Often we foodie travellers miss the neighbourhood bars, curry houses and fish shacks that locals love as we whizz past on our way to the starrier restaurants of the region. In this series of dispatches from around the globe we’ll be putting that right, celebrating culinary heroes worth making a detour to.
Norwood Tea Estate – Hill Country
Catch the rustic blue train from Kandy and wind up, through a sea of luscious green hills, past waves of tea plants so uniform they could have been stitched onto the soil. Higher still, at Relais & Chateaux property, Ceylon Tea Trails, a cluster of restored planters’ bungalows crouch among the tea leaves close to the Norwood Estate tea factory, with stunning views across the valley. Enjoy a three-course lunch on the resort’s terrace garnished with organic herbs grown in the gardens, or order a lavish afternoon tea and slather gooseberry jam and fresh cream onto fluffy scones while sipping on Sri Lankan tea (with a view of the hills it was grown on). Learn more than you could possibly imagine about tea and meet the women who pick the leaves on a tea factory tour.
Sha Sha Seafood – Tangalle
Kick off your shoes and pad up the beach to this unassuming wooden shack precariously balanced on wonky palm stilts. Colourful wooden boats are kept below it, ready for the next fishing trip to source the restaurant’s catch of the day (check the board in the corner for details). There’s no electricity here, so at night lanterns illuminate the handful of tables as waiters carry vintage plates full of fresh squid rings and prawns in a mild chilli salsa to hungry diners. Squeeze tiny limes over whole fresh fish and watch the sunset over the waves for an idyllic candlelit dinner.
The Last House – Tangalle
This place takes its name from its prime position as the last house on a beautiful stretch of beach (watch local fishermen dish out huge fish from their narrow boats to the various beach shacks). Stay in one of the airy rooms that incorporate architect Geoffrey Bawa’s ethos of outdoor and indoor fluidity and dine on the hotel’s veranda; try renowned local chef Ananda’s traditional Sri Lankan curries – creamy dahl, sour Sri Lankan fish curry and green bean curry - paired with spicy coconut pol sambola, caramelised aubergine Wambatu Moju Sambol and thinly sliced Gotukola (think Sri Lankan tabbouleh) with fresh crisp puffed poppadoms.
Cactus Lounge – Tangalle
Owner Elgi is very proud of his TripAdvisor position, but he should be more proud of the food he serves at his no frills restaurant on Tangalle’s coast. Prawns come stir-fried with onions and peppers in a spicy chilli tomato sauce, or go for a mixed grill that includes baby octopus and calamari as well as grilled fish of the day. And definitely order double portions of the super-thin and crisp shoestring fries hand-chopped by Elgi himself and fried skin-on in vegetable oil. They’re worth the journey alone.
Matara Road, Tangalle
Baker Man Truck – Weligama
For a snack with a generous side order of local charm, try to catch the baker man’s truck in Weligama. You’ll know he’s approaching as the echo of his ice-cream-truck ditty gets louder and louder. Suddenly he’ll grind to a halt and serve up sweet and savoury Sri Lankan baked goods. Try Sinhalese oil cakes, samosa buns and crisp shelled doughy tim bits with banana.
Various locations, Weligama
Chilli Spice Dragon – Galle
Step through the wooden elephant-carved doors and shelter from the midday heat in the cool courtyard that houses tiny spice emporium, Chilli Spice Dragon. A heady mix of herbs, spices and tea filters through the air as owners Ashkar and Nishadi advise you how to best use the spices on display. Stock up on unique gifts to take home: little spice houses complete with cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and star anise, and cute trios of Sri Lankan teas in pretty packaging.
Hospital Street, Fort, Galle
Poonie’s Kitchen – Galle
If you’re after a break from the traditional Sri Lankan spread of curries, step through Mimimango boutique clothing shop in Galle and out the other side into the calming oasis of Poonie’s Kitchen. Cool down with a refreshing glass of fragrant lemongrass tea, citrusy kalamansi soda or iced jasmine tea and listen to a fountain trickle into a rectangular fishpond and the wind chimes echo off the café’s colourful stone walls and murals. Chef Sudantha’s Thai prawn soup with pumpkin and coconut comes in a big pot, with a side of rice to pour in, and hearty salads use the best local ingredients (try the herbed couscous). Leave room for epic coconut desserts – toasted coconut and banana bread with passion fruit butter or moist chocolate brownies with coconut and vanilla yoghurt.
(Written by Alex Crossley, Photographs by Alex Crossley - olivemagazine.com)