A country’s cuisine is an insight into so much more than just what people fancy for lunch. It’s a glimpse into a culture’s daily routines and rhythms; is lunch a quick sandwich inhaled in front of a computer screen, or a two-hour, two-course affair, leaving time for an afternoon siesta? Sri Lankan meals are never a quick one-pot affair, with various dishes and sides present in each meal. Looking to learn the recipes and techniques that make up Sri Lankan cuisine, we donned our aprons on and took a Sri Lankan cookery course.
On a Lonely Planet recommendation we chose a cookery course in Unawatuna, a little beachside village just 10 minutes away from Galle, the colonial town we had headed to from Colombo. Leading the class was the extremely charismatic Karuna, who has been running the course since 2004.
Having read lots about the course, and Karuna, I knew what to expect – a trip to the market, the chance to make an array of traditional curries, and the experience of Karuna herself. Chatty, smiley and an absolute domestic goddess, within ten minutes of meeting her she had her arm around me and was already bossing orders. I felt like Karuna and I would really get on.
Picking up our ingredients in the market, I saw vegetables I didn’t even know existed. Round baby aubergines? Well I never. Leaving the market, we stopped off to buy some fresh tuna. Never one to be squeamish, the sight of a man driving a machete into this enormous tuna fish’s head had even me looking away.
We made an impressive 7 curries in total, each using a similar blend of curry and pandan leaves (pandan is similar to lemongrass) and various spices. Each curry contained coconut milk or cream, which we extracted ourselves from just one coconut. Once split in two, the coconut flesh is then extracted out of the shell and then twice drained through a sieve with water; once to obtain the coconut cream, and a second time to get the milk.
Coconut admin out of the way, we could start preparing our many curries. The tuna curry was our spiciest, with an intimidating two teaspoons of chilli flakes. Karuna ignored my pleas for a milder version and continued to add in a handful of baby green chilis. She told me if I didn’t like spice, I just didn’t eat the chilis. Fair enough…and what Karuna says, goes.
After just over an hour of cooking, we had managed to rustle up a true feast. We all took away mini notebooks, with the recipes scribbled down and top tips noted. It was fascinating seeing how these traditional dishes are made, and to summarise a bit about each recipe…
– They all have a lot of garlic. Want to cook great curries? Don’t scrimp on the cloves – all of the dishes we made contained at least 6.
– Revelation: you don’t need to soften or cook the onions first. Honestly! We just mixed all the ingredients in a bowl with its liquid (either the coconut milk or cream) and then put it straight in the pan. A time saver or what?
– Garam masala, turmeric, salt, ground black pepper and chilli are your key flavours.
– Fresh curry leaves are amazing. All recipes had at least 10 in, shredded roughly by hand. Pandan leaves are also incredibly fragrant, but if you can’t find them, opt for lemongrass instead.
Without further ado, here is my favourite curry recipe from the day.
Serves 4 people as a side dish, 2 as a main.
– ½ kilo pineapple (can also use plantain/green mango/chicken – for chicken, alter cooking times*)
– 1 and a half tsp curry powder
– ½ tsp chilli powder
– ½ tsp ground pepper
– ½ tsp garam masala
– ½ tsp salt
– 20 curry leaves
– 1 cup coconut milk
– Mix all ingredients together. Cook in 3 tsp of oil (sunflower/vegetable/coconut) and simmer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, add in 2 tsp sugar. Stir, simmer for 5-10 more minutes*.
*If you’re going for the chicken version, make sure you’ve cooked the dish for at least half an hour, and that no flesh remains pink!
Not one to blow my own trumpet (and of course this plate is due mainly to Karuna’s knowledge in the kitchen rather than any skill of my own), but this meal was one of my favourite of the entire holiday. This huge mix of flavours on one plate meant every mouthful was exciting, with different tastes in each dish, from the sweet pineapple right through to the spicy, meaty tuna fish. It was incredible how every dish was so unique, despite all of them using a similar mix of spices and herbs.
If anybody is eager to know any of the other recipes we made, feel free to drop me an email and I will happily share them with you.