Tempering the sting of spices with fruit in a tiny Sri Lankan kitchen

Abid Shah leans how to make Sri Lankan curry the traditional way at the beach resort of Unawatuna.
Coconut shavings are ground using this hand machine. Photos by Abid Shah for The National
Coconut shavings are ground using this hand machine. Photos by Abid Shah for The National

Flying to Colombo, I took the rattling train south to Galle. Here, I walked on the fort ramparts under a bright sun. The sea lapped the fort walls and a strong breeze minimised the heat. Three boys offered to jump in the sea if I paid them. Rail thin, they called themselves the flying angels, and showed me newspaper clippings with photographs of them soaring from the ramparts into the deep blue sea.

Leaving the angels behind, I strolled along, crunching gravel, until I reached an oddity: a bright, white mosque built in the style of a Portuguese cathedral.

The Sri Lankan coast is a hodge-podge of cultures. Arabs settled the coastline; the Portuguese, Dutch and British fortified it, giving the buildings a pretty European touch and funding them with fortunes made from the spice trade.

Spices had brought me to Galle. I was in the city to visit the nearby beach resort of Unawatuna. There, I would search for the famous Karuna, a Sri Lankan lady who offers day-long cooking classes in the local cuisine. One of my friends, a battle-hardened reporter, had taken this near-the-beach class during which she had pounded spices with a log to make Sri Lankan curry powder.

"Be careful you do not throw your back," she warned.

I walked through the fort gate to the pretty Galle Cricket Stadium. With the green pitch in front and the toot-toot of buses behind, I bargained with a rickshaw driver, pleaded poverty and soon rat-tatted my way to Unawatuna. The drive took 15 minutes, during which we passed roadside fish and coconut stalls. Along the way, I stopped to ask for directions to Sonja's Health Food Store. I found the store at noon, smelling it from afar. Karuna, a blue apron knotted around her waist, was sitting on her verandah with a tanned, gleaming couple nibbling coconut cookies and tea. The yellow walls were decorated with food charts, paintings and Buddhist posters. The tables were covered with blue tablecloths. Fruits and vegetables lay on the counter and a pan sizzled with hot oil.

It was arranged that I would return at 11 the next morning. Karuna gave me a bright green flyer that read: "Let Karuna, the best cook in Unawatuna, teach you how to make Sri Lanka's traditional meal". The class would allow me to take home "a package of fresh curry powder that you made" and "a recipe book of the curry dishes you learned to make".

The class would start with a trip to Galle market to buy vegetables and spices. Early afternoon we would break for tea, cookies and pancakes; then I would put the spices for the curry powder out to roast in the sun. At 3.30pm I would start cooking the dishes, and after cooking them I would pound the roasted spices to make curry powder. We would eat dinner at 5pm.

Unawatuna has a large, natural beach lined with restaurants and hotels. The beach, which is 15 metres deep, was covered with afternoon bathers lying on towels and reclining chairs. Some Australian tourists were playing cricket with a tennis ball, hitting it into the sea again and again. Near them, families splashed in the water. A motorboat ferried scuba divers out to sea and to a distant rock where the Sri Lankan flag was fluttering in the wind.

Spectacularly, one end of the beach was dominated by a dagoba on a hillock. The Buddhist temple rose in the middle of lush trees, shaped like a dome with a point sticking heavenward. The temple is a pilgrimage site that is thronged during festivals when visitors offer rice at the altar.

With a view of the temple, I lay on the beach, pulled on my shades and opened a copy of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein. It was heavy beach reading, and a few chairs away from me a woman was reading The Devil Wears Prada. I felt uncool.

That evening, I drank arrack and ate a spicy sandwich at the famous Kingfisher bar, which has a gorgeous pavilion with pillows and hosts weekend parties. Elsewhere, a dance party was rocking one of the beach bars, the music reverberating across the waves.


Karuna is a short, dark-complexioned woman with slightly frizzled hair, black eyes and a healthy face. I met her the next morning and we hailed a rickshaw and travelled together to Galle's noisy market.

Here we bought fish, vegetables and fruit in the shaded Victorian bazaar. We were going to cook rice, tuna, lentils, okra, beans, pumpkin, aubergine and mango curries for dinner. Loaded with groceries, we returned and set up the table to make the basic ingredient of Sri Lankan cuisine: coconut milk.

Karuna screwed the grating machine to the wooden table. Affixed, the machine had a rotating handle on one end that turned eight serrated blades on the other end. Karuna put a plate under the blades.

We had chopped a brown-husked coconut in half, and cupping the outside husk in the palm of one hand, she forced its white flesh onto the blades. Then she turned the handle quickly and shavings of coconut flesh fell onto the plate.

My turn. As I spun the handle, forcing the coconut against the blade, the husk thudded against my hand. Very few shavings fell out. I tried harder, pushing the coconut against the blades, but to no avail.

"No, no, like this," said Karuna, and softly muscled me out of the way and spun the grater. Shavings fell into the plate like snowflakes in a blizzard. I tried again. Bump, bump, bump and a meagre output.

"You have to hold it softly," Karuna re-took the husk and again showed me. I gamely kept at it and, slowly, a little mountain of coconut formed.

People stepped in to look at the menu as we continued. I smiled at them as I chopped mangoes, telling them about my quest to learn about Sri Lankan cooking. As a Pakistani, I could cook a range of spicy dishes and this was an opportunity to expand my skills. Sri Lankan cuisine focused on fruits compared to Pakistani cooking, which relies on yoghurt and vegetables.

Soon I was bludgeoning mangoes with a heavy knife. Every time I would whack the mango, the knife would stick into the fruit; I would pull out the knife and repeat the move fruitlessly. Karuna took the knife, dug it into the fruit and gave the back of the blade a sharp, hard blow with a smaller knife. The yellow fruit split from flesh to seed.

As this exercise continued, I noticed Karuna's well-toned arms - cooking the old fashioned way, without grinders and blenders, is stringent exercise. Electricity-less cooking classes could be the new Pilates.

Right there, in that foreign land, its air caressing my hair, I remembered cooking with my mother. She would sit on a stool, mortar on the floor in front of her, and pound the garam masala mixture - the Pakistani equivalent of Sri Lankan curry powder - with a pestle, complaining about how a lazy boy like me did not understand how hard she worked.

"Men," she would say, raising the pestle up and down, crushing the spices in the mortar between her legs, glaring at five-year-old me sitting cross-legged on the floor playing with Lego blocks. "You have no idea how hard we work to make dinner. And you sit at your offices and drink tea and come home and want dinner and say we women do not work."


The trial by fire, the ultimate test, as my friend had warned me, was pounding the spices. Before setting out shopping, Karuna had set the spices for the curry powder to roast in the sun - we would leave them out for three to four hours while we cooked.

"They are better if you roast them in the sun, not an oven," she had said, sticking two jars of curry powder under my nose. The jar with the over-roasted spices had a flat, dull smell; the other was filled with sun-roasted curry powder that gave off a fresh, full and strong fragrance with complex notes.

Karuna poured the sun-roasted coriander, cumin, pepper, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and curry leaves into the mortar, which was kept at the entrance to the verandah, and handed me the pestle. The mortar was a large stone bowl and the pestle was a log as tall as Karuna. It reached my shoulder.

"Hmph, hmph," I grunted as I pounded.

"Like this." Karuna grabbed the pestle, established a rhythm and hit with force, using her shoulders and back. I grabbed the heavy log, lifted it and crashed it into the bowl. Seeds and pods shattered.

"Good, good," Karuna smiled. "This is good."

I kept pounding, throwing my strong back and weak arms into the wood, hearing the rhythmic thwack-thwack. Tourists passing on the road smiled at me as I worked the log and I smiled back. This man, I thought, is not going to throw his back.

And as I continued, I smelled the steaming fish, the lentils, the okra, beans, aubergine, pumpkin and mango curries arrayed by the stove. A familiar stirring overwhelmed me - I was getting hungry.

A few minutes later, a jar of fresh curry powder on the table, I was tucking into the food, mixing the curries with red rice, then eating them, picking first from the daal, trying a dash of stringy pumpkin, then the thick red fish sauce. The fruit curries were the best, I reflected, as I thought of a post-dinner swim, the hot spices playing with my tongue, the sweet fruit allaying their bite.


The Recipes

Mango curry

3 hard, unripe mangoes - chop each mango into six pieces

5 garlic cloves 

1 onion, chopped

10 curry leaves

1 stick cinnamon

4 tablespoons

vegetable oil

teaspoon turmeric

3 teaspoons chilli powder

teaspoon curry powder teaspoon


glass coconut milk

3 teaspoons sugar


Fry onion, garlic and cinnamon in hot oil. After a minute, throw in curry leaves. Add turmeric, chilli powder, curry powder and salt. Add mangoes and a glass of water. After five minutes, put in the coconut milk. Cook for 20 minutes on low heat, then add sugar. Cook for five more minutes. Serve with rice.


Curry powder

30g coriander seeds

20g cumin seeds

10g peppercorn

5g turmeric root

10g cinnamon

5 pods cardamom

5 cloves

A handful of curry leaves


Roast spices in a pan for two hours. Pound like a madman.


If You Go

The flight Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.lk) flies daily from Abu Dhabi to Colombo from US$500 (Dh1,838) return, including taxes

The class A day-long cooking class at Sonja's Health Food Store costs Rs3,000 (Dh100). To book, call a day ahead at 00 94 77 961 5310 or 00 94 77 961 5310

The hotel The Shangri La Beach resort in Unawatuna (www.shangrilaunawatuna.com; 00 94 91 4384252) has cabanas and cottages from $35 (Dh128) and $45 (Dh165) per night, respectively


Published: September 24, 2011 04:00 AM


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