There are many smells of Sri Lankan food: cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, coconut, papaya, mango, pineapple, pungent dried maldive fish and tea. But if there was one fragrance that was ubiquitous across the island once known as Serendip, it’s that of curry leaves. The aroma wafts at you from a bush of it growing wild; erupts from leaves popping and sputtering in hot oil; rises from almost every savoury dish. Each time I pass the plants growing in the garden beside my large hut at The Mudhouse in rural Anamaduwa, I dip down to rub the glossy green leaves and then hold my fingers to my nose.
At this sustainable settlement of mud huts in the middle of the forest, I’m introduced to rustic, rural Sri Lankan life and cooking based around the fresh vegetables, fruit and herbs grown here. My guide, 73-year-old Douglas, comes by bicycle to collect me, and we rattle around reddish paths before he takes me on a tour of the organic farm. Pointing out wild passion fruit, cashew nut trees, wild aubergines and guava, the voice of this spritely whippet of a man is accompanied by the loud honking of peacocks. He spots luffa (a long, ridged gourd) and drumstick (a long bean). “Very important vegetable for making curry. Very tasty and we eat the leaves in salad,” Douglas says. In a dark kitchen, chef Gunaratna shows me the burners, constructed from mud and cow dung, which use wood and coconut shells for fuel, and clay pots for cooking everything, but not for boiling water. “This is all from the jungle. It’s all very healthy. We don’t use aluminium which has cancerous properties, or gas, which has chemicals,” he explains. “When we’re cooking, we’re always thinking of the health properties. For example, we don’t peel pumpkin because the skin is good for you.”
Days begin with traditional kola kanda (herbal porridge) — which is a flavoursome blend of jungle leaves, garlic, a scattering of rice and coconut milk. Eating lunch and dinner here, I realise that Sri Lankan curries are intensely fresh, cooked moments before they arrive at the table, and are lighter than their counterparts elsewhere on the Indian subcontinent. They taste amazing and feel full of vitality and goodness, with the principles of Ayurveda, the holistic healing system, always in mind.
From The Mudhouse, we drive for hours across this country once riven apart by a 26-year civil war and still bearing scars of the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. As the gradient rises in the southeast, the landscape and flora and fauna change, the temperature becomes cooler and I notice that the small vegetable stalls common by the side of the road are now selling carrots, radishes and cabbages. By the time I begin to see lush, green tea bushes, the climate has changed entirely. Our destination is Thotalagala, a ‘bungalow’ property in the midst of an estate on the edge of the Haputale Escarpment, where I’m served an exquisite high tea by the open fire. I sleep in a room named after Sir Thomas Lipton, born in my home city of Glasgow, a wee boy from Govan who became the world’s biggest tea baron. At the nearby Dambatenne tea estate, the first bought by Lipton, the factory he built in 1890 remains almost unchanged. I’m mesmerised as I learn about tea picking and watch as once-green leaves are dried and graded using intricate machinery.
I visit the workers’ houses, where Tamil tea-picking families lived in packed, damp, small rooms in lined terraces. Things have changed a little — asbestos has been removed, the density of occupation is less — but as I pick my way down slippery, muddy steps in pouring rain, shivering with cold, I can see that life is still not easy here. In the home of Pakaywathi, who picked tea for 38 years, I’m taken to her tiny kitchen where a sooty, corner cooking fire is fuelled by tea-bush wood. Tamils came here from Southern India and remain wedded to their own distinctive dishes — idli, a savoury rice cake, and dahl vadi, fried yellow lentil patties flavoured with onion, green chilli, dried chilli and curry leaves, amongst others.
The vegetation changes completely — coconut, bananas, bamboo, rice, jackfruit — as we drive down the coast to meet Manoj and Deevi Silva. In an outside kitchen in the middle of a garden planted with herbs and fruit trees, the couple show me how to make rice and curry, the backbone of Sri Lankan cuisine, eaten at least once a day. Myriad curries are served with rice and accompanied by sambols, essentially chutneys and relishes: pol (coconut) sambol made from freshly grated coconut, seeni (onion) sambol and fiery red lunumiris sambol (chilli).
Deevi grinds her spices in an enormous pestle and mortar, then mixes these through her various ingredients with her fingers. She shows me how coconut flesh is scraped from the hull, loosened with a very small amount of water and squeezed through her fingers to produce ‘first milk’, a thicker cream — more water is added to the remaining coconut pulp, to give ‘second milk’. “It’s important to eat all the spices; they’re good for digestion,” she explains as she marinates tuna, bought from the fish market earlier in the morning.
Along the coast, near Dalawella Beach, is Why House, a boutique hotel run by the wonderfully eccentric Henrietta (Hen) Cottam always accompanied by her dachshund Nigella (Jelly). Here she has created a magical ‘modern Sri Lankan menu’. Hoppers are a traditional breakfast dish in this country. These are thin, crispy pancakes served most often with an egg in the middle and sambols on the side, and string hoppers are pancakes of handmade noodles, accompanied by curries and sambols and eaten with the hands. Hen’s string hoppers are dehydrated, fried and served with curd, tree tomato (bitter and small), chutney and pomegranate. Chef Lal cooks kottu roti — a Sri Lankan street food also known as chop chop — to order on a flat grill at the side of the restaurant, theatrically clack clacking as he cuts roti into strips and mixes it with chicken, vegetables, garlic and ginger and a ‘special gravy’.
In Colombo, at Maniumpathy, another fabulous bungalow hotel, I’m introduced to the pungent, darker flavours of Jaffna, in the north. Sitting in an enclosed courtyard, by the pool, away from the bustle of the city, I have fresh, local crab, served in a spicy, rich sauce served with a rice and curry feast.
At the Dutch Burgher Union, a relic of yesteryear, I learn of the culinary influence of the various colonisers of what was once Ceylon — the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. I try lamprais, rice cooked in chicken stock, served with chicken cutlet, seeni sambol, deep-fried ash plantain and deep-fried egg, all wrapped together in a banana leaf and baked. My friend Thushni de Silva tells me to eat this with my fingers, just like you would rice and curry. “When you mix it with your fingers and all the juices combine, it gives you a whole different taste,” she says. “Food is the very essence of Sri Lankan culture. It plays a big role in life, from birth to death and there’s a sense of warmth to our hospitality.” This hospitality and food remains in my memory long after my visit to the teardrop-shaped island. Along with my new-found passion for fresh curry leaves.
Five Sri Lankan staples
These come in two varieties: made from fermented rice and coconut batter, and fried into a frilly pancake; or from rice flour and water, and pressed into noodles.
Ceylon tea celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017 and some of the world’s best brews are grown in the Sri Lankan hill country. You can see the whole process, from plucking to drying, to refining and grading, then take high tea.
Rice & curry
An array of curries and chutneys accompany rice, eaten at least once a day by most Sri Lankans with their fingers.
Sambol is a relish or chutney, made to accompany rice and curry. The most popular are pol (coconut) and seeni (onion).
The world’s best cinnamon grows in Sri Lanka. The outer bark of the tree is stripped and it’s the inner bark that’s known as ‘true cinnamon’, with its sweet aroma.
A taste of Sri Lanka
Manager Hen Cottam has curated a unique menu at this small hotel not far from the beach at Dalawella. “We’ve taken the bits of Sri Lankan food that I think are most interesting, to offer ‘modern Sri Lankan’. String hoppers are dehydrated and fried with curd, tree tomato, which is bitter and small, and served with chutney and pomegranate. Our dhal soup is much lighter, blended in the Thermomix, to make it extremely smooth.” The meal includes kottu roti, prawn fry, gotu kola (a local green leaf) salad and coconut creme caramel.
HOW MUCH: Around £18 without wine.
Housed in a glorious old colonial bungalow, Maniumpathy is a boutique hotel paying homage to the north of the island with a Jaffna menu featuring Tamil dishes. Rasam, a spicy tamarind soup, begins the show alongside ulundu vadai, a kind of doughnut-y bread. Crab, mutton, aubergine and chicken curries proliferate, served with dhal, raw green mango salad, curd and rice. Dessert is payasam, a sweet vermicelli and coconut pudding, scented with cinnamon and cardamom.
HOW MUCH: The Jaffna menu is around £24 without wine.
Ministry of Crab, Colombo
Sri Lanka’s famous crabs are the stars at this downtown Colombo restaurant. Located in the Old Dutch Hospital, it’s owned by former cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and chef and television personality Dharshan Munidasa. Watch your crab being cooked in an open kitchen at the top of a big, bustling room where guests don bibs and chow down. They come in various sizes, including £120 Crabzilla at 2kg. King prawns from the country’s rivers are also excellent, particularly those salt-grilled in the Japanese ebi shioyaki style.
HOW MUCH: Crabs begin at around £18.50 for a small one (500-600g).
Experience Travel Group’s Flavours of Sri Lanka costs from £2,795 per person including international flights, transportation, chauffeur/guide and 10 nights at The Mudhouse, Thotalagala, Why House and Maniumpathy, as well as a number of culinary experiences.
Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)