The best of Sri Lanka
Author: Bianca Tzatzagos
Photography: Courtesy of SBS
"Growing up in Sri Lanka, we had this beautiful big garden with every herb you could imagine. So whenever I hurt myself or was sick my grandmother would take me by the hand, we'd walk through and she'd say 'this is for this, this is for that'; we'd make pastes for wounds and all of that. Food is not just food in Sri Lanka, it is your life and being, it is your medicine, your aphrodisiac, everything," says Peter Kuruvita.
True to his Sri Lankan heritage, the Sydney chef and co-owner of the Flying Fish restaurant has made Sri Lankan food his "life and being". He regularly travels back to the country to gather inspiration for his Pyrmont restaurant, has published a book on Sri Lankan cuisine, and most recently spent two months there filming a 10-part series for SBS. "I've been going back every year for the past 10 years. I've seen everything from surfers in the water to buses blowing up in the streets to now being able to go to Jaffna and actually talk to people. Some 36 years ago I was living there as a kid and the troubles were just starting, and now to go back, so many years later and do a show and be able to go back into the areas where my father took me as a child was pretty amazing."
Kuruvita says that Sri Lanka, like any other country, would take years to explore thoroughly, but here he outlines a geographical loop marking his top 10 experiences for first-timers. Starting in Colombo and travelling roughly clockwise, he recommends heading north-east to Kandy in the central highlands, then south into the tea fields, down along the east coast to Yala National Park and continuing south to the coastal villages, ending with Galle on the south-western coast before making your way back up past Colombo to the beach at Negombo near the airport. Here are his favourite spots along the way.
1. Mount Lavinia Hotel, Colombo
Mount Lavinia Hotel is around the corner from where I lived. It's this old white colonial building filled with incredible antiques and it was built by an Englishman, a governor of Sri Lanka who fell in love with a local girl called Lavinia. They weren't allowed to see each other but because he loved her so much he built this for her, and he had a system of tunnels built to get to her village. The building is amazing, the pool is great and for me it's Sunday afternoons with my dad, that's where we used to go. And the food's cool: chef Leonel Velasquez is cooking really decent food. They have one of the best Sri Lankan buffets I've ever had.
2. Home-style bouillabaisse of Jaffna
Sri Lankan cuisine is very traditional - people like to try and chase the flavours of their forebears. But I think what surprised me the most on this last trip was the variety found in the north. I discovered this terrific dish which is essentially Sri Lankan bouillabaisse. It's called Jaffna kool or odiyal kool. Odiyal is the flour of the palmyrah root. The palmyrah palm is one of the most versatile trees in the world. Every part of it is used. Even if you don't get up north to Jaffna, you can try an odiyal kool at Hotel Renuka's Palmyrah Restaurant in Colombo.
3. Feeding the elephants at Pinnawela
On your way from Colombo to Kandy, stop by at Pinnawela the elephant orphanage. It's a bit of a zoo, but it's worth seeing on your first time - something like 70 elephants are herded back and forth to the river and you feed them fruit and feed the babies milk. Sri Lanka still has some unexploded mines, so there are elephants there that have been injured by these mines. The orphanage does a good job.
4. Fine dining and street food in Kandy
Kandy was the seat of the modern king, and probably the last royal kingdom to survive. This is one of the most beautiful places in Sri Lanka with its waterfalls, mountains and temples. Chef Dimuthu Kumarasinghe of Kandy's Heritance Kandalama Hotel has been a monster at international culinary competitions. The hotel has for a few years now pushed the use of indigenous herbs, greens and cooking traditions. Then there's the main street of Kandy, which is a very heavily populated Muslim area. The street food is fantastic, and the best thing to get in Kandy, especially after 5pm, is egg hoppers. Any street. Plus lots of good mutton curries and of course biriyani. You basically walk down the street and there'll be a little shopfront with a giant pot of it and that's all they serve.
5. A taste of colonial living in the tea fields
In the tea fields of Bogawantalawa Valley is the Ceylon Tea Trails, owned by Dilmah. Tea Trails is the first Relais & Châteaux resort in Sri Lanka and it's one of the most wonderful places. The chef, Wajira Gamage, was in France for 15 years and has come back to run the kitchen. There are four colonial bungalows along the trail, most built early last century, where you can stay right amongst the tea plantations of old Ceylon.
6. Luxury camping in Yala National Park
Yala National Park has leopards, bears, wild elephants - an amazing array of animals. There are these guys who have a luxury bush camp called Kulu Safaris. They set up six luxury tents on the edge of the river, and you arrive, they pick you up at the mouth of the park, they drive you to the tents, you camp overnight and have an open bush barbecue for dinner. Then the next morning you're the first ones in the park and you get to see the herds of elephants and all the animals. The food they cook is fantastic. The best part? Breakfast is served in the river. They actually set the table up in the river and while you're sitting there little fish come and nibble away at your toes. They had these coconut pol pani pancakes - fresh grated coconut cooked down with palm sugar then fresh lime juice and rolled into a pancake. Fantastic.
7. Worship at Kataragama temple
The town of Hambantota on the south-east coast is going to be home to a new airport and base. It's not the best town but it's got some great food along the way. This area (adjacent to Yala National Park) is famous for a temple called Kataragama, which is dedicated to all the country's main faiths. There are pilgrimages there all the time and during the various festivals it's incredible: lots of elephants, great food.
8. Surf and seafood at Ahangama
Right at the bottom of the country is the fun stuff: surf, sand, backpackers, great seafood, a relaxed lifestyle - you could be anywhere, except it's still uniquely Sri Lankan, very unspoilt. Near Ahangama there's a village full of beautiful old colonial houses and 90 per cent of them now are tourist lodgings. You can sleep a family of five and you'll have three butlers, a driver, a car, a swimming pool; it might cost you $200 a night, maybe $300. I spend a lot of time in this area - I've got a group of young kids I met about five years ago and I've been taking them surfboards every year. They've got a clubhouse which we're going to paint and I've got a few surfing mates who are going to teach them how to repair boards and how to teach people to surf. Basically we're going to let them run their own surf school. It's world-class surf, and the food there is all about seafood. If you're staying at one of the houses I mentioned you can go with your cook to the markets and they'll get whatever you feel like, bring it back and cook it for you. The variety of seafood is unbelievable.
9. Culture and class in Galle
Galle is the fortification that the Portuguese built, then the Dutch took over, then the English. It's an incredible historic city and very arty. It's the seat of the Muslim population - very moderate, warm, friendly people - and a World Heritage site, a historic walled city. Inside are antiques and then there are modern artists as well. And the gorgeous old buildings have been transformed into wonderful boutique hotels, restaurants, cafés - it's a must-see place. Every year they have a literary festival which is one of the best in the world. It's also home to many English expats who have been living there a long time, so it's very English. It's got a lot of culture and a lot of class. Within the fort, The Fort Printers hotel is a beautiful place to stay, Barefoot is a cool boutique selling artisan wares, and the Serendipity Arts Café is funky.
10. Recuperation by the beach in Negombo
Before you leave, you have to go to Negombo near the airport. It has a beautiful huge beach. The Jetwing Beach Hotel in the centre of the beach has deckchairs on the sand and new luxurious rooms. It's a good way to finish off.