There’s nothing like traveling by train to really lay open the heart of a land. In this case the south bound “Ruhunu Kumari”(or Southern Princess) is practically skirting the waves as it barrels down the west coast to the resort town of Hikkaduwa, about 2 1/2 hours outside Colombo. No, unfortunately this is not the part of the show where Tony and I get a deluxe pampering courtesy of one of the many Ayurvedic spas in the area. Even the picturesque beaches will have to wait.
We are coming to bear witness to a triumph over tragedy—how the nearby village of Seenigama, obliterated by the tsunami of 2004, got back on its feet and is thriving today. Thanks to the help of The Foundation for Goodness, a private, a non-profit organization run by my friend Kushil, this once devastated hamlet now boasts new brick homes as well as its own medical clinic, library, computer center, and a cooking school for village youth, which is of particular interest to us.
But right now, it’s all about enjoying the ride as Colombo’s urban clutter gives way to a simpler way of life. Gazing out the window offers a panorama of postcard views. Children wave from ramshackle houses, while grazing water buffalo pay no attention at all. Women wash clothes in a stream, while around them, brightly colored batiks, soaking up the sun, adorn the ground. The noticeably cleaner air is intoxicating and alive with the smell of lush vegetation, which sometimes caresses the sides of our cabin. Then, of course, come the special perks of third world public transit—like being able to hang out of open doors, and the much-anticipated parade of food vendors.
These enterprising individuals climb aboard at certain stops hefting a basketful of spicy, delicious, usually deep-fried wares known as “short eats.” Definitely a term derived from the British, the snacks themselves are a legacy of the Portuguese, who also left their predilection for salty, fried, finger food or salgados in places like Brazil. In Sri Lanka, however, local tastes have elevated the short eat to new heights.
Consider the isso wade or shrimp fritters, which we are about to eat–ground urud lentils mixed with water, chili, and spices, formed into a concave disk and topped with a whole shrimp, and then deep-fried until golden brown and crusty. Think falafel with a kick. Tony bites into one. “Mmmmm.” He polishes off the whole shrimp–head, tail, legs and all–crunching on its crispy goodness. “Aw, yeah. That’s good stuff,” he says popping another one into his mouth and licking his fingers.
We also have some Chinese rolls, so named, I assume, because they resemble egg rolls. But the similarities end there. The Sri Lankan version starts with a small pancake topped with a line of spicy fish and potato mixture. Then the sides are folded over, and the pancake rolled up and batter-dipped before getting a second coat of breadcrumbs. After a bath in hot oil, the roll comes out crispy on the outside with a warm, moist filling. As we fill up on short eats and scenery, the two-hour journey is over before we know it.
Hikkaduwa’s train station–a dusty platform in a small fishing town—gives no hint to the place’s popularity among tourists, who flock here for the expansive beaches
and inexpensive five star resorts. Having barely recovered from the tsunami, the hotels must now contend with the civil war, which is keeping many foreign visitors away. If there were anyone around today, they’d see Tony carrying a camera tripod on his shoulders as we head to the van for the short ride to Seenigama.
Kushil greets us at the recently built community center with a traditional Buddhist lamp-lighting ceremony complete with Kandyan drummers. He has another surprise—the famous local chef Felicia Sorenson, who will be conducting the class at the cooking school today. Author of the well-known Sri Lankan cookbook, The Exotic Tastes of Paradise, and founder of the respected Curry Leaf Restaurant at the Colombo Hilton, Sorenson has always been an enthusiastic ambassador for Sri Lankan food.
Before a crowd of about 20 teenage girls and present company, she prepares two fairly basic dishes—pineapple curry and miris malu (stuffed chili peppers). She says one thing I definitely don’t agree with, but since the cameras are rolling I let it go.
I believe that curry leaves, used in practically every dish, including rice, provide one of the signature flavors of Sri Lankan cuisine. Echoing her book, Sorenson tells the class that bay leaves are an acceptable substitute even though bay leaves bear no resemblance to curry leaves in flavor or aroma, whatsoever. Personally, I would not even try to cook Sri Lankan food without the essential curry leaf, but since they are readily available at Indian stores in the U.S. this hardly presents a problem. It just goes to show that even top chefs are not infallible.
After the demonstration, Tony gets a tour of the village while the crew shoots the preparation of a typical southern meal, made in our honor. Because Kushil is a strict Buddhist, no meat is served and only one fish dish—sour fish curry (fish ambul
thiyal)—in deference to the carnivores present. This dry curry made with goraka (gamboge), a tart fruit indigenous to Sri Lanka that gives the dish its trademark “sour” flavor, happens to be one of my favorites. Instead of goraka, which might be harder to find outside the island, tamarind would make an acceptable substitute. The other dishes—jackfruit, runner beans, and gotu kola sambol—represent the bounty of local produce that cannot be found abroad. They are supplemented by such standards as dahl or paripoo (red lentils stewed in coconut milk), dry fish, deep-fried, salted whole red chilies, and, of course, rice.
Tony looks like that guy I know from TV as he fills his plate to capacity. The Sri Lankan meal, in which all dishes are served simultaneously, encourages over-eating, and it doesn’t take me long to find myself in that familiar predicament again. Stuffed to the gills and stewing in the afternoon heat, I’m a good bet for a nap right now. But first, we have one more thing to shoot–on the beach. So who’s complaining?