The smell of the ocean hit me in waves, with the pungent smell of fish and salt whipping itself against me in tandem with the breeze. The tuk-tuk zoomed quickly ahead and suddenly the ocean disappeared only to be replaced with high walls and cobbled streets. Narrow lanes emerged, with shutter windows hanging open as if welcoming our gaze in, bright colours of blue, green, red and more winked in the sunlight, and people smiled.
I was in the south of Sri Lanka, in the quaint area of Galle Fort, and I was ready to go on a food tour. Run by an English woman, Juliet Coombe, who has settled in Sri Lanka with her husband, who is a native of the island, the tour was something I nearly missed. I had booked the experience, but I was one of two travellers, and my companion fell ill the night before after eating fish in a restaurant in the area. Would he be able to go on a culinary journey, as he groaned and moaned the day away?
Calling Juliet frantically an hour or two before the tour was scheduled to begin, I asked her if he would be able to stomach the spices that would definitely fall our way during the experience. She asked me not to worry and hinted at a remedy. My companion didn’t believe there was such a thing, as he felt like Cerberus was attacking his stomach lining.
Three-headed dogs aside, we dutifully made our way towards the address in Galle Fort, and walked up to Sri Serendipity Cafe on a street with TARDIS blue shades of doors and windows at every corner, making me wonder if I would spot the Doctor at some point.
Juliet arrives soon, does a quick head count (there are 8 of us, including her) and ushers us towards the large table dominating the inside of the venue. A portable stove is set up, along with a tray of spices with enticing smells wafting over, and bowls of other ingredients waiting to be used. She creates a concoction with ground coffee, lime, salt and pepper and offers it to the one-with-the-upset-stomach. Within half hour, he feels better. Success!
And so it begins…
… with a cooking class that taught us how to make pol sambol, Sri Lankan curries, and hoppers. We take turns to help mix / grind / squash / attack the ingredients and in around 30-40 minutes, steaming bowls of rice, vegetables, and curry are staring back at us, ready to be devoured. Interspersed with cooking, eating and sighing in satisfaction is Juliet continuing to tell us about the history of Sri Lankan food, why it is the way it is, and answering any questions we had. We gleaned interesting facts along the way, such as how cinnamon is widely used in Sri Lankan cooking, that ‘pol’ is the word for ‘old coconut’, that cooking in Sri Lanka is approached with a medicinal perspective rather than for taste, and so much more.
And so we greedily devour the yummy morsels in front of us, before we are whisked back onto the memory-laden streets, lanes and houses brimming with history and heritage. A short walking tour of Galle Fort ensues, with Juliet pouring out trivia and facts about the area, along with a recounting of what happened when the tsunami hit and how Galle Fort escaped its disaster when the rest of the coast was not so lucky.
After stepping back in time, we stop at … The Storyteller’s house. Officially called The Royal Dutch Café, the storyteller is one Fazal Jiffry whose ancestors were traders from Morocco – nine generations ago. Fazal whips up a batch of spice tea for us, while we sip, listening to him weave tales in the shadow of the setting sun.
And soon, it’s time to go. We wave goodbye and make our way through the streets, armed with recipes, memories, and, oddly enough, an attachment to the quirky little town of Galle Fort.
Get more info about the tour here. It cost $30 (AED 110) per person, which is, in my opinion, a steal. If…no, not ‘if’…when I return to Sri Lanka, and when I return to Galle Fort, I shall probably go on one of her other tours.
Note: Hat-tip to The Hedonista whose engaging posts on the island country I lapped up before I travelled; one of the posts revealed the existence of the tours.