“Add a pinch of chili powder,” Iran instructed, then explained that Sri Lankans would add far more, at least 3 teaspoons. That would definitely pack a punch. But then, Sri Lankan food is not for sissies. It is HOT. Well, we thought so.
Happy New Year. Happy Travels. May 2018 be filled with joy, good health, serenity and discovery.
Chef Iran prepared seven different dishes for us at his home near Ella in the Sri Lankan hills where he gives cooking lessons. We helped…and learned.
He adjusts the spices, i.e. the heat factor, to western palates, he explained. We had a fabulous meal of all his delicacies which we found tasty and just right on the heat scale.
During our two-week tour of the country, we frequently stopped at simple restaurants where buffets of numerous different dishes are the norm. Nimal, our trusty guide and driver, checked with the kitchen staff, then told us which concoctions to avoid — the ones with a fire factor of at least four hot peppers. There were many. Even some of the supposedly mild ones were too much for us….maybe we are sissies.
Hotel restaurants which cater to international visitors offer both Sri Lankan favorites and western fare. Sometimes the Sri Lankan specials are toned down, but not always. I love to try new and different things. But, after setting my mouth aflame more than once, I learned to start with tiny tastes.
The island nation offers an abundance of fish, exotic fruits, including 20 different kinds of bananas, all manner of vegetables — and spices. Cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, mace, tamarind and vanilla are among the Spice Island’s noted products. They grow in abundance all over the island in fertile and diverse soil types and varying temperature conditions, and are important export products.
Yet it is chilies which are the most consumed spice and a key ingredient in the national dish, rice and curry, which Sri Lankans eat three times per day. The curry can be made with vegetables, meat or fish, usually coconut milk, plus a blend of spices which enhance the dish with intense and exotic flavors.
We helped Iran dice and chop to prepare three curries: bean, dahl (lentils) and chicken. He also made aubergine moju, deviled potato and fresh coconut sambol. The latter is a condiment made from ingredients pounded with chili.
His classroom is simple, a table and two gas burners. He cooks in coconut oil and makes his own curry powder, a blend of coriander, cumin seeds, curry leaves and cinnamon. He roasts both curry powder and chili powder to give a smoky taste to certain dishes.
His mother taught him to cook, he says, and he is delighted to pass on her knowledge, skills and secrets to eager visitors, like us, from around the world. Not all take cooking lessons. “Guides bring guests here for a homemade meal, traditional food. Sometimes there are groups of 15 or 16.”
Sri Lankans eat their main meal at lunch. While restaurants offer numerous dishes, “at home we only have rice, one vegetable and one meat, not five or six different ones,” Iran said. When eating, Sri Lankans usually mix all the different preparations together on their plate, resulting in a mush which would not qualify for a Facebook food photo. They drink alcoholic beverages before the meal, not with it.
Sri Lanka is a land of many religions. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians are even known to visit the same pilgrimage sites. Many are vegetarians, although not necessarily due to religious restrictions. Nimal said his family does not eat beef. “Cows are gentle animals and give us milk. No need to eat them.” They also reject pork because “pigs are dirty animals.”
The best places to experience the bounty of Sri Lanka are its markets. During our travels we visited several, all scenes bursting with vibrant color and hectic activity. At the Pettah markets in Colombo huge trucks overloaded with produce drive through lanes crowded with shoppers.
The Dambulla Produce market, a vast wholesale market, is the place to see an incredible variety of produce – and to stay out of way of the frantic workers. A vendor at the market in Kandy gave us samples of fruits we were not familiar with — mangosteen and red bananas. There I purchased spices, for myself and friends.
Iran gave us several of his recipes. I tried his chicken curry. Yummy. See recipe, top right.
In addition to offering cooking classes and home cooked meals, Iran rents several rooms in his home to guests. He gets lots of kudos on Trip Advisor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on Sri Lanka, see previous posts: Wonders of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife.
Nimal De Silva, (email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org) chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country. He is a delight, very patient and accommodating.
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