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Madame Mahsa Travels

Visit to a real-life chena farm + Recipe for Sri Lankan spiced fish in coconut oil

SRI LANKA | Friday, 10 July 2015 | Views [2337]

When travelling to unknown destinations they say to be prepared for anything. But the last thing I expected one morning in Sri Lanka was to find myself seated next to a machete and a firecracker in a handmade treehouse on a remote farm.

My trusty travel guide Bala, a Sri Lankan native, had climbed up the shaky wooden ladder to the makeshift treehouse first and had already made himself comfortable on the soft blanket inside.

So there we were, high above the marshy land on a real-life chena farm in remote central Sri Lanka.

Watch the behind the scenes video here

Chena cultivation is a very primitive form of agriculture, still in practice in modern-day Sri Lanka. It’s been described to me as a ‘slash-and-burn’ type of farming. Instead of rotating crops, the farmers clear a block of land, set fire to existing growths to renew the soil, cultivate crops for a few years, before starting the whole process again on a different block of land.

Apart from the air of awkwardness, I was in safe hands in the makeshift tree house. 

The farmers sell their produce to the local community, and rely on the crops as their own food source. By building a tree house on the farm they have a watchtower to guard the ‘chena’ from wild animals, like elephants and leopards, who roam onto the land at night.

The machete I saw in the tree house is used to cut down weeds during the day, and doubles as a protective weapon at night. And the firecracker, also in the tree house, is used to scare away any elephants attempting to eat the crops. Just one stray elephant could devastate an entire years’ worth of crops if the farmers don’t scare them away.

While we're in the wooden watchtower, Bala also tells me that the treehouse plays another important role in Chena culture. As it turns out in the olden days newly-wed farmers would consummate their marriage up there. That was my queue to climb back down to solid ground.

Getting to the farm 

To reach the farm, we drove from Dambulla to central Sri Lanka and met a local man who would guide us to the exact location by foot. We walked along a winding dirt track through bushy terrain, and at one point we were pushing away the overgrown weeds and plants to get through to the other side. Eventually, we reached a clearing and our final destination was in sight.

When we arrived, Bala introduced me to the lovely young couple who run the farm. They both come from a long line of chena farmers and live nearby. They have a two-year old son, who loves to follow his dad around the farm and cling to his mother’s leg as she tries to show me her special spice blend.


The local woman who showed us around her chena farm and small hut (the person behind her is not her husband; not sure who that was really!)

Every day, the mum brings a few kitchen essentials to the farm and prepares meals from scratch in their handmade hut. They have a lot of work to do on the farm, so unlike some of the more traditional Sri Lankan recipes, her meals are rustic and don’t require hours of preparation. Despite this she doesn’t compromise on flavour or nutrition; and much like every other home cook I’ve met on this trip so far, she prepares everything by hand.

Paddock to plate

There is no truer example of paddock to plate than right there on the chena farm. The family uses the crops from their farm, mainly tropical vegetables, cereal grains, yams and corn, to prepare most of their meals. The finger millet rotti we made together on the day was prepared using the same finger millet crop that was picked and ground by hand that day. We stayed hydrated throughout the day by drinking fresh water from the coconut shells; and our fish for lunch was caught earlier that morning from the nearby lake.

The small hut on the chena farm. Used for shade and basic cooking throughout the day.

The finger millet that was ground into flour for the rotti we made on the day!

I grew up in urban Sydney and knew very little about agriculture and even less about Sri Lankan farming before this trip. Yet after a few hours on the farm with my new friends I had learnt about a completely different way of life. An antiquated farming culture which, at its core, is based on a concept familiar to most of us: simple and delicious food shared with family and friends.  

The women who work on the chena farm next door. 

Our host shows us around his farm and the nearby lake. 

The view as we approached the chena farm. 

Sri Lankan spiced fish in coconut oil

On the farm, we tried Sri Lankan spiced fish two ways. The first was whole lake fish infused with a blend of spices then cooked in coconut oil. The other was spiced fish fingers, which we then crumbed and deep fried in coconut oil. Both dishes were simple to make and tasted out of this world.


300-400g whole fish, gutted and scaled
300-400g white fish fillets
1-2 tsp red chillies, finely sliced
1 tsp cumin powder
½ coriander powder
1-2 sprigs curry leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
Coconut oil, for frying
2 eggs, lightly whisked 
Flour and breadcrumbs, for fish fingers

Method - Spiced lake fish in coconut oil

  1. Mix the spices together, and rub on the whole fish
  2. Heat the coconut oil in a deep fryer
  3. Deep fry the marinated fish for about 8-10 minutes
  4. Place the fish on a few paper towels to soak up the excess oil. Serve with fresh salad or rice.

Method - Sri Lankan style fish fingers

  1. Cut fish fillets into 4cm x 10cm strips
  2. Mix the whisked egg and spices together in a bowl
  3. Coat the fish pieces in flour then dip into the egg mixture and place onto a clean plate. Repeat this step until you have coated all the pieces
  4. Coat the fish in breadcrumbs
  5. Heat the coconut oil in a deep fryer or pot and slowly lower the fish, a few pieces at a time
  6. Cook for about 5-6 minutes or until golden brown
  7. Serve with salad and lemon.





Tags: chena, coconut, crops, farming, fish, hut, lake, millet, sri lanka, treehouse



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