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Where My Favourite Foods Grow

SRI LANKA | Wednesday, 29 July 2015 | Views [747]

In today’s world, we’re all very accustomed to eating foods that don’t grow where we live. Though I eat as locally as possible, I regularly use olive oil, throw cashews into my salads, and love coconut milk. I also eat chocolate…..all the time. Because I live so far from where these foods originate, I can’t help but think of cashews as having originated in bags, and that chocolate has ever existed outside of foil wrapping.

This is why I find it genuinely thrilling to see my favourite foreign foods actually in their native soil. I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw an almond tree and tasted a fresh almond. Or how about a tree weighed down with lemons? Or olives! Trust me, I could barely keep it together.

This is why my visit to a Sri Lankan spice garden was so exciting. Upon arrival we met with Bonny, a guide whose encyclopedic knowledge of Sri Lankan plants and their medicinal value was overwhelming.

The garden was shady and cool, its pathways lined with old coconut shells. Bonny led me from plant to plant, first having me guess what we were looking at, then blowing my mind each time he revealed what they were.

The only one I had a real hold on was cinnamon (it’s the bark from a tree - well done, me), and the rest were unveiled like wonderful surprises. This geometric vine creeping its way up a tree? Vanilla!

That apricot-shaped shell, encasing a nut wrapped in a gum-like red web? They’re nutmeg and mace!

After we walked through the garden, we sat in a small hut and Bonny showed me many of the oils and tinctures that can be derived from each plant, along with the ways in which they’re used to treat everything from muscle aches to digestive issues.

He did this while I sipped a milky tea with cocoa and banana essence, which he told me was healthy for a variety of reasons. I don’t remember the reasons, I just remember that it tasted like a milkshake.  

THEN, to demonstrate the effectiveness of a highly-prized “red oil,” I got a surprise massage! An unexpected deep back massage by a trained masseuse in a Sri Lankan garden feels good, people.

Nice and drowsy from my treatment, I headed to the back of the garden for a cooking lesson from two cooks named Dharmawathi and Suresh (fortunately they were in charge of the open fire, not me).

They taught me to cook dahl, coconut sambal, and eggplant curry, the latter of which was one of my favourite dishes of the trip. The key to making many Sri Lankan curries is all in the prep: onion, garlic, ginger, and vegetables are cut ahead of time, spices are assembled, fresh coconut is shredded and squeezed to make coconut milk, and any meat or fish is chopped and ready to go. Once the actual cooking process begins, the flavours take form quickly, with everything added to the pan in a very specific order.

The mustard seeds, for example, need a few seconds in an uncluttered pan to fry and release their flavour, so they go in first. Onions, garlic, and ginger typically go in next, followed by the spices, vegetables and/or meat, and eventually a pour of the ‘second-squeeze’ coconut milk.

When making coconut milk, the first squeeze gives the thickest, creamiest milk, while the second squeeze is thinner. The prized first squeeze is used to finish the dish, only added at the end as the dish is coming off the heat.

At one point in the lesson, I sat on a small stool with a simple metal grater attached, and shredded a fresh coconut for the first time. While it would have taken me at least a half hour to scrape the flesh down to its shell, Dharmawathi’s technique was fast and precise, and she quickly had a pile of snowy-white shreds. We put them onto a granite slab, and used an oblong piece of granite to grind up the fresh coconut with chili into sambal.

We also cooked a jackfruit curry, which was carried over to the garden’s restaurant afterwards, where at least twelve other prepared dishes were waiting for us. When cooked into a curry, the chunks of jackfruit looked so much like braised pork, I think it would have been impossible to get an untrusting vegetarian or vegan to eat it. It was during that meal that I realized that Hill Country is actually a vegan’s paradise. So many of the dishes are derived from just coconut and vegetables, that it’s more likely the extreme carnivores might have a hard time finding meat, rather than the other way around.

I learned a great deal that day, both about foods I've adored for a long time, and ones that are completely new to me. Also, I am so pleased that I now picture the spice garden - not the inside of a bag - when I think of where cinnamon comes from.....

Tags: cooking, hill country, passport and plate, spice gardens, spices, sri lanka, tour, world nomads

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