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Full-on in Ceylon

Full-on in Ceylon
Photo: Jon Stibbs
Sri Lanka is heaven for lovers of fine, spicy food, spectacular wildlife, crazy ruins and a little adventure, says Jon Stibbs
 
While we ate breakfast, a seven-foot crocodile had been hanging out only yards from where the hobs and dozen ingredients were now positioned. Our pop-up kitchen was stationed in the shade under the restaurant that overlooked the infinity pool and lake, where the mighty croc slowly patrolled amid the flowering pink lilies.
 
We—my wife and I—were using the eco-friendly luxury of Vil Uyana as a base to explore the Indiana Jones bonkersness of the ruins at Sigiriya, so this cooking tuition was a bonus. Clad in our chef’s outfits of tall hats, aprons, gloves and ladles, we were prepared to learn the intricacies of creating Sri Lankan curries.
 
After a couple of weeks in the country and having eaten Chef Lal Fonseka’s food the previous night, I had some idea of what to expect: Sri Lanka might be a small country but its food is as powerful as its elephants. The spicy cuisine has its own exuberant identity, which would be better expressed internationally if it was not shouted down by its very large, very noisy neighbour—India.
 
Sri Lanka is, however, known for its tea, and you see leaves being collected in the centre of the tear-shaped country, in particular around Nuwara Eliya, which retains vestiges of its colonial past in its hotels and golf course. As an Englishman, I felt a heavy debt to the sari-clad pickers. As I had pottered past in a tuk-tuk or trundling train, I resisted the need to jump out and hug them to express my eternal gratitude that their labours power my entire country as surely as the national grid.
 
Taking a train around the island is a spectacular—slow—chug out from the capital, Colombo, past paddy fields and onto the tea
Full-on in Ceylon
Photo: Jon Stibbs
plantations. We had had a glorious trip marked by tooting whistles, flapping flags and all overseen by a conductor in starched-white uniform with the most immaculate comb-over I’ve ever seen.
 
Some of the food en route suited the adventurous. Memorable snacks included fried balls of something doughy accompanied by raw, rust-red chillies, proffered at a train platform. On a bus, a man with an extravagant moustache and bright lunghi (lightweight sarong) offered a basket of warmish prawns, their tails the only part not coated in batter. It seemed a bold start to a long journey and required people braver/hungrier than us. But then Sri Lankans are made of stern stuff.
 
Like any Londoner with a love of food, my palate has developed in tune with fiery dishes from around the world. I’ve also been pampered by the delicacy, subtlety—blandness, occasionally—of food from less exotic climes. The contrast struck home when I first encountered the classic local breakfast including fish curry and string hoppers (nests of vermicelli rice noodles). While it had been undoubtedly foreign; it was a) brunch, b) I knew what I was ordering and c) crucially, it was delicious. By contrast, pity any unprepared Sri Lankan confronted with Weetabix first thing in the morning.
 
The culture here is to draw on a profound knowledge of spices to quickly make spicy, balanced food. Unlike in India, Sri Lankans don’t marinate their food, nor spend hours cooking it but swiftly layer up the flavours from a base of coconut oil, onions, garlic and tomatoes. No Indian ghee here: the use of coconut as oil, milk and cream is essential to the rich dishes. If you have been over ambitious with the addition of one of the curry powders—the darker was roasted and stronger—or “dynamite” chilli powders or flakes, you could always temper it with the addition of coconut milk.
 
We started with two chicken curries, one black the other white (with coconut milk). Themes of curry leaves, turmeric, ginger, cardamom pods, cloves and ripped off cinnamon reoccurred as we produced further dishes with fish and beans.
 
The classic dish is lentil dhal, a dish I’ve always cocked a snoop at in disdain but here it was an introduction to a culture. “Everyone loves dhal,” said Chef Lal as he added water and turmeric powder to the mixture in the pan. “There are lots of different ways to make it but everyone thinks their mother makes it best.”
 
“Not me,” I thought, as the turmeric began to simmer into the mixture.
And so, astonishingly quickly, it was time to eat our feast. The long beans were creamy; the thick black chicken was lemony with the fragrant curry leaves. The yellow fish was delightfully fresh and tender, while the red fish was rich, heavy and resonant of the sea. To my surprise, the dhal—spicy and thickened with coconut milk and cream—was a joy.
 
Even out of the sun, it was hot. So I was glad to have asked about the tiny little door behind our impromptu kitchen. This it turned out had once adorned an ancient temple and was now the entrance to a more earthly pleasure: the wine cellar.
 
The sommelier arrived and I was shown in and given a short tour of the various whites, fizzes and dessert wines the hotel offered. Within the AC of the room, I could feel the goose bumps rise when I spotted there were red wines in there. “Isn’t it a bit cold to store reds here?” I asked. “Not really,” he replied. “We keep it at about 14.5 degrees.”
 
It was snowing in London; Sri Lanka is wonderful.
 
Once I had returned to the table and having eaten more than was necessary, my plate was a spectacular pallet of inky black, lurid yellows and blazing reds. As I sat back, a cloud of Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous white butterflies fluttered past—glorious, I thought, as my mind moved towards the goodies beyond the temple door.
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