Celebrity chef Peter Kuruvita leads a memorable culinary tour of his ancestral home
PETER Kuruvita was sitting at the edge of a wide reservoir built by Sri Lankan kings more than 1000 years ago, wondering how he could portray the simplicity of village cooking in what would become the international hit SBS cooking series My Sri Lanka.
‘ ‘ This guy came floating past in a canoe,’’ says Kuruvita, whose culinary expertise, marked by his Sri Lankan ancestry, has made him one of Australia’s hottest chefs.
‘‘I jumped in and we rowed across to the other side. It was a wilderness. Another man came out of the trees with a rifle over his shoulder and we followed him to his thatched hut. His corn had been eaten by monkeys; elephants had trodden over parts of his farm patch. He really didn’t have very much.
‘‘He picked some manioc root from his garden and boiled it; we caught some fish from the river, and had a meal. We realised it was the real thing, the hidden Sri Lanka.’’
And this is where Kuruvita has brought us to share that experience. The Habarana reservoir in northcentral Sri Lanka lies close to Anuradhapura, capital of Sri Lanka for 1500 years until AD11, and to the superb rock fortress of Sigiriya. The lake blooms with sheets of the beautiful violet and gold manel waterlily that is the national flower (frescoes from AD5 at Sigiriya show goddesses holding the blooms).
In the hut discovered by Kuruvita, on plates of waterlily leaves, we eat a meal prepared by the farmer’s family with ingredients plucked from the river, the trees and the red earth just hours earlier.
There is curried breadfruit and green beans, fried fish, a tabouli-like salad of pennywort and adhatoda leaf cooked with coconut and lime, another salad of carrot, tomato and onion in mustard, eggplant fried with vinegar, mung beans, coconut sambol and coconut flatbread served with a fiery chilli-tomato paste ground on a stone as we watch.
Local women show us how to make the coconut bread over an open fire, and afterwards we drink the perfumed tea made from beli-mal, the flowers of the bael fruit, to purify the blood and cleanse the system.
It is one of the most memorable moments of a culinary tour organised by World Expeditions, My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita, building on the TVseries. At least half a dozen times during the tour, groups of tourists from Australia, Britain and other countries hail Kuruvita to tell him they’ve come to Sri Lanka because they enjoyed the documentary.
‘‘It’s more than just sightseeing,’’ says one. ‘‘To see the food, see where the ingredients came from, the people who cooked it . . . you start to understand how these people live and the culture of the country.’’
‘‘Right from the start you begin connecting with people,’’ says Neil, a dour professor who unexpectedly blazes a trail through the makeshift kitchens of the cooking demonstrations. ‘‘On the first day, at the Pettah Market in Colombo, I saw a pile of something I couldn’t identify and said, ‘Oh, I wonder what sort of fruit that is.’ This guy selling it, who probably has next to nothing to call his own, grabbed a handful and said, ‘Here, try it.’ We didn’t have to pay. We experienced the generosity, the friendliness, of Sri Lankans over and over.’’
In Kandy, the group learns to make two Sri Lankan treats: hoppers, a crisp wafer with a spongy centre that is ideal for scooping up curry and sambols; and kottu roti, a roadside dish that is as much performance as food. The men particularly enjoy making kottu roti, grasping a cleaver in each hand and beating out a cha-cha on a heated griddle as they finely chop roti, vegetables, chicken, onion and egg with lashings of chilli.
In Matale, sitting dry under thatch while a sudden downpour glistens on an emerald paddy field, we feast on nine curries with rice and learn how to make a moreish onion sambol and pani pol — shredded fresh coconut simmered in coconut treacle and rolled up in pancakes. Kuruvita demands authenticity from the village cooks. ‘‘More chilli,’’ he orders for the sambol, and mutters that the pani pol lacks cardamom.
Kuruvita is cheerful, energetic, willing to help unfit travellers over rough patches, duck down to a hotel cellar to help choose a bottle of wine, or part with endless cooking tips, and the group bonds over the cookpots and his insights into a beautiful country about which some had known little, apart from tea and cricket.
One traveller, a diabetic, chooses to learn how to make a curry of bitter melon, renowned for its ability to reduce glucose in the bloodstream. ‘‘Cooking food that is good for you is important,’’ says Kuruvita.
Another tour member says she cooks bitter melon by slicing it thinly, rubbing it in chilli and salt, letting the liquids leach out, then dipping the pieces in egg and frying them. ‘‘Ah,’’ chides Kuruvita, ‘‘but by letting the liquid go you’re taking out the goodness.’’ He caps her recipe, saying his father used to fry bitter melon slices