The Insanely Good Food of Sri Lanka’s Tea Region

I’m not quite over Sri Lanka, despite being back in Morocco for more than a week now. Yes, the nature and animal sightings were spectacular. But what has really stuck with me is how damn good Sri Lankan food is. It’s similar to southern Indian food: lots of rice and curries and generous use of fresh coconut and coconut milk, and loaded with fresh herbs and spices like curry leaves, lemongrass, chili peppers, ginger, and garlic. It is also very vegetarian friendly. I was told several times that most Sri Lankans are vegetarians, although I suspect most are pescatarian because seafood from the Indian Ocean is plentiful.

When I was planning our Sri Lanka trip, I expected that the middle region of Sri Lanka — the lush and hilly tea-producing area that I had heard was home to the best food in the country — would be my favorite, and sure enough it was. Our first foray in this region was in Ella, a hill town with a cool backpacker hippy vibe. We were hungry when we arrived and asked our guesthouse manager where we could get the best Sri Lankan food. “Matey Hut,” he said, and into two Matey Hut-bound tuk-tuks we went. Turns out, Matey Hut is a hut.

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This shack seats maybe 10 or 12 people at a time. We waited for 20 minutes across the street from the hut, in pit of dirt, basically under an overpass, drinking cans of Tiger beer that we bought from some random person. But a peruse of the menu and the raves from people who had just eaten at the hut and we knew we were in for a treat despite the shabby looks of things. And oh my goodness, it was one of the best meals I’ve had in 2018. Fried banana chips smothered in cheese and sweet chili sauce, rice and curry, flat bread stuffed with squash and chili sauce, and my new favorite thing: kotthu, which is veggies, eggs, and strips of tortilla-like bread stirfried with a few sauces. It tastes like a hangover-curing breakfast from your favorite Chinese take-out place, but fresher thanks to a base of aromatics like ginger, garlic, and curry leaves. (Recipe below, keep reading).

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That’s my new favorite thing, kotthu.

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Rice and vegetable curries.

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After that massive lunch, we lugged our very full and sleepy selves on a tour of the local tea factory and saw how freshly picked little plants become ground tea.  It’s true that I have been known to derisively call tea nothing but “leaf water,” but to be fair I said that in the midst of a dry month when I was trying to make tea a stand-in for wine. Tea is not wine. Heck, tea is not even coffee. But I guess tea’s okay.

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Oh, quick fun foodie interjection: It was in Ceylon where Paul Child met my life idol Julia, back when they were working for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Here is a picture of Julia the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

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So tea in Sri Lanka. In 1824, a British planter brought a tea plant from China to what was then Ceylon and that was supposedly the first tea plant on the island. Back then, Ceylon was a major coffee producer but when a “coffee blight” fungus wiped out the coffee crop in the late 1860s, the island moved to tea production, with help from another Brit named James Taylor who had already started the first tea plantation in Kandy. Today tea production accounts for 2 percent of Sri Lanka’s GDP and employs about one of 20 Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka is one of the top tea exporters in the world.

 

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View of Uva Happlewatte tea factory from Little Adam’s Peak

When we woke up from our post-tea naps, we started thinking of dinner and there was really just one option for us: Matey Hut! Again. First, we had more Tiger and Lion beers in a dive bar and by the time we went back to Matey Hut, they had a sign up that they had run out of food for the day. Tragedy, but at least we had eaten there once. We had more kotthu at a nearby place at it was good, but not Earth-shattering.

I had booked our next night at an all-inclusive luxury villa that I mistakenly thought was in Ella, but I just then realized it was actually a many hours drive away. Oops.  (Quick tip if you’re planning a trip to Sri Lanka: Distances don’t look very far, but it’ll take a looong time to drive each place. Small, winding roads through many a village. Another tip: You should have no problem finding a car and driver if you tell the manager at your hotel/guesthouse the day before where you’re trying to go).

The following morning we woke up before dawn and hiked up Little Adam’s Peak to watch the sunrise. I don’t generally do mornings, but this was worth it.

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Then we were off on another hours long van ride with some preeeetttty nice views along the way and plenty of tea plantations.

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Finally, we arrived at Camellia Hills luxury villa, perched on the Dunkeld Estate, overlooking an emerald-colored reservoir. If someone were to ask me to close my eyes and picture my happy place, I think Camellia Hills will be it.

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This was the real splurge of the trip, but we figured a few of the other places we’d stayed – such as the jungle hut and the rather spare guest house in Ella – cost hardly anything (like between $25-$35 a night) and also we used credit card points to buy our flights, so what’s one night of living far outside our means? Our group decided that with unlimited gourmet food and drinks and basically a private butler, that we could make our 24 hours at Camellia Hills worth what we were spending.  Another round of gin and tonics, why the hell not? One of basically everything on this perfectly-curated lunch menu, yes Jeeves, and thank you.

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This is a popular Sri Lankan breakfast dish called an “egg hopper,” which is an egg nestled in a rice and coconut crepe accompanied by caramelized onion and red chili.

The food was so good at Camellia Hills that we signed up for a private cooking demonstration the following day with Chef Shanti. He created quite a Sri Lankan smorgasboard for us and I took notes.

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I. am. happy.
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The fragrant start of a green bean curry.

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Front: Kale and coconut. Back right: coconut sambol (aka pol sambol)  a popular Sri Lankan condiment that is a mix of fresh grated coconut, red chilies, onion, lime juice made with a mortar and pestle.

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Coconut daal, after the tempered spices – curry leaves, dried red chilies, cumin seeds- were added.

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That meal was incredible and I left Sri Lanka seriously excited about recreating these dishes back in Rabat. But many Sri Lankan dishes use fresh curry leaves, which I’ve not seen anywhere. So I asked our driver where I could get some, which led to a sort of funny but interesting stop at a state-sanctioned medicinal herb/spice seller where we were given the hard sell (and we took the bait) on the benefits of sandlewood oil (it’ll get rid of my wrinkles), an herbal powder for whiter teeth, and a red pepper gel for achy muscles. After that, we stopped at a roadside vegetable stand and bought bunches of fresh curry leaves to take home.

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Curry leaves only stay fresh for so long, so I had some friends over a few days after we returned home and made a big Sri Lankan meal. Our local markets had lemongrass and whole coconuts, yay. Have you ever opened, peeled, and shredded a fresh coconut? YouTube videos will tell you it’s a cinch and they lie, lie, lie. The menu for the dinner party was coconut curried squash soup with lemongrass; kale and coconut curry; pol sabmal; coconut daal, rice, and kotthu. Here’s a recipe for the kotthu, which is my new favorite thing to make.

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Sri Lankan food: Lots of prep, but comes together fast once you start cooking.

To the amazing food of Sri Lanka,

Emily

2 Comments

  1. My favorite post so far! I’ve been in love with Sri Lankan food ever since I first tried it in London and it’s so fun to see you go to the source of it all. Egg hoppers and kotthu are still some of my favorite things I’ve ever eaten. I’ll definitely be making the recipe you posted 🙂 and fun Julia Child anecdote. I always thought of you as the younger, hipper modern version of her 🙂

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