Yesterday, I experienced the best of Sri Lankan hospitality. I had the most fun a travelling foodie can have. No, really. When I put out a call on Facebook for people to share their family recipes with me, I didn’t really know what would happen. Perhaps I’d get to watch a recipe being made. I certainly didn’t expect a full day of activity that is typical of Sri Lankan hospitality.
Sri Lanka is a country adjusting to life after the war. Food isn’t complicated here; it can be, but a lot of it isn’t. It’s a country where everyone has their own best recipe for any one dish. There’s not any particularly good Sri Lankan food at restaurants, which I thought was a bit strange until I realised that the best food was cooked in people’s homes. Ten years ago, with army officers on every open stretch of road – going out for food was not the norm. People stayed in and ate at home. In my mind, Sri Lankan homes hold some of the best food in the country and I’m determined to find out how it’s cooked.
When I appealed for local home-cooked recipes, Tatsindu saw my post and declared her mother’s crab curry to be the best. Now that I have tasted it, I would have to agree. I’m pretty terrible when it comes to cooking curries, but even for me it was so much simpler than I thought.
I met Tatsindu (Tatum, for short) and her mother, Kalyani, along with her two little girls the Wennappuwa fish markets yesterday morning. It’s off the grid, 12km north of Negombo and not in any guidebooks (yet!) The main street is lined with local fishmongers selling some of the freshest fish I’d ever seen. The smaller vendors had their seafood laid out on tarps on the ground while the bigger ones had tables, butchers blocks and saws to cut through the bigger fish. It’s a glimpse of real life in a local Sri Lankan town – in between the houses you could see the beach and watch the local fishermen bring in their catch.
We walked around for forty minutes while Kalyani, who owns a seafood restaurant called Tusker in Negombo explained some of the local fish varieties to me. Blue swimmer crab is excellent in Wennappuwa, she said, while Negombo is famous for it’s mud crabs which come from the lagoon.
Kalyani and Tatum invited me back to their estate home, set on 25 acres of land. The outdoor verandah which they’d set up for an outdoor cookery class bubbled with fish. I don’t think I believed Kalyani when she said crab curry was easy. I’m used to following my grandmother around, notepad in one hand and weighing scale in another to document her recipes.
Be warned, the ingredients list may be long. but her recipe is simple. Put the crab, coconut milk, aromatics and spices in a pot and simmer until cooked. Add some greens, taste and season. The simplicity of the cooking that relies on good quality, very fresh seafood. Kalyani says that the secret to a good fish or seafood curry is finishing the final cooking with fresh lime juice and coconut cream to bring out the freshness in the seafood.
Over lunch, Tatum, Kalyani and I talked about everything from our childhood memories to the surprise of losing our fathers in their mid fifties. I had only met these gorgeous women that day and they shared their lives, their homes and their stories openly. I felt like I had known them for years.
After lunch, we headed out to the Negombo fish market but not before Kalyani gifted me three dozen eggs from her hatchery and insisted on packing the leftover crab curry for Nick – lucky guy! For the record, there was enough for Nick, myself and two neighbours – that’s just how generous the locals are.
Back to Negombo – the Negombo fish market is less of a market and more of an open shed by the water with a lot of yelling. I don’t understand Sinhalese save for a few numbers, but fishermen were carrying in their catch, tossing it onto the concrete floor while auctioneers rattled off numbers at the top of their voices.Thank goodness for Kalyani, as I was the only female, the only foreigner and I didn’t understand any of what the fishermen were saying to me. With her help, I bought a whole 3kg tuna for a bit over 15 Australian dollars.
There’s something a bit strange about deciding to meet up with strangers. Why would someone want to give up so much of their time to a complete stranger like me? What if we didn’t get along? If there’s anything I learnt from this day, it’s that Sri Lankan hospitality is alive and well. There’s good food but also a generosity of spirit (did I mention that they refused to let me pay for any ingredients at the market?) and a willingness to go out of your way for a complete stranger. I can’t wait for the next adventure.
- 2 kg blue swimmer crab, cleaned
- 250ml coconut milk (2nd press from 1 coconut - or use tinned)
- 2 big red onions, roughly sliced
- 8 cloves garlic, roughly diced
- 5 small green chillies, cut in half lengthwise
- 5 cloves
- 3 cardamom pods, crushed
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 2 tsp unroasted curry powder
- 2 tsp chilli powder
- 1 stick lemongrass, white part only, crushed
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 pandan leaf, cut into 10cm lengths
- 5 stalks of curry leaves
- 1½ tsp peppercorns, roughly pounded to a paste in a mortar and pestle
- 2 tsp salt
- handful moringa leaves (leave out if you can't get it)
- juice of 1 lime
- 250ml coconut cream (1st press from 1 coconut - or use tinned)
- Place all the ingredients for the crab curry into a large pot. Cook over medium heat until the crab changes colour - about 15 minutes. You'll need to mix and stir occasionally to make sure that all the crab cooks evenly. Cover with a lid if necessary.
- When crab is cooked, add the moringa leaves, lime juice and coconut cream. Bring back to the boil and cook for a further 5 minutes.
- Taste and season as needed.