When a certain someone and I decided years ago to put Sri Lanka on our travel bucket list, it was because of the beaches. We read somewhere that this teardrop island was blessed with beautiful shores, and that just stuck in our minds. For two people who aren’t particularly skilled at swimming, we have a bizarre soft spot for beach holidays. But what really pushed us into finally booking this trip was years of living in Tooting and eating our way round the myriad of Sri Lankan curry houses in our neighbourhood. Slowly but surely, the flavours of this cuisine began to win us over… the more we became enamoured with the dals, dosas, and mutton rolls, the more we wanted to taste it all in Sri Lanka.
And then we arrived in the country and got a giant dose of reality. Our daydreams of streets lined with food carts selling delectable snacks, and days spent gorging on aromatic curries with piping hot roti breads, did not exactly come true. We did have some excellent meals, but that was more the exception than the norm and we had to dig a little deeper, and at times venture off track to find some of these gems. I came to the conclusion that perhaps the best Sri Lankan food is still found in Sri Lankan homes, and since I didn’t know any locals to impose myself on, the next best thing was to learn to cook like a local.
I hesitated when booking the Spice Spoons Experience at Anantara Peace Haven as I was unsure of its authenticity. Let’s be frank, it was being offered at a five star resort and those places don’t always have the best track record for their food. However, given our tight travel schedule this was the only opportunity I had to try a cooking class so I seized it, and can now say that it was one of the highlights of our trip. You will think me more than a little biased, but the lunch that we cooked up that day was quite exquisite and exactly the kind of Sri Lankan food I had dreamed of eating!
Touring the Markets of Tangalle
In order to cook up a feast, we needed the ingredients so we rushed into our tuk-tuks and set off for the nearby markets in Tangalle town. We headed to the fish market first; this is where it pays to be the early bird to really get the best catch of the day. The fishermen bring their catches up to shore and display them right by their boats, then it seems use their best powers of persuasion to sell as much as they can. It made for a frenetic and pungent experience, but also one which was very entertaining! We inspected a couple of stalls before settling on just the right firm, white fish for our curry and setting off for the fruit and vegetable market.
I assumed we would be cooking a few standard dishes as part of the Spice Spoons Experience, so was more than a little surprised when chef Akila and Sankalpa kept asking me what my preferences were. Everything we bought was based on what I liked or disliked, and I really enjoyed the process of looking at the produce and discussing what we could make with it, before settling on what to buy. And just before we left, they even treated me to a king coconut as I was clearly looking quite parched from all that shopping!
Cooking with the Spice Spoons Chef
Around mid-morning, I reunited with chef Akila and Sankalpa at the dedicated Spice Spoons kitchen at the Anantara Peace Haven, donned my apron and was all set to get stuck into the mise en plus. Or so I thought. Turns out the team had already been busy and I was greeted with a mouthwatering display of all the spoils from our market trip, ready for me to get stuck into cooking instead. I was still a bit vague on exactly what we would be cooking, but based on the amount of ingredients and all the bowls and plates on the bench, I expected a feast.
The next few hours just flew by – it was informative, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable spending time in that kitchen with a chef who is truly passionate about his native cuisine. I learnt how to cook with some new ingredients such as banana blossom, tried my hand at throwing together some classic Sri Lankan spice combinations, and maybe even taught chef a new trick or two. This wasn’t a run of the mill ‘step by step’ kind of cooking class, we actually tasted and improvised as we went along to create dishes to suit my tastes perfectly. Though the only downside was that there is no such thing as a formal recipe to keep, and I only have my tastes and memories to rely on when I try to recreate these dishes at home!
Taste-Testing my Sri Lankan Feast
When we finished cooking, I almost could not believe how much we can created – the sight of the table alone was enough to make me feel just a little proud and more than a little hungry. Sankalpa had set the table beautifully and got the wine chilling, all that was left to do was to drag a certain someone away from the pool and sit down to taste my efforts! This was a typical Sri Lankan ‘curry and rice’ lunch, but much, much better than anything we had tried before. Our star dish was the spicy, aromatic fish curry but the vegetable sides were just as exciting and delicious. We had curried cabbage, two types of fried greens with fresh coconut and turmeric, green beans with dried shrimp, sautéed banana blossom, and my personal favourite, a bitter gourd salsa to add a touch of sharpness to lift all the other flavours.
But it did not end there… once we had basically licked our lunch plates cleaned, we got onto making dessert with one of the resident pastry chefs! On the menu were coconut and jaggery stuffed pancakes, the Sri Lankan equivalent of Malaysia’s kueh dadar. We even managed to get a certain someone behind the stove this time as we both had a little pancake making competition… he makes better pancakes but I am a much better roller, so we decided to call it a draw and gorge on the fruits of our labour. The Spice Spoons Experience at Anantara Peace Haven was certainly one of the best cooking classes I have ever done – for the length of the experience and the amount of food you get, this is incredibly good value, however what really set it apart was that it was completely personalised to each guest!
Have you ever done a cooking class while on holiday? If so, tell me where!
Thanks to chef Akila, Sankalpa and the team at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle for making my Spice Spoons Experience so memorable! I paid a discounted media rate for this experience (usually priced around £80/pp) but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!
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