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  • Writer's pictureSarah

Sri Lanka - a golden memory from January: Part 1 - A cooking lesson and an elephant safari

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

The other week in the Sunday paper I spotted some Anglicised recipes by Karan Gokani , chef and director of Hoppers restaurants , and decided to give them a go as I had most of the ingredients. Cooking and eating the Sri Lankan food took me back to the last week of January when we were fortunate enough to visit this stunning island. The recipes are at the bottom of the piece if you want to skip to that part.

I don't know whether it's tone deaf to write about a holiday taken just before the pandemic took hold; please forgive me if it seems so. I do hope that we are all able to travel safely again in the near future, and that the tourism industry manages to survive.

I had accrued annual leave in my old job, and so was able to book an 8 day trip (10 days in total as we 'lost' a day each way) before starting my new job in February. I spotted what seemed like a fantastic deal which included; flights, half board accommodation in 4/5* hotels, a driver/tour guide, a cooking lesson, visit to a national park to spot elephants, Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the Temple of the Tooth, a cultural show, a trip to a tea plantation, finishing with a relaxing few days by the sea.

Lobster lunch on the beach at Beruwala
Lobster lunch on the beach at Beruwala

It may seem a strange thing to say, but I was really looking forward to the cookery lesson, from our previous post about Yaalu Yaalu you'll know how much we like the cuisine.

We enjoyed taking in the sounds, smells and sights as we travelled to Hiriwadune. Our knowledgeable guide stopped en route to buy a selection of vegetables, and we were all set.

The first leg of the trip took place aboard an oxen cart before getting onto a boat which took us across to the village, passing fields of rice and smiling children. No doubt they thought us tourists rather ridiculous; but one little girl picked a flower and handed it to me, which was so sweet.

One of the village ladies set to with our vegetables, and then showed us how to make coconut milk from scratch; it was very different from the tinned gunky stuff we buy here. Alex got involved with pounding the rice, and I was let loose at the stove. We then ate the product of our labours - delicious, even if I do say so myself!

Before setting off on our own elephant safari we took a stroll around the peaceful village, taking in the buildings built to withstand elephants.

Taking our first tuk-tuk, we then met our jeep driver who took us to a national park to search for elephants. We also saw eagles, peacocks in the wild, and then finally the elephants decided to reveal themselves.

It was a truly amazing experience. Our jeep driver was incredible at finding the elephants and then getting as close to them as possible; there were plenty of other jeeps trying to do the same, but throughout he either got there first, or got closest. He insisted that we climb on the jeep and took this photo. I feel so lucky and privileged to have had this experience.

Whilst none of us are travelling or eating out at the moment, we can try to recreate the food at home. Here are 2 vegetarian recipes that you might like to try; a comforting dhal made with coconut milk and spicy devilled paneer.

Karan Gokani's Dhal curry for 2

200g split red lentils (I only had yellow in the pantry)

2 tbsp coconut oil or rapeseed oil

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 cinnamon stick

1 stalk of curry leaves (I buy these frozen so that I always have some)

1 large red onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic (more if you like it)

4 dried red chillies

1/2 tsp tumeric

1 large ripe tomato, chopped

125ml coconut milk

1. Wash the lentils until the water runs clear, drain

2. Heat the oil in a saucepan on medium. Add the mustard seeds until they start popping. Add the cinnamon, curry leaves, onion, garlic and chillies. Cook until the onions are golden brown. Add the tumeric and tomatoes and cook for 4 mins. Add the lentils and saute for 2 mins.

3. Add water with a ratio of 1:2 lentils to water. Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cook until the lentils are soft but still hold their shape. Karan suggests that this should take 16-20 minutes. Mine took considerably longer; nearer an hour and I had to keep adding more water, maybe as they were a different type of lentil.

4. Add the coconut milk and bring back to a simmer and cook for another 6-8 minutes. Season to taste.

Karan Gokani's Devilled paneer for 2

Devilled dishes are a genre of Chinese-Sri Lankan cuisine, and are often made with chicken, cuttlefish or prawns. This is a vegetarian version.

1 packet of paneer, cubed or cut into rectangles

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 green pepper cut into squares

2/3 green chillies, to taste

2 tsp chilli flakes

1 large red onion cubed

1 cinnamon stick

2 stalks of curry leaf

2/3 cloves of garlic

1 teaspoon ginger paste or 2.5cm piece of ginger chopped

4 tablespoons chopped tinned tomatoes

2 tbsp tomato ketchup

1 tbsp cider vinegar

Sugar to taste

1 tomato cut into wedges

3 tbsp coconut oil or rapeseed oil

2 spring onions sliced to garnish

1. Shallow fry the paneer in the oil until light brown on both sides. Set aside on some kitchen paper. Gently fry the chillies, onion and green pepper for 3 minutes, then also set aside on kitchen towel.

2. Reserve 1 tbsp of the oil in the pan and add the cinnamon, curry leaves, garlic and ginger. Cook until the garlic is golden brown.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes and ketchup. Cook down until reduced to a thick paste and the oil comes to the top. Add the vinegar and cook for another minute.

4. Season and add sugar to taste. The sauce should be a balanced spicy, sweet and sour. Add the tomato wedges and cook for a further minute.

5. Return the paneer, chillies, pepper and onions and toss until fully coated by the sauce and heated through. Garnish with the spring onions.


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Aradhana Bakshi
Aradhana Bakshi
Sep 04, 2020

Seems like you had a great time in SL. Did you go to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage? It’s a haven for elephant lovers! I really enjoyed the Hikkaduwa beach on my visit, and Nuwara Elliya was so scenic. Enjoyed the Colombian capital too, I love how this country is so peaceful and clean! :) It’s so cool you got to take cooking class while you were there, must have been a blast!


Lydia Stephenson
Lydia Stephenson
Sep 02, 2020

I love taking cooking classes while abroad! Although in Tanzania, we had to kill the chicken and I wasn't happy about that. I am so jealous you got to see Asian elephants!


Rudy Gorny
Rudy Gorny
Sep 02, 2020

Wow, those elephants were real close. When we did our safari in South Africa, our drivers stayed farther away. I am not a good cook, but I like to eat and I especially love coconut dishes. Coconut cream and milk in the US typically have added sugar in them. I bet the coconut milk you had was very different.


Zack Litchfield
Zack Litchfield
Sep 02, 2020

What a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture.


Backup Part 2
Backup Part 2
Sep 02, 2020

I think it's ok to write about your holidays. We'll all be able to travel soon (hopefully!) and some travel inspiration in the meantime is essential!

Your experience sounds wonderful - reminds me a lot of my visits to my village when I was a kid, including the oxen cart ride!

Awesome recipes! The dal one is a staple of ours and we have it several times a week - though cooked in a more North Indian way.


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