Sri Lanka: Spice island

By Lauraine Jacobs

A vendor sells fruit and vegetables at his market stand Photo / Babiche Martens
A vendor sells fruit and vegetables at his market stand Photo / Babiche Martens

The market was jam-packed. A tuk-tuk overloaded with huge bunches of green bananas almost ran over my foot, knocking me off balance. Intense aromas and stenches invaded all our senses. Bicycles and the tiny motorised carts vied with jostling shoppers and merchants for space in the frenetic and frantic Pettah bazaar in the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital and centre of commerce.

On either side of the narrow alleys, market stalls were filled with piles of coconuts, bananas, jackfruits, okra, shallots, wing beans and string beans, eggplants, papayas, mangoes and - a surprise to me - a wealth of English vegetables, a hangover from colonial days.

Among these immense stacks of fruit and vegetables, sacks of rice, bags of spices, weeping packs of pungent tamarind and boxes of smelly savoury dried fish, our group of seven tourists and guide stood out like aliens.

We'd risen early, despite our 2am arrival on a flight from Singapore, and had a breakfast feast of egg hoppers, the crisp lacy rice-flour pancakes that are filled from a choice of curries and sambals.

It's a spicy way to start the day, but truly addictive.

An array of fresh tropical fruits and juices, including the unique woodapple (slightly sour and sweet at once), cauldrons of piquant curries and fresh buffalo curd are also among the goodies on offer at a leisurely breakfast on the colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel terrace.

With the warm monsoon wind blowing in our hair it was tempting to think about just lying by the pool. But we were off on an exploratory trip to see the bounty cultivated locally and learn just which foods would fashion our meals over the next 12 days. The market as always, proved to be a revealing place to get to the heart of the country.

We were on a food and architecture tour, led by Mary Taylor of Food Matters, an Auckland food writer who has been taking small groups to Sri Lanka for the past 10 years.

Her knowledge, contacts, calm nature and wry sense of humour proved ideal to lead us as we experienced the wonderful diversity and intensity of this lush island in the Indian Ocean.

The historic Mount Lavinia Hotel was the perfect starting point because the handsome chef Publis has cooked here for more than 50 years, attaining superstar status in Sri Lanka with a weekly cooking show, a regular radio broadcast and being singled out by Rick Stein to cook for his television programme.

We had him all to ourselves in the hotel kitchen as he introduced us to Sri Lankan cuisine. We watched as he whipped up hot and devilled deep-fried fish, fragrant baby potato curry, wok-fried spicy vegetables, a dry curry that was picture-pretty with green snake beans and baby pink shallots, and a load of accompanying sambals and roti breads to eat with the focal point - the rice. A truly spicy early dinner that awakened every taste bud in my mouth and left me licking my fingers and plate.

Sri Lanka's cuisine draws many influences together to create food that's gloriously varied. The teardrop shaped island sits off the south eastern coast of India, with a string of islets stretching to the west that make it seem possible to almost walk to the sub-continent.

Indian cuisines from the adjacent Kerala and Tamil Nadu regions have made their mark, and Malaysia, lying to the east of Sri Lanka has also influenced the food. Historically Arab traders, Portuguese explorers and Dutch and English colonials also passed through leaving their distinct influences to be absorbed into the buildings, monuments, art, churches and of course, the food.

Over the past 10 years Sri Lanka has experienced a well publicised civil war and the 2004 tsunami wreaked havoc on the country's coastal regions, putting development on hold until very recently. Yet pot-holed paving and bone-shaking buses cannot take away the incredible beauty of the lush green countryside, geometric rice paddies, dark green tea plantations covering the hillsides, and the luxurious canopy of tropical cloud forest.

There's also an unexpected elegance evident in the buildings and hotels.

The late Geoffrey Bawa, a Sri Lankan who studied architecture in Britain, spent his working life in Colombo and has left the country a legacy of stylish hotels and buildings and spread his minimalist influence across South Asia. We visited his home, ate in his former office - now the Gallery Cafe, a cutting-edge restaurant, bar and store - stayed at his famous eco hotel, Kandalama, and at the Jetwing Lighthouse, on the rocky coast near Galle in the south.

For those with a penchant for ancient history Kandalama is within easy driving distance of three Unesco World Heritage sites: the medieval city of Polonnaruwa; a spectacular rock fortress at Sigiriya with water gardens and a breathtaking climb to amazing views; and Dambulla, complete with temple, 15m golden Buddha and a complexity of ancient caves.

North of Colombo, the famous Negombo Fish Market afforded us a view of the vast variety of seafood that forms such a large part of the Sri Lankan diet.

We watched small sailboats manoeuvring in and out of the harbour, as locals bargained and traded their catch. We made a new friend, who was desperate to tell us he too had appeared on "Ricky" Stein's programme and had even laminated the TV chef's business card to prove it.

He showed us acres of small fish drying on mats in the sun; fish that are salted and used in local cooking to give the salty pungent flavour to Sri Lankan food.

We observed a staggering quantity of coconuts at the Silvermill coconut factory, rolling down to be husked, peeled and shredded before disappearing into a vast drying machine to emerge as desiccated coconut. The smell of toasting coconut was pervasive. Sri Lankans harvest three billion coconuts each year, exporting 25 per cent of the crop in various forms, and consuming the rest.

A train took us from the hill capital city of Kandy to Hatton. Our rickety ancient wooden carriage rattled and jiggled on the narrow gauge railway as it climbed into the mountains. With tickets reserved for first class observation seats, I had visions of a glass dome that popped up above the roof. No such luck.

"Observation" meant a window in our carriage at the rear of the train giving us a view back down the track as we climbed up to Sri Lanka's important tea growing region. But at every little stop along the rural way hawkers plied us through the windows with delicious snacks. Warm wade, spicy dhal fritters with sweet corn, and soft sweet doughy ulundu wade.

In Hatton locals were holding a demonstration. It was Saturday, and by Monday the wages of thousands and thousands of tea workers had been raised from 415 to 515 rupees a day. We felt a part of their triumph, cheering the pickers out in the fields plucking the tea, as we passed en route to our hotel.

Sri Lankan tea plantations are lush and beautiful with extensive sculptured waves of bushes. We relaxed for a couple of days at Tea Trails' Norwood Bungalow, one of four planter's bungalows on adjoining estates that have been converted to luxury accommodation.

Tea was served constantly. A selection of teas for breakfast, mid-morning tea, high tea at 4pm with cute cucumber sandwiches and dainty cakes, and to top it off, a delicate tea-infused four-course dinner, cooked by a very modern chef.

The witty and erudite Andrew Taylor, a direct descendant of James Taylor, who introduced tea to Sri Lanka from China, expertly guided us through the Norwood Estate tea factory.

Small green buds with the accompanying two leaves below are hand plucked from the bushes and within 24 hours of arriving fresh and dewy at the factory are processed and graded to become tea that's ready to be shipped to the government-run tea auctions in Colombo.

This painstakingly hands-on process produces high quality tea that is strong and dark, not to my taste, but definitely the preferred taste sought around the globe.

Nuwara Eliya, a resort town high in the hills with a distinct English feel right down to its very grand and proper Grand Hotel and adjacent manicured golf course, was another welcome stop.

We shopped for saris, sapphires and clothing bargains: surplus goods and seconds from Sri Lanka's international clothing industry are sold at unbelievably low prices in the local market.

We wound our way up a rough track, deeply pot-holed and bumpy, to the cleverly converted Heritance Tea Factory Hotel. A welcome cup of sweet spiced tea awaited, another tasty buffet of rice and curries and a blissfully comfortable sleep in the cool air of the mountains.

Back down on the coastal plains we passed beautiful resort beaches, and visited a transit house for more than 40 baby orphaned elephants, arriving in time to see them rushing in for hand-fed milk rations. That project, along with many other sensitive initiatives, has been funded by the Dilmah Foundation.

The gracious Merrill Fernando, Dilmah's founder, who is well known to New Zealanders, joined us for a drink on the colonial balcony of the famous Galle Face Hotel in Colombo before we flew out. I think of his family's generosity and philanthropy, and dream about the beauty of his country with every cup of Sri Lankan tea I drink.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines offers daily flights from Auckland to Singapore and daily flights to Colombo.

Cathay Pacific offers daily connections from Auckland to Colombo via Hong Kong.

Further information: You can find out about Mary Taylor's tours at foodmatters.co.nz.

* Lauraine Jacobs, food columnist for the NZ Listener, travelled privately to Sri Lanka.

- NZ Herald

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