Local soft drinks at a roti shop
I get a lot of joy out of cooking (to coin a phrase). On this blog I spend a lot of time eating, sure, but you rarely get to see me roll up my sleeves, tie my hair up into a kerchief and throw down in the kitchen. I love to cook.
After a slightly disappointing afternoon in Galle Fort (during which we got a bit scammed) I was ready to dive into the secrets of the bold flavours of Sri Lankan cuisine. We booked a cooking and street food course with local legend Juliet Coombe, with whom we had already taken two fantastic historical walking tours.
Culture jamming at Serendipity Cafe
While Juliet runs a walking tour and publishing empire, her husband has his own business – he runs Serendipity Arts Café, the location of our cooking class. Every day between 5:30 and 7:30pm they close down the restaurant so that they can host the classes (for the utterly reasonable price of 20 dollars!), a combination of hands-on experience, street food walk and a fresh meal prepared with achingly fresh ingredients.
Our fearless leader and chefOur group was quite large, so Mum and Tim were paired with a couple closer to their age and I was grouped with a wonderful couple from London. We started off as a large group making pol sambol – a dish that combines shredded coconut, chilis, lime and onions and is normally eaten with hoppers (more on those later) for breakfast or as an accompaniment to fish.
Juliet had us sample the pol sambol three ways: with our fingers, with bread and with a fork. She asked us to compare the experience and to decide how we liked it best, and we were overwhelmingly in favour of eating with our hands – a fact that made the kitchen staff beam with joy. See, Sri Lankans believe that eating with your hands is in fact more civilized than using the Western utensils that were foisted upon them during colonization. There are three reasons for this:
- You don’t know where knives and forks have been, but you do know where your hands have been.
- Your fingers provide the first level of digestion and you are less likely to overeat than if you’re shoveling food into your face with a fork.
- Bits of metal flake off of utensils over time, and could be one of the reasons for Alzheimer’s disease in the West.
Plus it’s super fun to eat with your hands, duh.
Mango seller in the Fort
At this point we split into two and my group went on a food walk of the Fort while my Mum and Tim stayed behind to cook in the small kitchen. On our stroll we visited three of the local food vendors and sampled ripe mango covered in salt, black pepper and chilis, hot roti and freshly roasted peanuts. Sri Lankans refer to pre-dinner snacks as “short eats” (this is pretty much the best description of anything I have ever heard). Short eats are necessary when an average meal takes hours to prepare (note to Violet Dear – when you are eating your ‘dinner’ of cheese and triscuits while standing over the sink you can think of Sri Lankan women slaving over open fires and feel relieved. Or guilty.)
Ayurvedic, healthy and tasty!Juliet explained that the average Fort home has fish delivered three times a day! Fruit, veggies and snacks are also delivered daily by bicycle-riding vendors - this is the land of Ayurveda, after all, and food is viewed as medicine for your body and mind, so it’s gotta be fresh. An average of 30 spices and herbs are used in each dish, many added not just for their flavor but also for their health benefits.
Violet Dear gets her hands dirty
Back in the kitchen we began to prepare hoppers, the most beloved of all Sri Lankan breakfast dishes. These thin little crepe bowls are the not-too-distant cousins of Dutch pannekoekens (a very tasty relic of colonization) and can also be served in a weird patty form (string hoppers) or have an egg cracked right inside of them as they cook (and then they become – you guessed it – egg hoppers). We helped the chef create some delicious egg hoppers smothered with a ragout of of tomatoes, onions and chili. They tasted like decadent little McMuffins (I mean that as a compliment, promise) and once I spooned some pol sambol on top I was in heaven. BREAKFAST HEAVEN.
I can't tell you how wonderful this smelled
We took more of a backseat role as the chef prepared a beautiful pumpkin curry and a fish curry as he walked us through the steps. No Sri Lankan meal is complete without “rice’n’curry,” an assortment of small tapas style dishes served with a heap of rice, and though the main ingredient of each dish varies, they all feature liberal amounts of chili, curry leaves, fenugreek and coconut milk. The resulting cuisine tastes like a cross between South Indian and Thai food, with its own twist.
Egg hopper and fish curry
We sat down to eat the fruits of our labour (let’s be honest – it was mostly the chef’s labour) and I discovered that my new friends, a lovely couple from London, have very similar interests and pop culture tastes to me. It was a wonderful surprise to find myself talking about Sleater Kinney and It’s Always Sunny over a meal on the other side of the planet! And what a meal it was. Delicious, interesting, fresh and delivered to our mouths with our fingers – it’s the most refined way to eat, after all.
New friends eating our feast