Juliet Coombe experiences first hand healthy cooking traditions going back to ancient times.
This is the start of an extraordinary half day experience run by Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions that takes you from buying the ingredients in the local market to sitting on a foot stool village style using a coconut scraper and cooking on firewood. For centuries Negombo fisherman have been going out at 3 am and returning around 7am in the morning with the catch of the day sold in Negombo’s fish market in the old quarter, where we see what remains of the colonial fort houses. The first thing that hits you is the smell of fish and the spectacular choice, one can see over a hundred different varieties on any given day.
As part of the course we learn not only the importance of spice medicinally but also where to buy cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, chillie powder and turmeric. After picking the ingredients we drive for fifteen minutes to a traditional house still using firewood and prepare the ingredients for cooking the old fashioned way in terracotta pots with coconut spoons. You will notice the difference in taste as it is closer to nature and like the Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions the traditional way of making spices on a grinding stone is the best thing for your health as it is as fresh as it gets. My teachers in elephant village are local chef Mary Jaya, and Cyril her entertaining blue eyed brother who helped with preparations and daughter Amindra, who all live in this rural idyll called At gala, which means elephant village. They explain as we chop up vegetables holding the knife steady with my feet squatted on the floor was not as easy as it looks. So as I sliced on the sharpest largest clever I thought this was going to be the most challenging part of the course. However descaling the fish was even harder than scraping the skin off the vegetables with a Sinbad the sailor type knife. We talk as flakes of scale flick in all directions about how this village was in the olden days the base for Negombo traders who housed the elephants for sale overseas here during both the Portuguese and Dutch times. Indeed the Negombo bus station area was another such holding pen, which was until recent times just a big jungle trading post for animals and spices.
Surrounding this two acre property with 80 coconut trees acting as a cooling canopy you can enjoy a walk while the food cooks and learn in the process about the many fruits and medicinal trees like “Mee”, which is used as an oil to help heal bones and kohamba which is also growing wild, and the best leaf to use if mushed up for people with chicken pox to stop the itch and cool the skin. Walking around this thatched bricked house covered in clay like the clay pots they cook out of is lots of fun. On the far right of the traditional open kitchen is a toddy area for making the local whisky early morning. From one tree they can I am told make one bottle of the local whisky per day to accompany the rice and curry.
After the nature walk lunch is served in the garden and is made up of six curries and accompanied by curry leaf juice created with a mirisgala a grinding stone that is used to crush the leaves and make the juice by hand. The meal included delicious fried sardines Sri Lankan style, curried sliced mullet fish in a rich spicy sauce with home made curry powder. Accompanied by a range of vegetables including aubergine curry first fried and then spices added and coconut milk, bitter gourd sambol sautéed and fried and then red onion caspiscion, tomatoes, lime juice, salt and pepper are added, which took away the bitter taste delicious dhal with turmeric powder that makes it look yellow, cinnamon and curry leaves, green chilli and freshly made coconut milk. We finish off with a glass of the local firwater. As we leave I am deeply touched to be handed a hand woven hopper holder with the village master chefs name on and wishes of good luck in beautiful Sinhala artistic swirls. Mary apologises for not giving me more and I am humbled as I have learnt so much about traditional cuisine that has made Sri Lanka so famous in recent years, that I can never repay her for the incredible knowledge she has shared with me during an unmissable morning that every foodie would enjoy.
To make a booking contact: Email address: chef.ayurveda@jetwing hotels.com