Catherine Mack’s parents are from North India but she was born in London. She takes trips to India to visit her family but had never come to Sri Lanka before. “It is pretty off the radar for North Indians really as it is so far away,” says Catherine. It was really the heat and sunshine that she was looking for as she had had a period of ill-health and wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny.
“Sri Lanka came up on the radar as lots of friends had been here and talked about how good it is. And then I mentioned this trip to a really good friend of mine, Victoria, and she immediately jumped at it, as she knew that Sri Lankans made the most amazing food.” Here’s a rundown of her Sri Lankan food experience, in her own words.
I am a foodie but don’t cook as much as I want, because I work long hours. However, when I travel I always try and do a cookery class or something like that. But this tour seemed just amazing, even though I had never tried Sri Lankan food before. And the idea of being able to stuff my face for half the day was just fantastic!
But it’s not all about food. It is the perfect mix and a really great introduction to the country. Catherine and Victoria covered all the nature reserves, Yala National Park, Minneriya to see the elephants, you do Dambulla Caves and Sigiriya. “Which is just incredible, you get to do the cities such as Colombo or Galle, and you can go sit on the beach. And you get to eat all this Sri Lankan food and meet Sri Lankan people.”
We met such a wonderful cross section of Sri Lankan society and that is when I realised just how complicated religion and ethnicity really is here. But our guide would tell us, for example, we are going to visit this family today and they are Tamil, and this is how you say hello and thank you. And of course, once you go north it is a pretty safe bet that people are Tamil.”
I try not to have preconceptions when I travel but I was curious to see if any of it felt familiar, having been to India. But that was a bit of a mistake because it is so completely different. Sri Lanka is a very unique country. Also, I am very glad I didn’t read anything about the civil war until I got back to London, because I didn’t want it to colour my perceptions of the country. People talked about it with you once they felt comfortable with you, but it was more interesting for me to do it that way around, and then come back and read about it. Of course now I want to go back and have the same conversations and ask, ‘yes, but what about this….?’
All the hotels were really good. I was really impressed, and there was a real variety too. I did have a favourite bathroom! In this old colonial hotel in Kandy with high ceilings, lots of dark wood and a great atmosphere. In fact, there were three guys on the tour who ended up bunking in one room there because one of them was convinced there was a ghost in his! But in our room we had an amazing bathroom with a beautiful huge modern shower, but with very period features as well, one of which was a giant cupboard, which was a bit like the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia.
We went to see the wild elephants in Minneriya National Park, but the elephants by the end of the afternoon got really annoyed with all the cars of tourists. And we were unlucky because, although we kept our distance and didn’t stay for too long, it was our jeep that managed to aggravate a group of elephants and we got charged at by three bulls! We were in one of those open jeeps, so we did have to reverse pretty fast, and pretty far. And they did look pretty angry, like they had just had enough! We had our group leader who was acting as a safari guide and also a driver, but they were really calm, and got us out of there fast.
But apart from that it was amazing, we saw so many elephants, about 200 of them. And after seeing them in the wild, I will never be able to go to a zoo again. Once you’ve seen them in the wild you gain a real respect for them, even when they are charging at you! In fact, seeing them charge gives you a healthy fear and respect for wild animals.
Sense and sight memories
There are plenty of taste memories, of course! The food was just so tasty, aromatic and flavourful. And varied and very different to what I have had in terms of Indian food; to the point where I would look at something and wouldn’t be able to tell if it was going to be sweet or savoury. And the other sense memory was sound, especially at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy which was very busy and full of bustle, but yet very respectful and calming. The fact that it is packed doesn’t bother me too much, although some people don’t like that, but for me this is part of the experience as it is the most important religious site in Sri Lanka. And when they open the casket it is particularly busy, with hordes of people coming to witness it.
Our tour leader, Priyantha Balakrishnan is Tamil by origin, in his 40s and married with three children. His wife works for the Human Rights Commission in Trinco. He has been in the business for about seven to 10 years. He is a fantastic tour guide, always going over and above for us. He was very open, transparent and a really great guide. He explained a lot of things and you could tell he was once an economics teacher because he was good at lecturing! He gave us really interesting talks about the country’s marriage customs, healthcare system and of course, the economy. But he also took us to meet all the families, and he knew them really well and was able to tell us all about them. He was a brilliant translator too.
Both men and women in Sri Lanka are very comfortable in the kitchen and would both talk to us about the cooking, the ingredients and so on. We also took part in the cooking, although you didn’t have to. It was fascinating; how they make curd and also the different ways in which they use coconuts.
My personal favourite was coconut and pumpkin curry, which was absolutely divine and of course, hoppers. Hoppers with dhal to be exact. Whether they were string hoppers or egg hoppers, I just loved them for breakfast. If you are not used to very spicy food, a good tip is to have something like lime juice as it is a good digestive or soda along with the meal.
Colombo is really underrated. It is modern, bustling with a great food scene. Kandy is equally underrated with the Botanic Gardens, which is a bit out of the way and so we took a tuk there on an afternoon that we had to ourselves. That was just the most spectacular afternoon.
The tuk tuk drivers were very helpful, friendly and once you negotiated a price, they stuck to it. They were diligent and got us where we wanted to go. I would ask people working in the hotel what they recommended as a price to go somewhere and then used that as a starting point for negotiations. Just be polite and firm, and keep a sense of humour, but don’t get annoyed.
Sri Lanka is very easy to travel around and I felt very safe travelling alone as a female. Also, one of the things that I find remarkable is that it is almost as if the war didn’t happen. It is very peaceful now. Travel is very easy, and I explored the north coast for a week before I returned.