Sri Lanka: A food tour with celebrity chef Peter Kuruvita

Peter Kuruvita is demonstrating the delicate art of eating with your hands – and there is indeed an art to it. He pinches together the fingers of his right hand, using them to sweep up chunks of meat and rice from his plate.

"Just like a fork, you don't want to overload it," he explains. "Keep it below the knuckles." Look at your plate as a painter's palate, he advises. "Take a little bit of everything and mix it together."

I am replaying his instructions in my mind when we settle in for a cutlery-free meal at the village of Habarana a few days later. Our host, Nanda, has cooked up half a dozen dishes from ingredients grown on her farm, including curries variously made with eggplant, beans and pumpkins, as well as a terrific coconut sambal. Instead of plates, there are baskets lined with banana leaves; instead of cutlery, we use our hands.

Unfortunately, it seems I didn't pay enough attention to Peter's lesson. While I manage to pinch together a good amount of food, the process of transferring it from my fingers to my mouth is less successful. More than a few grains of rice end up on the floor. Others end up on my chin. Nanda's four-year-old grandson, Dinesh, watches my inept attempts with scorn written all over his face.

Public humiliation aside, our visit to Habarana is one of the most memorable days of our food tour of Sri Lanka. The village lies well off the beaten track. To get there, we take an old-fashioned cart from the nearest main road down to a waterlily-studded weir – the bullocks having been replaced by a hand tractor – then pile into canoes for the five-minute crossing. Amid the fields on the far bank, Nanda and her husband Sena have set up a simple shelter with a small kitchen, which is where we eat our lunch.

You won't find this place in any guidebook. "I first came down here when I was filming [TV series] My Sri Lanka," Kuruvita explains. "We were meant to be filming around the corner with these elephants, but one of the elephants got free and ran right through the set.

"After that we had nothing to do, so I went for a wander down the road just to see what was happening. There was a man standing on the far side of the river and he beckoned us over. We got talking and ended up having a meal of tilapia and cassava with them.

"They were such lovely people but they had nothing. Their farms back onto virgin forest, and elephants had come through and wreaked havoc with the fields. I thought, we should do something with them."

That is precisely what Kuruvita did. The entire community has benefited from being included on Kuruvita's 14-day food tour run by World Expeditions; the driver of our cart proudly points out the new house he has built as we pass by. It is this genuine interaction with locals that is one of the hallmarks of the trip; that, and of course plenty of delicious food.

Our immersion into the world of Sri Lanka cuisine starts on our first day, when we tour Pettah Markets in Colombo. Kuruvita introduces us to a range of local produce, from brown-skinned wood apples the size of a cricket ball to a herb called gotu kola that, he promises us, we will encounter again.

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At one stall, he holds up a large scroll of cinnamon, and points out the many smaller scrolls tucked inside the outer curl of bark. "All of those are packed inside by hand," he says, before moving on to cashews. "These have to be peeled by hand, and they are a tough job; you need to put coconut oil on your hands before you start. There is a lot of work involved, so treat these ingredients with respect."

Kuruvita also points out that despite the huge mounds of spices for sale, locals typically buy small amounts. "The freshness makes all the difference; you can taste it in the food," he says. "Don't keep spices standing around for half a decade."

We quickly discover that Sri Lankan curries are a very different beast to their Indian cousins. Instead of the complex layers of flavours that is typically Indian, Sri Lankan cuisine features cleaner flavours. "There are different curry blends for fish, for meat, for vegetables, but really it's about letting the flavours of the main ingredient – the beetroot, the cashew, the fish – come through," Kuruvita says.

The 14-day itinerary includes plenty of big-ticket sights, from the ancient city of Anuradhapura to the tea fields of hill country, from the sacred Temple of the Buddha's Tooth in Kandy to the Uda Walawe National Park, famed for its herd of wild elephants. These are interspersed with all sorts of culinary highlights, from lessons in how to cook some of Kuruvita's favourite curries to a visit to a tea warehouse.

Along the way, Kuruvita shares his childhood memories of the island. At one cooking demonstration that takes place beside a rice paddy, Kuruvita gestures to our hosts: a woman who is doing all the work, and a man who is supervising her.  

"This happens everywhere," he says. "The men don't cook, but they love to supervise. All my uncles considered themselves experts, but none of them ever cooked anything." From the small smile on our female host's face, it's clear that she agrees with him.

As we watch her prepare a so-called sugar sambal, or seeni sambal – an all-purpose condiment that, we soon discover, makes just about everything taste better, Kuruvita is again taken back to his childhood. "During the conflict in the 1970s, sugar was rationed. Each of us kids got one pound a month, and it was up to us when and how we ate it. We used to keep it in a jar of water to keep the ants out, but of course they got in – so we ate them too."

Kuruvita's childhood tales are yet another reminder that in Sri Lanka, the past is always present. I might find it hard to believe that his grandmother kept an elephant's jawbone as a remedy against mumps, working small shavings into a paste that was applied to the pustules, if I hadn't seen plenty of evidence of people clinging to tradition even today. When we visit Kandy's Temple of Buddha's Tooth, the number of white-robed worshippers is simply staggering. Driving down the road one day, we pull over to watch another colourful religious procession, this one featuring half a dozen different groups of flamboyantly clad dancers and musicians, all led by a colourfully-painted elephant.

The most impressive dance performance, however, takes place at our hotel in Kandy. Having cooked a dinner of street foods such as hoppers and kottu roti (OK, so we got a little help from some of the hotel chefs), we are treated to a performance of Kandyean dance that leaves us speechless, both at the acrobatic skill of the dancers and at their apparent imperviousness of pain as they draw flames up and down their arms. Afterwards, Kuruvita demonstrates a few moves of his own, including a dance step he calls the Fiji Shuffle.

There is a relaxed feel to our small group (tours are capped at 12 participants) and time to chill out, whether that's with a leisurely picnic in Kandy's Botanic Gardens or by the hotel pool in the late afternoon. The slower pace gives you the opportunity to take a peek into other people's lives. One lunchtime, I spot a mother feeding her five-year-old daughter by hand. Glancing over at Kuruvita, I see has also clocked the moment.

"Children get pampered here," he tells me. "I remember my dad feeding me; although he didn't have a nice soft hand like that mother probably has." Kuruvita laughs. "Everything he fed me smelled vaguely of diesel."

TRIP NOTES

Ute Junker travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and Sri Lankan Airlines.

FLY

Sri Lankan Airlines flies direct from Melbourne to Colombo daily. See srilankan.com  

TOUR

World Expeditions' 14-day My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita includes stops in Colombo, Kandy, Sigiriya, Uda Walawe National Park and Galle, as well as a range of cooking classes and demonstrations. The next trip departs in October 2019. From $7890 per person. Peter will also lead a 16-day Northern Food Trails itinerary next June, visiting Jaffna, Nuwara Eliya and Wilpatthu National Park, and including cooking classes and demonstrations. From $7390. See worldexpeditions.com

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