There’s something truly spectacular about Sri Lanka. It’s foreign and exotic yet it quickly feels like home. The people are warm and welcoming; the beaches are turquoise blue with a soft swell; the towering Buddhist temples and never-ending carpets of tea fields are everywhere; and at the heart of this magical island is a deep love of food.
Sri Lanka boasts a smorgasboard of colourful fruits, spices and flavours - dragon fruit and rambutans along with string hoppers and spicy chicken curries – and don’t even get me started on the curd and treacle. And to top-off this epic food safari, is tea...glorious Ceylon tea. Sri Lanka grows the finest tea leaves in the world and pots of the top-notch brew are free-flowing.
So, whether you’re munching on street food, hitting the local kitchens or lapping up luxe dining – Sri Lanka is sure to impress. And the best thing? The amount of fun you’ll have and the new friends you’ll make in the process. So remember, ‘Keep calm and curry on!
On top of the world picking the world’s best brew
By the end of the 19th century the word tea was no longer associated with China but with British Ceylon.
We trek up to the famous Lipton’s Seat lookout, weaving our way through the endless tea plantations. This is the peak where Sir Thomas Lipton would bring his friends to picnic and ponder future dreams and ventures.
Along the way we meet the tea pickers - busy plucking but still keen to have a chat. Most are Hindu Tamil women, descendants of the pickers the British brought down from India in the late 19th Century. The ladies wear necklaces and anklets and gold nose rings. They are wrapped in colourful saris with hessian bags and then an apron tied over the top to protect them from the prickly tea bush. The ladies earn less than 5 dollars a day <450 rupee a day> for the required 18 kg and extra cash for anything more. They show us how to pluck the bright green leaves and remind us to watch out for cobras.
One the way home we stop at a tea house. We learn how to make the perfect brew and are shown the difference between Broken Orange Pekoe, Green Tea and the regal (and super pricey) Silver Tips.
Top price tuna fresh from the market
Bleary-eyed, we hail an early morning tuk tuk and head for Negombo’s famous fish markets. We can smell the fish a few hundred metres before arriving. As the sun begins to rise a frantic dance unfolds before us. ‘Watch out!’ warns a man charging past, shouldering a whopping tuna. The catch is transferred from the docked trawlers into ice-packed trucks. ‘How much for your tuna?’ we ask. ‘800 Rupee per kilo for those big ones or 600 if it’s a slow day.’ We do the sums and realize that’s about 8 dollars a kilo. ‘The Pope’s in town though and we’ve just voted in a new president so it’s pretty quiet. I’ll do you a good deal.’
Along with the tuna we see long lines of shark and salmon. We’re told they’ll be served up in restaurants in Colombo and further down the coast before the day is done. In each corner of the market is a fishmonger chopping off the heads and cleaning the guts, before slicing and dicing the catch into good cuts.
‘Where are you from?’ we are constantly asked. ‘You’re from Australia?! Do you like Big Bash Cricket? Do you know David Boon?’
Up early with the stilt fisherman
The legends of Sri Lanka’s stilt fishermen have long been told. These are the men who balance on bendy sticks and wait motionless for the perfect catch. The tradition -and the actual stilts - are passed down generation to generation.
But things have changed since the 2004 Indian Ocean Boxing Day tsunami – one of the deadliest tsunamis on record, killing more than 35 thousand people in Sri Lanka alone.
We meet 25-year-old Roshan in Weligama. He remembers turning 17 and his grandfather saying the stilts were now his.
But Roshan says since the tsunami, the tides are different and big waves now crash into the area, scaring away the fish and leaving only the committed and brave to continue the tradition. One man tells us the tsunami took five members of his family. He turned around and they were gone.
We sit with Roshan and his fellow fishermen in a small bakery next to the beach. This is where the men get their crusty white bread off-cuts to use as bait. We drink tea sweetened with condensed milk and eat roti hot off the grill as the sun starts to rise. We chat with the early morning workers who pop in to buy tea, coffee, curry paddies and a single cigarette.
Suddenly it’s time. Roshan and his friends grab the bread and their lines and hit the cold ocean. Shirts are off and shorts are rolled up as they battle through the breakers. And then suddenly the men are on the stilts, masterfully waiting and watching. Just as their grandfathers taught them.
Deep-fried goodness on wheels
If you hear Beethoven’s Fur Elise playing on loop, you’re in for a treat. Follow the classical music trail and you’ll find a tuk tuk carting deep-fried goodness. Sri Lanka is full of ‘Short Eats’ - a selection of sweet and savory snacks. Coconut and vegetable rotis, curry pastries and egg buns are the most common. We met Kasun just outside the grounds of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. His tuk tuk was chock-a-block full of white bread loaves, sweet jam rolls, and curry donuts. For less than 2-dollars we left with paper bags full of food.