Of all the many delicious dishes I enjoyed in Sri Lanka last summer, it’s the meals at Tamarind Gardens homestay, in the dry-zone near to Kandy, that really stand out. Partly because it was here that, by hanging around the kitchen and watching the cooks at work, I got a better idea of the ingredients, flavours and techniques that go to make Sri Lanka’s most popular dishes.
Run by husband-and-wife team Ayesha and Nalin Perera, Tamarind Gardens was set up as a community project to try to offer the local residents of Aluthwatte an alternative source of income to working in the nearby dolomite mines. Guests at the farm are invited to help with cooking meals and looking after the animals if they wish, and also invited to join Ayesha in a village-walk to see the villagers at work making jewellery, collecting milk to send to the dairy, and making incense sticks.
During my two days on the farm, I helped prepare fried fish and daal for 40 orphaned girls, who came to the farm on an annual “holiday” organised by the Pereras and their family. A local mum came to the farm to demonstrate cooking konde kevum for me – a skilfully crafted deep-fried cake that tastes like a treacly doughnut. A trip to the supermarket with Ayesha opened my eyes to all the different kinds of curry powder, and I learned about ingredients I’d never heard of before, like rampe, sera and goraka.
Suspecting I might struggle to find this last ingredient in London, Nalin brought a packet of goraka over to London for me just before Christmas, and I set about cooking a mini Sri Lankan banquet for my friends. I was able to buy most of the ingredients I needed in Brixton Village, but, since these ethnic food shops sell mainly African and Caribbean ingredients, the roasted curry powder and curry leaves did elude me. I also struggled to find the right kind of lentils, so improvised with yellow split-peas, which never quite softened like they should have.
Still, I was rather proud of my kukul mas (chicken curry), paripoo (lentil daal), and bonchi curry (curried green beans). I cheated with microwave popodums and rice on my first attempt. Next time I hope to have a go at coconut roti and coconut sambol too. I could really do with a coconut scraper to get the fresh flesh out of a coconut shell, so may have to compromise with desiccated coconut.
In addition to providing jobs for the local people, Tamarind Gardens is working on another project, to make life easier for the struggling villagers in this inhospitable area of the country. The state-run water supply is very intermittent here, and several days can go by in which the villagers’ taps do not bring water. The Pereras have therefore started a project to equip every family with a large plastic water storage tank so they can collect water when the taps do work, rather than having to walk down to the reservoir when the taps do not. Each water tank costs around £23 and guests at Tamarind have been donating money to help Ayesha reach her target of 500 tanks. I’ve bought one tank already, and hope to organise a Sri Lankan feast and ask friends for a donation, to help buy some more.
You can find out more about Tamarind Gardens here (and online donations for water tanks would be most gratefully received!): www.tamarindgardens.com