Beautiful fresh vegies

Cooking class in Sri Lanka

Fresh vegetables at the market

Fresh vegetables at the market

I was really keen to do a cooking class in Sri Lanka, because the first thing that you will notice when you visit is just how amazing and delicious the food is. It’s fresh, tasty, flavoursome and there’s huge variety on offer.

The best thing is the basic “rice and curry”, however that is massively underselling what’s really cooking! Rice and curry means rice (obviously), a curry, be it fish, chicken or very occasionally beef, then usually there are at least three different vegetable dishes, plus dhal, coconut sambal and poppadums. The vegetables are usually curries, but sometimes a type of sweet and sour dish. I’ve sample carrots, beetroot, green beans, potato, pumpkin, eggplant, sweet potato…… even fruit curries, which might sound strange but taste sensational – jackfruit curry or mango curry, yum!

Nearly always dinner is served with rice, although sometimes it’s string hoppers, which is like a little nest of noodles formed into a patty. Not only is “rice and curry” delicious, it’s nutritious, cheap, and there’s plenty of it. The Sri Lankan way to eat it is with your fingers. Just a note to others eating this way, even if you’ve washed your hands afterwards, don’t let your hands go anywhere near your eyes….those chilies live on!

For desert, I have discovered the best thing is curds and treacle. This might not sound appetising, but it is absolutely scrumptious – curds being made from buffalo milk and tasting a bit like yogurt, and the treacle is made from the sap of the kitul palm and tastes a bit like honey crossed with molasses. If that doesn’t tempt, there’s banana fritters with treacle, or Watalappam, a coconut custard pudding made of coconut milk or condensed milk, jaggery (a concentrated sugar, sometimes called panela), cashew nuts, eggs, and various spices like cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.  I can’t tell you how good it all tastes.

Banana Fritters

Banana Fritters

Breakfast is a fresh juice of whatever the guesthouse has available, and usually a plate of fruit. It might be pineapple, melon, papaya, mango or banana or a combination. Then there’s eggs, maybe a “Sri Lankan style” spicy omelette, which means it’s cooked with chopped up chili, onion, tomato. This is also accompanied by toast, but sometimes hoppers, which are a very thin bowl shaped crepe made from rice flour, or a type of roti which are small, round and solid.

So given how delicious the food is, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to do a cooking class? I was in Unawatuna on the coast, not far from Galle.  We were five students in total, and our teacher for the day was Karuna, a short, bubbly lady with an infectious, hearty, pealing laugh that we heard often through the day. First up was a trip to Galle to the Green Market to buy our vegetables.

Vegetable market

Vegetable market

Then we were off to the spice man, who explained about the many different spices used in Sri Lankan cooking. We sniffed in the rich, heady and complex scents and all left with little packets of powder…..it will be interesting getting that back to Australia, but fingers crossed!

Spice market

Spice market

We found the coconut man and Karuna moaned to me about the price of coconuts, which have gone up from 20 rupees to 60 rupees in recent times (all the developments apparently, which means not as many coconut trees). Next up was to the fishmonger, set up on a roadside stall, next to the ocean (obviously) then finally the chicken man. Finally back to Karuna’s to start cooking.

At the fishmonger

At the fishmonger

Recreated below are the recipes and the method. Try cooking it at home if you can, you won’t be disappointed.

First take two coconuts! With a good heavy knife split the coconuts into two halves. Watch your fingers! Drink the juice, it’s delicious. Then take your coconut shaver and shave one coconut into a bowl. Add two glasses of water to the shaved coconut, and mix thoroughly with your hands, squeezing as you go, to get all the flavour out. Then squeeze all the liquid out – you have just made your coconut cream. Then repeat the process with the same shaved coconut. That’s your coconut milk. Of course you could open a can, but the flavours won’t be the same.

Now we can start making the curries. First up is the mango curry. It’s exactly the same recipe for beef, chicken and vegetable.

  • Chop 2 green mango into chunks and set asisde.
  • Take one garlic bulb and one inch of ginger put this into your mortar and pestle. Pound away! Add one diced onion (“chopped cube” as Karuna might say), 20 curry leaves, and about an inch of pandan leaf (or you can use lemon grass if you don’t have pandan, but never use lemongrass in a fish curry) – pound some more! Put this is a separate bowl, then throw in two cinnamon sticks which you’ve pounded a little, and five cardamom pods, pounded a little. Set the onion mix aside.
  • Now add to your chopped mangoes 2x teaspoons of the meat curry powder you bought from the spice man (a richer, darker curry powder suitable for meat, chicken etc), 1x teaspoon chili powder or more if you fancy it hotter, 1x teaspoon black pepper powder, 1x teaspoon garam masala (not the ground stuff, use whole garam masala in seed and leaf form – get it from the spice man!), then 1/4 teaspoon turmeric (because this is always in curry) and finally 1/4 teaspoon salt. Mix together well.
  • Finally you can start cooking. Heat 1x tablespoon oil and fry your onion mixture for a bit. Then add your mango mixture. Add to this 1 glass of water, plus maybe another 1/2 glass or so. Swirl some water in the bowl where the mango mix was and add that for flavour. Cook on a medium heat for 15 minutes. Then add 2x teaspoons sugar (but only to a mango curry, not to the chicken one which you are about to make).
Mango curry

Mango curry

Now for the chicken curry. Do exactly what you’ve just done for the mango curry but don’t add the sugar.

Chicken curry

Chicken curry

Dhal curry – so delicious!

  • You need 500gm lentils. Any colour will do, we used orange. You will need to soak the lentils first, how long depends on what colour. We soaked ours for half an hour.
  • Add to the lentils 1 sliced, 5x cloves of sliced garlic, 20x curry leaves you’ve crunched up in your fingers to release the flavours, 1 inch pandan leaf, 2x cinnamon sticks, 1x teaspoon regular curry powder, 1/2 teaspoon ground mustard seed, 1 teaspoon garam masala (not that ground stuff), 1x teaspoon pepper powder, 1x teaspoon chili powder, 1x teaspoon salt, 2x cup coconut milk, 1x cup coconut cream.
  • Mix thoroughly with your hands. Now cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes.
  • In a separate pan heat 1x tablespoon oil and fry till crispy 1x sliced onion, then add 1x teaspoon chili flakes. Add this to the top of your dhal for extra flavour.

Pumpkin curry is exactly same recipe as for dhal, but don’t add any chili powder, or the extra onion and chili mix. You can also use this recipe for potato or sweet potato. Don’t overcook, you don’t want mash!

Pumpkin curry

Pumpkin curry

Now for the fish curry.

  • Get the fishmonger to give you 1 kilogram fresh fish, any will do, and chop it into big chunks. We used butterfish because it was fresh.
  • Now add 2x diced onions, 7 cloves sliced garlic. Throw in as many little green chilies as you like. Then add 20x curry leaves, crushed in your hands, 1x inch pandan leaf crushed in your hands (don’t use lemongrass here), 2x diced tomatoes, 1x tablespoon chili flakes, 1/4 teaspoon turmeric, 1x teaspoon whole garam masala, 1x teaspoon salt, 1x cup coconut cream.
  • Stir together well and cook for ten minutes, then add the juice of one lime.
Fish curry

Fish curry

Finally the coconut sambal.

  • Take half a coconut and shave it into a bowl.
  • Slice 1x onion and 4x cloves garlic and put in your mortar and pestle. Pound away! Add 1 teaspoon chili, 1/2 teaspoon pepper powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pound! Add the coconut and pound! Use plastic gloves to transfer it to a bowl and add the juice of 1 lime.

Dinner is served. Don’t forget your rice and poppadoms. Yum!

Poppadoms!

Poppadoms!

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