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“Selling the Family Silver” and India-SL bilateral relations

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by Dr Sarala Fernando

A remark attributed to the US Congress that “Sri Lanka is a valuable piece of real estate” had made the news here hinting at the strategic value of our island location while some had connected the remark to the MCC, an economic project integral to the US pivot to the Indo Pacific.

This sudden interest in Sri Lanka’s land assets made the headlines after Harvard economists in 2016 advised on the incorporation of a land project under the MCC to address constraints to national growth by a re-survey, re-valuation and deed grants on lands around the country. Local experts argued that such a programme would lead to pressure on smallholders to sell land to more powerful entities for commercial exploitation increasing rural poverty, environmental and wild life destruction and water scarcity.

The Harvard economists and the MCC have come and gone. However, it seems the spirit of their view of land as a commodity is still alive judging by recent government decision to release nearly 1.5 million acres of other state forests to be repurposed for development work. This has become a hot topic of discussion and environmentalists have filed court cases to revert to the previous protection provided to unrecognized forest covers.

The silent constituents, the trees and the animals have felt the brunt of this decision with the increased deforestation and destruction of mangroves, the killing of large mammals like elephants and even our prized leopards and most recently hundreds of birds found dead, probably poisoned, off Wilpattu. Are there criminal gangs behind the sudden spate of shooting of tuskers and snaring of leopards, questions still not answered by the authorities? The government focus on land has extended to the urban areas where long standing wholesale markets, social and sports clubs have been taken over by the UDA with scant explanation of the reasons behind the seizures and plans for redevelopment of these valuable lands (urban housing/recreation for the public?). Selling lands, the equivalent of the proverbial “family silver” is to be expected in these extraordinary times where Sri Lanka has heavy foreign debt obligations.

However since the government land acquisition strategy remains opaque, without consultation or explanation of any business plan, public protests are now spreading even to non-agricultural foreign investment proposals ranging from allocating the ECT terminal in Colombo port and the KKS port to India, to mining of titanium from sands in Mannar – a water scarce area – to an Australian company . Land issues came to the fore early when the Tourism authorities set up a one-stop shop for new hotel construction despite the crisis in the hotel industry with the Covid epidemic and drying up of tourist flows. In other countries, empty hotels are being taken over by the government and converted to new uses like urban housing; however our authorities seem more concerned about allocating land in water shortage areas like Kalpitiya and Mirissa for 600 room hotels, so called “foreign” investments promoted by local barons.

In Yala, a new foreign managed hotel has suddenly emerged and is said to be destined for those “high spending” East European tourists irrespective that Yala is suffering from over-tourism and the animals are more in need of food and water. Added to the confusion, in parliament it was announced that the source of the second wave of Covid infection had been traced to a Ukrainian pilot and now the public is in a panic over the pilot project to bring in hundreds of Ukrainian tourists.

Public protests are spreading in agriculture areas with the Mahaweli authorities demarcating lands for large scale foreign investment taking from forest reservations and commons, dislocating animal feeding grounds and overriding even the demands of the local villagers for protection of their rights to customary land and forest use.

A recent news item featured the Agriculture Ministry offering Rs 700 million to local farmers to grow fruit for a foreign multinational company which will provide the plants and drip technology and presumably buy the fruit cheap and retain the export earnings for its own profit! What will be the value addition for the government if they have also provided tax concessions for the foreign investor? Even more serious, what will be the negative impact of these tasteless new hybrids on our heritage varieties of delicious local pineapple and bananas? Once the valuable land is allocated, the promised foreign money transfer may not even take place, the foreign investor’s preference usually being to bring in little foreign exchange and to borrow from local banks. Thus, when there is trouble, the “footloose” foreign investor gets away leaving local banks and insurances saddled with non-performing loans.

From the time of the Greek civilization, people have been lamenting over the vagaries of weather and other threats invariably faced by agriculture, which makes large scale operations a risky business. The problem is that tax concessions are being offered today to promote large- scale agriculture without the safeguards to prevent expensive failures. Even local large plantation companies are finding it difficult to operate today with all their experience, given the issues of soil depletion, non use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer and rising labour costs. Yet it seems an intrepid developer with more experience in seafaring than agriculture had demanded 40,000 acres to grow maize – (mind you he may not have heard about the fallworm crisis). Fortunately those in charge of the Mahaweli lands had allocated only 5,000 acres for a trial project but still this is hardly a good example of due diligence which should look for experience in agriculture rather than the usage of prison labour, as announced by the entrepreneur.

Before it is too late, we should learn from the experience of our neighbour India. I recall a lecture by the eminent Dr M. S. Swaminathan many years ago at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (then Sri Lanka Institute of International Relations) where he prophesied that the intensive agriculture “green revolution” would eventually render barren productive areas of their country due to heavy chemical applications degrading the soil. In India today, they are returning to traditional farming practices to revive the soil, re-foresting and trying to connect the farmer to the markets.

Instead of cattle grazing on open land, sheds are being constructed within the village and herders encouraged to bring feed to the cattle. Should we not even now look to small, smart and more sustainable practices to make small farmers more independent? Talking with farmers growing organic high value rice varieties on their lands in Wellawaya with support from Jetwing, it seems they still have faith in traditional practices, calling the mechanical harvester “boothaya” and preferring to bring down buffaloes from Bandarawela to the tractor! Bangladesh is tapping the Indian experience in elephant conservation which is a new area of their bilateral cooperation. Private sector investors in India have recently set up a hospital for treatment of sick domesticated elephants with ultra modern equipment.

Here in Sri Lanka, despite the interest of private philanthropists, the government appears unwilling to give land for an elephant sanctuary or “soft” release area for translocated bull elephants. A central question is why, as a Buddhist nation, Sri Lankans have not included into the Constitution, the protection of animals and living creatures as illustrated in every step of the Gautama Buddha’s life journey and his preachings? Even today, many proposals to strengthen the environmental safeguards and ethical treatment for animals have been sent to the Committee to prepare a new Constitution, but no one has even received an acknowledgement! By contrast, the Indian Constitution is way ahead of us, Article 51-A (g) which deals with Fundamental Duties of the citizens states: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.”

Our land endowment also includes the small islands, over 100 around the mainland, enabling extension over expanses of territorial seas. Instead of pushing only commercial fisheries, should the government not think about declaring a marine sanctuary zone all around our island, a domestic security Zone of Peace with proper management safeguards for national land and maritime resources? Sri Lanka received too many multi-day boats after the tsunami, several of which have been converted to nefarious purposes like illicit immigration and smuggling.

Furthermore, why prioritize investment in commercial fisheries at a time when global attention is being called to clean

ing the oceans, replenishing fish stocks, restoring coral reefs and mangroves affected by rising sea waters and ocean temperature rise? Protecting our seas and coastline should be given high priority since our island is in the vicinity of some of the busiest sea lanes in the world and vulnerable to disasters such as New Diamond oil tanker which caught fire off the East Coast.

Cooperation with India has been vital in this regard throughout the years as they have access to both expertise and stocks of fire fighting foam which can be quickly deployed.

While enhancing cooperation with India in addressing marine disasters and security issues such as smuggling, illicit immigration and terrorism/criminal related activities of mutual concern, as a small state with no pretensions for offensive power projection, we should feel free to disagree with India on the imperatives of high defence spending and partnering with the US on security manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean with their latest weaponry.

The recent Malabar naval exercises by the Quad in the Bay of Bengal and naval sonars are believed to have impacted the unprecedented beaching of some 100 pilot whales in Kalutara around the same time, rescued after a marathon effort by our navy and volunteers.

(Sarala Fernando, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and her last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Her Ph.D was on India-Sri Lanka relations and she writes now on foreign policy, diplomacy and protection of heritage).



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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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