Travelling first by ox cart, then in a small wooden boat to a lakeside village in Sri Lanka's Central Province, we are treated to a garden-to-table cooking class and lunch by husband and wife Bandara and Chandi
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After mooring the small catamaran amonst the lotus leaves, we tread carefully over timber planks that form a floating walkway, and onto a garden oasis of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Nearby a simple open hut crowned by a roof of palm fronds shelters a kitchen and a delightful open dining annexe lined with bench seats.
Chandi, our host and teacher, stands on the earthen floor of the kitchen, which has been covered with beaten cow dung. The stove is of moulded mud. A cool breeze wafts in from the lake, but Chandi and her husband Bandara are looking forward to the wet season, when the water will flood the land and the crops will grow profusely. She starts by expertly chopping the local cabbage, fine and green, with swift movements of her sharp knife. She splits a coconut and shreds the flesh to make coconut milk. Coconut oil is heated and mustard seeds added first.
Chandi makes curries from loofas, eggplant and beans, adding fenugreek, ginger, garlic, cardamom, onion, pandan leaf and curry leaves, as well as curry powder. She also produces a dhal and chickpeas, lightly spiced. The cabbage is tossed through with shredded coconut, then cooked with coconut water. It is possibly the best and freshest tasting food I’ve had in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, her husband is in a separate neighbouring kitchen hut, frying pieces of fresh river fish and papadums in coconut oil.
From a tree outside the kitchen, Bandara slices a few banana leaves to use as our plates. The table is suddenly groaning with an array of fresh dishes and pots of rice. We eat with our hands, combining all the elements at once, and topping with chilies as required.
Dessert is selected from the surrounding fruit trees and garden beds.