Category Archives: Indian Subcontinent

Exploring Sri Lanka

“You must try the pepper crab. It’s the best in the whole country. I must warn you to go easy with the sambal though, it’s pretty fiery.”

In the stylish restaurant, music, conversation and chinking glasses create a soundtrack of conviviality, as waiters slip between crowded wooden tables, bearing platters of fresh crabs the size of small helicopters. This is Ministry of Crab, an extremely popular new restaurant in the heart of one of today’s most exciting Asian cities. Not South Korea’s Seoul, not China’s Chengdu, not even Tokyo, with its ever-evolving appeal. No, the city currently attracting the attention of foodies, fashionistas and – most importantly – investors, is Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Until recently, Colombo had a reputation for traffic and chaos at best; a city that tourists sped through on the way from the airport to the beaches in the south-west, or east to Kandy and the Cultural Triangle beyond. It seemed there was little reason to stay in Sri Lanka’s tense, run-down capital. But these days Colombo is in the grip of a profound renaissance, as a wealth of restaurants, artisan shops, galleries and festivals – not to mention luxurious 5-star hotels and characterful boutique properties – spring up across the city.

Ministry of Crab is a good example. The chic seafood restaurant, launched in 2011 by Sri Lankan cricketing legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, is set inside the iconic Dutch Hospital, a magnificent landmark property in Colombo’s Fort financial district. Dating back to 1681, the Dutch Hospital was originally built as a treatment centre for staff serving under the Dutch East India Company, but during recent years had fallen into disrepair and was taken over by the military.

There is a wider sense of life returning to Colombo, and another factor contributing to the city’s new-found vitality is the regeneration of public spaces. Colombo’s abandoned public parks have been reclaimed and landscaped: now convivial communal areas, many feature a network of new walking and cycling trails, that have proven extremely popular. Colombo resident Kalpana Wijesinghe is full of praise for the new green public spaces:

“Independence Square, for example, used to be a place that everyone knew about but no one had reason to visit. Since it was pedestrianised though, suddenly it’s become the place we all go: Muslims, Tamils, Singhalese, foreign visitors … everyone meets there to walk and talk. Gyms in the area have lost business because we’re all outside walking.”

For all Sri Lanka’s modernising though, leave the city and you will quickly discover a country that is the very picture of a lush tropical paradise, filled with natural wonders and a history stretching back more than 2000 years.

Travelling through Sri Lanka is like turning the pages of a richly illustrated history book. Its landscape is filled with images and sites that tell the story of the country’s ancient origins (early Muslim scholars taught that Adam and Eve were offered sanctuary here after being expelled from the Garden of Eden) through to the modern day. A four-hour drive east takes you up into the Hill Country to the sacred city of Kandy.

Valleys of glinting stork-staked rice paddies morph into hillsides richly dressed with fruit plantations of fig, banana (92 different varieties), papaya, coconut, mango and pineapple (each carefully checked, as cobras love to stick their fangs into the sweet juicy flesh). The landscape exudes a kind of primordial fecundity: deep, dense, verdant, vibrant, you can almost hear the plants straining against the soil in their impatience to grow. These crops are at the heart of Sri Lanka’s economy: as you rise ever higher, fruit trees give way to cashew, almond, cinnamon and nutmeg, before the highest altitudes open out into Sri Lanka’s famed tea plantations. It’s a truly glorious drive, and that’s before you’ve even reached Kandy, with its spectacular Temple of the Sacred Tooth (where Lord Buddha’s tooth is said to reside within seven golden caskets) and the library with its precious collection of books owned by Marco Polo. All this lies along a brand new road, which follows the original built by the colonising British when they forced the Dutch out in 1815.

Galle was first colonised by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. It was the Dutch East India Company who, in 1640, forced out the Portuguese, and upgraded the fortifications to walls of solid granite complete with three, canon-proof bastions (the Sun, Moon and Star). This sturdy 450-year-old bulwark was to save Galle’s historic world heritage-listed heart, when the tsunami crashed ashore in 2004, killing thousands and destroying much of the city beyond the walls.

Nearly a decade on and Galle has made an extraordinary recovery, to the extent that as you walk along the pretty lanes of historic white-washed buildings, you’d be hard pressed to know its more recent history (a visit to the sensitively curated Maritime Archaeological Museum, which opened in 2011, will give you the necessary insight). Galle is a wonderfully friendly and vibrant place: elegant mansions, historic churches, quirky coffee shops and gorgeous boutiques lead down to a beautiful sandy beach where local families gather to play cricket and splash around in the surf.
Galle is often dubbed the Goa of Sri Lanka.

In fact, many describe Sri Lanka as India-lite, a country that shares much of the history, culture and natural attractions of India without the vast distances or sensory assault. But visit Sri Lanka and you’ll quickly discover a country with a unique and wonderful identity of its own: one drawing upon its history as wholeheartedly as it embraces its future.

Gastronomy 101: Spices of Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan cuisine is exciting, interesting and varied, being heavily influenced by many different flavours. Always an important port for British and Dutch colonialists, Sri Lanka has known many foreign traders, bringing with them spices and techniques that have been integrated into local cuisine.

Fragrantly spiced dishes abound with fresh flavours to balance out the pungent spices. If you are looking for a foodie escape that combines local home-cookery with restaurant quality meals, look no further than one of our Sri Lankan food experiences.

Traditional cuisine with local flare

Typically Sri Lankan cuisine heavily features rice, coconut and spices. Curries predominate, made with fish, beef, chicken or mutton accompanied by lentils, vegetables or fruit. Dishes are usually served with pickled fruit or vegetables, and sambols such as coconut sambol (coconut, chili, dried fish & lime juice). Many dishes are also accompanied by roti, wheat flatbread.

Our Sri Lanka for Foodies tour is the ultimate food adventure over 12 days, taking you from markets to the kitchen to amazing natural sites of the island. In Negombo, you will explore the fish market on a guided tour and select your lunch – to be cooked by you in a Sri Lankan home cookery lesson. Dambulla will allow you a peek into traditional village life, with lunch flavours inspired by Chena or rotational cropping.

In Matale you will visit a spice garden where you can learn of Sri Lanka’s important place in the world as a purveyor of fine spices. Kandy you will enjoy another home cookery demonstration and then feast of a typical menu including fish, prawns, lentils, vegetables, curried, sambols and rice. Nuwara Eliya you can indulge in the English tradition of High Tea, set amongst the beautiful mountains and tea plantations. Finally the tour will take you to Colombo, the Sri Lankan street food capital where you will enjoy a walking tour and sample many delicacies along the way.

Short Gastronomy Experiences

For those who don’t have the time for the extended food tour, we also offer a number of shorter foodie experiences, ranging from four hours to three days.

From Colombo you can enjoy a Cooking by Colours lesson and feast or a Mirissa Lagoon Fishing Experience. Relax on a sunset cruise on Mirissa Langoon and Mangrove Sanctuary where you can fish for your dinner. Return to shore and enjoy a beachside BBQ featuring your freshly caught seafood and delicious accompaniments.

For the tea lovers among us, we also offer a three day Kandy Tea for Two experience including a visit to the elephant orphanage. During this tour you will not only pet baby elephants, but you will learn all about the process of tea manufacture, as well as how tea is graded then distributed. And you will drink many different types of tea of course!

Galle Fort Culinary Tour lasts for two days and includes a wonderful tour of the Galle Fort, built in 1588 by the Portuguese and now so much more than just a fort. Many of the properties inside the fort are full of delicious aromas of spices and cooking meals and it is a wonderful place to let yourself be swept up in the colourful history. You will purchase ingredients at the Galle market and then in Sonja’s Cooking Class learn about spices and Sri Lankan cooking techniques. Then all that is left to do will be to enjoy your mouthwatering creations!

Explore the flavours of Sri Lanka by contacting one of our agents today.