Introduction

Introduction

By
Channa Dassanayaka
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740660662
Photographer
Craig Wood

In Ehliyagoda, a small village in Sri Lanka’s central hills region, two girls stand above a mortar and pestle, grinding rice into flour with every blow of their large coconut-wood rods. It is heavy work for the young girls.

But preparing food is as much a social occasion as it is a domestic duty in Sri Lanka – a time for women to gather and gossip. Grinding rice is a daily routine that takes place in villages across the country and while the nation’s business capital, Colombo, is a modern urban metropolis, beyond the city limits most Sri Lankans live a traditional way of life.

A large portion of the 20 million residents in this tear-shaped country the size of Tasmania are involved in the food industry – as farm hands, selling produce at markets and on the side of the road, or working in restaurants or tea houses, feeding others. You see the evidence of this everywhere … roadside stalls sell fresh meat and fish, red rice and curries or buffalo curd in clay pots. When you buy a King Coconut, a national delicacy, the seller will hack a section off with a machete, place a straw in the top and send you on your way. Boys push trolleys or ride bikes with carts attached selling vegetables and fruit such as bananas, jackfruit, local cherries, cashew nuts and diced mangoes.

Slowly recovering from the ravages of civil war – a ceasefire in December 2001 brought the battles to a halt, and calm now prevails – the nation once known as Ceylon is rebuilding, led by the clothing and gem industries, as well as tea, coconut products and spice exports. And the tourists are beginning to return, although a strong military presence reminds travellers that the country has battled Indian, Portuguese, Dutch and English occupation as well as internal rifts over the past two centuries. But the hotels are filling again as sightseers from across the globe trickle back to this part of Asia.

While international influences can be seen throughout the land, the villages of rural Sri Lanka have retained their traditional way of life. In kitchens across the land, old recipes and food customs are as strong as ever.

The Sri Lankan cuisine is dominated by curries, and while many dishes are similar to those created in neighbouring Asian nations, such as India and Thailand, Sri Lanka’s distinctive use of spices, herbs, fresh vegetables and fruit make its cuisine unique.

I was born in Colombo in 1969, and although I grew up in the busy metropolis, much of my time was spent in my grandmother’s house in Ehliyagoda, near Ratnapura in the centre of Sri Lanka. My father used to say it was named as ‘the village of the women with the beautiful eyes’, and it has retained much of Sri Lanka’s traditional way of life.

My grandfather was the Gammuladani – the village head, a role similar to a town mayor. Because of this, my mother was educated at a convent and trained in Western etiquette. But she kept her love of Sri Lankan food. She always cooked for the family, no matter how many appeared at the dinner table each night. I was exposed to my mother’s cooking from the early days and developed a palate for good food, but it wasn’t until I started visiting my grandmother’s house and understood her cooking talents that I realised where my mother had learnt her skills. My grandmother’s food was soul food, the original food, and my mother used to crave her cooking; I developed these cravings too.

I went to primary school and secondary school in Colombo, but my final year exams were a disaster. Determined to make a lawyer of me, my mother hired a private tutor to take me through my final exams again. However, one day, while I was being tutored in commerce, my mother discovered I was instead sketching food and describing dishes in my notebook.

‘I have decided not to send you back to school to study,’ she said. ‘Instead I will send you to a hotel school.’ The profession was frowned upon by my family, who believed I was going to wash dirty dishes for the rest of my life. But I didn’t care.

At the Ceylon Hotel School, one of the toughest schools of its kind in the country, I studied restaurant and bar work. After six months I passed well and was sent to Oman in the Middle East to look after the Royal Navy base dining room for the high officers. There I was taught the details of fine dining and I was accepted into the pastry kitchen to help.

One night I encouraged them to host a Sri Lankan feast and from that day, after preparing a wonderful banquet, I was hooked. I returned to the hotel school and once more studied cookery. We learnt about Sri Lankan and international cuisine and studied French and German languages – French culinary terms are essential in cooking. We also studied other restaurant-related subjects, such as food costing and menu planning.

I had a flair for pastry work and after finishing at the school I flew to Germany to practise this talent in a castle in the Black Forest. There we turned the fine dining restaurant into a Sri Lankan restaurant and it was a hit with locals. I ran the kitchen, worked at front of house and learnt to create Sri Lankan cuisine without many of the authentic ingredients, which proved great training.

Working in and studying all the different areas of the restaurant and hotel industry taught me an important lesson – everyone contributes and you have to respect others working in the kitchen. I believe it is important not to become an aggressive chef – some chefs think they are the only people working with hot ovens and knives, but preparing and serving food is a team effort.

I then studied intermediate cookery and later advanced cookery, learning everything from butchery to food handling and nutrition. Over the years spent studying I worked in the Meridian Hotel in Colombo as a commis, making Sri Lankan desserts and pastry. The hotel later became the Marriott and I continued my work there. In my final year of study I was offered a job at the Colombo Hilton under Gerard Mendis, the executive pastry chef.

But civil unrest was always close at hand in Sri Lanka and one day a bomb exploded at the Central Bank next door to the Hilton. There were many civilian casualties. I was very scared – I tried to call home but the phone lines had been cut. Buildings were collapsing around us and I didn’t think I was going to survive. The next few days were spent cooking for the emergency crews as they recovered the bodies.

This was not the first time I had been close to the warfare and my family decided I would be better off in another country. In 1996 I packed my bags and moved to Australia. My mother thought it was a good country, one in which I could reach my potential, and she helped me set up a restaurant in Chapel St, in Melbourne’s inner eastern suburb of Prahran. Woodapple became known as one of the best Sri Lankan restaurants in the city.

When my mother died in a car accident in 1997 I returned to Sri Lanka. I stayed for a year, living from time to time in a temple, where I meditated and thought about what life was all about. But I had unfinished business, and I came back to Australia in 1998.

Looking for a fresh start, I helped Indika Galhenage open his restaurant Sigiri in Northcote, working with him on his menu. It is now one of the best Sri Lankan restaurants in Melbourne. Here I met Melbourne restaurateur Dur-é Dara and we clicked instantly. I began working at her restaurant, Lip, in St Kilda under chef Diane Kerry and later joined the team at her Bourke St restaurant Nudle Bar.

Under Dur-é’s supervision, chef John Mackay, Enza Casiso and I opened Nudle Bar Two at Southgate. This is where I met Craig, a photographer from the Herald Sun newspaper. He used to eat vegetarian tom yum at the Nudle Bar every day, to the point where we used to call him ‘tom yum’. The kitchen there was open and people would sit at the food bar and chat to us as we cooked. Craig and I became friends and started to talk about writing a book on Sri Lankan cuisine.

We planned our trip and were joined by John and Enza. Together the four of us returned to my home country to savour the people, the places, the images and the food of Sri Lanka.

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