Srilankan sa­fari

Celebrity chef Peter Ku­ru­vita leads a mem­o­rable culi­nary tour of his an­ces­tral home

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - DINOO KEL­LEGHAN

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

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