Sri Lanka: A chef’s tour

Sri Lanka is an island nation, about the size of Tasmania, with the population of Australia mostly crammed into its vibrant towns and cities. A nation of diverse cultures, landscapes and cuisines, we asked Sri Lankan-born chef Peter Kuruvita for a chef’s tour of this tropical paradise.

First up, I have to say that Sri Lanka is safe to travel. It also offers different levels of accommodation and dining to suit everyone –from the budget backpacker to those flying in on private jets. 

Like most international travellers, I land in the capital, Colombo, and head to the hotel to unpack. I have to say that hotel buffets are not only big in Sri Lanka but also excellent quality. The staff can talk you through the different dishes – the kiribath (milk rice), the sambals, the exotic fruit – it’s like Sri Lankan cuisine 101. 

First thing in the morning I head to the Pettah Market between the port and the railway station. It is a beautifully chaotic and vibrant affair of colourful fruit, aromatic spices and flowers. It is a catacomb of alleys where some vendors sell dried fish and others offer dozens of different mangos. It’s a cacophony of shouting and selling. I always take people with me to the tea seller and enjoy a rich and aromatic cup of milky Sri Lankan tea sweetened with palm sugar. Then we head to the ‘boutiques’, what we would call a bakery, and get some kimbula buns which are like a croissant but dusted in coarse sugar and perfect with Ceylonese tea. We might have a string hopper with some dhal and coconut chutney (pol sambal) for breakfast but later in the day we’ll find a stall selling cutlets. These are not like an Aussie lamb cutlet, oh no. These are deep-fried balls of fish or meat mixed with some potato and loads of chilli and spices, perhaps some curry leaves.

Leaving Colombo you get a sense of the diversity of the country. There are mountains high enough to grow cool climate vegetables in the plateaus and rich soil on the coast where every imaginable tropical fruit and vegetable is grown. Sri Lanka is also home to many of the world’s spices – there are villages where you can see people hand-rolling true cinnamon bark. You’ll see turmeric, ginger, cardamom and nutmeg growing and being harvested. There is nothing quite like the aroma of these incredibly fresh and vibrant spices that chefs and home cooks use every day in their cooking. 

There are so many great places to go but one that we love taking people to is Galle on the southwestern coast. This is an old trading port that has been in the hands of the Portuguese, Dutch and British and used by Muslim and Chinese traders. It’s a good spot to see the layers of culinary influence from the pancake rolls – Dutch pancakes filled and deep fried like Chinese spring rolls to the Muslim watalappam. This is like a crème caramel enriched with cashews and spices like cloves and cardamom. For me, the epitome of the laid-back Sri Lankan lifestyle is the way the fishermen haul their catch on the beach and cook it for you while you sit and watch the sun go down with an ice-cold Lion Lager in your hand. 

Peter Kuruvita will be taking a culinary tour to Sri Lanka in October 2024 and February 2025.

As seen in autumn 2024

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