey, encapsulated in a luxurious and artistically stunning interior. Mövenpick Globally holds a growing portfolio of more than 80 hotels in 24 countries and is a part of AccorHotels, a world-leading travel and lifestyle Group comprising 5000 hotels, resorts and residences with over 1 million rooms worldwide.

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