Sri Lanka has stolen my heart and my tastebuds.
The country of spice, rice, curry and coconuts is a geographical wonderland. Sitting at the bottom of India, the beautiful island is surrounded with stunning turquoise water and endless beaches all lined with tall bendy coconut trees. This tropical paradise has you then heading inland, where you’ll soon discover dramatic mountains, all covered in lush tea plantations, cascading down hillsides and more hikes then you can poke a stick at. It really does have it all! Trust me, I’ve been!
Having travelled through South East Asia to the likes of Vietnam and Thailand, my inner foodie desired a little more spice, something different. So.. I decided to spend just under a month in Sri Lanka, and what I experienced and saw is hard to put into word! But I’ll give it a go..
Flying into Colombo in the early hours of the morning, toast and disorientated sleep was all we had under our belts before our travels were well underway.
Heading straight inland to the “Cultural-Triangle”, we got our first taste of Sri Lankan Culture. Biking through the ruins of Polonaura, an abandoned Kingdom and climbing to the Dambulla Caves, a monastery perched under an overhanging rock, the well maintained ruins and temples were well beyond beautiful and belief.
It really wasn’t until we hiked the impressive Sigiriya Rock, a fortress atop an enormous rock, that it really sunk in.. These guys had a real knack for sourcing beautiful locations in which to live.
This inland area of Sri Lanka, almost in drought, was described by locals as the perfect area to grow an abundance of vegetables. The soil, rich in nutrients, provided farmers with impressive crops, which would be harvested and carted to a huge wholesale market in Dambulla. The vegetables here supplied the main city, Colombo and surrounding towns.
Our Saturday Markets seemed a little less impressive as I was walking around the Dambulla Market, although the thought I might get lost and smuggled into the back of a potato truck was definitely a thought that had never crossed my mind, until now.
With an array of vegetables on hand, Sri Lanka on a plate was heavenly.
Breakfast usually consisted of their traditional egg hoppers; a basket shaped coconut milk pancake filled with curry, coconut sambal and other tasty condiments. Pile it even more with chilli, and you are in for a great day.
For lunch, we would scout out the perfect local hideaway. Curries are often served in clay pots warmed over tiny fires. Here you would help yourself, buffet style (who doesn’t love a buffet!) and load your basket with every spicy dish you could think of. If there’s a vegetable, you can bet it has its very own curry.
During my time in the cultural triangle, I managed to learn a few tricks of the trade as I cooked with a local woman in her village hut. Over fire, we cooked Millet and Chilli Rotti, smashing Coconut Sambal with large rocks and cut our produce with sharp blades poking out of wooden blocks. Do not try this at home…
Plonked directly into the chaos, bustling and beeping of the city centre by our friend, we well and truly arrived to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city. Located at the bottom of a valley, next to a beautiful large lake, Kandy is your one stop shop for shopping. Clothing Markets, food markets, even dried fish markets, there was something for everyone.
We escaped the city chaos by visiting The Sacred Temple of the Tooth, home to a tooth of Buddas’. As the sun set in the sky, loud bells began chiming, with local families spiralling down the staircases and out the grand wooden doors for offering time. The place, full of energy, was beautiful. Incense wafted through the air and each person held tightly onto their lotus flower awaiting their moment to visit the chamber of the tooth.
Forget underground subways, our next journey to Ella, was on board a long sweeping old blue train, chugging along mountain ridges and through the rural countryside of Sri Lanka. Three hours of magnificent scenery, an old local offering you tea every 20 minutes and an adrenaline rush from hanging out the doors, the train trip was remarkable.
Ella, a sleepy slow little town sits among dramatic mountain peaks, awaiting your expeditions. We had a local farmer take us to some of the more challenging peaks, like Ella Rock, which had vast and beautiful views. Not only were we well hydrated along the way with fresh King Coconuts, but our friend was very generous in feeding us his hiking snacks, Tobacco leaves… Mmm yum!
Before you knew it, Ella has you under her spell. A place that grounds you and reminds you subtly of the simple things in life. Every day, we were greeted by hard working tea pickers along the tea trails, all offering a beautiful smile and warm hello.
After long days of incredible hiking, it was nice just to relax and… get into the kitchen! I got to know one of the locals, and before we knew it, we were cooking with him night after night. Mango Curry, Bean Curry, Potato Curry, Okra Curry… You get the idea. Each uniquely different in their own right and all incredibly delicious!
As we ventured down to the South of Sri Lanka, sadly leaving behind the magic of Ella, dotted along the main road were endless roadside stalls of fruit and vegetable, spices, dried tea leaves and peanuts!!!! “Alison’s Pantry” would have a heart attack at the abundance and price of the huge scrumptious bags of nuts hanging at every produce stall.
These stalls became mandatory pit stops, slowing down our journey and filling our tummies.
At one stall, I had some of the best Buffalo Curd and Treacle on the whole island! The stall holder had her own Buffalos, making homemade Buffalo Curd and Treacle from the trees. ‘Treacle’ a fancy version of maple syrup, is generously (And I mean generously!) drizzled over the curd. This Sri Lanka sweet dish was often served after a meal. I definitely reached my quota with this one…
In our final week, we surfed and safari’d the South and finished our journey in Galle, a Dutch Fort full of amazing architecture, very different in style from the rest of the island.
Here, the local fish market was buzzing. Fishermen would literally pull up their oruvas (outrigger canoes) onto the sand, walk a mere 5 meters to their stall and serve an array of freshly caught fish, prawns and lobster on wooden crates! Walk ten meters down the road, and you arrived at the fresh fruit and vegetable market, next to it, the spice market. What a way to make shopping easy!
We grabbed a whole bunch of fresh produce, spices and bartered our way to an abundance of prawns, freshly caught. Cooking literally from market to plate was my last taste of Sri Lanka. And boy was that curry a hot one…
Now, back in NZ, with my Turmeric Dahl simmering slowly on the stove as I write this.. I am reminded of the sites and smells, and most importantly the beautiful people of Sri Lanka. For now, although it’s as if it were all a dream, it has left its dear footprint on my mind and… my tastebuds.