Peter Kuruvita began his love affair with food in the traditional kitchen of his ancestral home in Colombo, Sri Lanka; so it is fitting that after three decades, the award-winning chef and restaurateur returned to his roots through cookbooks, television series and culinary tours.
A plume of steam escapes from the wok as Peter Kuruvita raises the lid and swiftly slides out this morning’s traditional Sri Lankan breakfast – an egg hopper.
“It’s a rice paper pancake made in a little wok and you set an egg in it and it’s crispy. The rice has been fermented with coconut water overnight and you make this thin pancake, but in the centre it sets like a crumpet, it’s stunning,” he says.
Sri Lanka is a beautiful island off the coast of India, the size of Tasmania and home to 26 million people. It’s an abundant land of tea plantations, world heritage listed ruins and delicious cultural and culinary experiences – all assets which have seen it become a popular tourist destination.
In 2011 SBS Food first aired Logie-winning My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita, a revolutionary cooking series taking foodies into the heart (and kitchens) of Sri Lanka. Shortly after, Peter launched his own culinary tours, where people could experience the true taste of Sri Lanka’s melting pot.
I try and get people to start thinking about their travel and their trip as more – I’m going to give you good food, you’re going to stay in good hotels, but we’re going to meet real people and try and help them.”
“There is a sunscreen that is available in Europe and whenever I smell it it reminds me of when I was a kid. My mum had lots of German friends and when I smell it it takes me back to 1970s Sri Lanka, which was a massive tourist area then and it’s starting to become that way again now – last year it was voted the hottest tourist destination,” he says.
“One of the things I really noticed then and after the war, when the tours started emerging again, is that tour guides travel this well-worn path, it’s quite deep.”
Drawing on his local knowledge and adventures filming My Sri Lanka – paddling across rivers to reach a farmer’s house, staying in his 360-year-old ancestral home, and riding in a bullock cart;
Peter created experiences to not only take you off the beaten track, but to help benefit the locals.
“My tours are a lot about people, I’ve been collecting reading glasses (to take on the next tour) because on the last tour there was an old man sweeping the hay away from the rice and we stopped the bus and I called him on board and gave him a Sinhala (official language in Sri Lanka) newspaper. He couldn’t read the smaller font and then I gave him the glasses, I get goosebumps thinking about it, that’s the kind of tour I want to do,” he says.
“The other thing is, we stay in hotels where the amenities are beautiful and are replaced every day, I tell everyone on our tours to gather it all, toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, shampoo, moisturiser.
When we stop at the salt farm, where these people carry 50kgs of salt on their head across the salt pan – the salt is white, it’s 40 degrees, and when you ask, ‘If I can get you anything, what would you want?’ the answer is, ‘Moisturiser please’.
“I try and get people to start thinking about their travel and their trip as more – I’m going to give you good food, you’re going to stay in good hotels, but we’re going to meet real people and try and help them.”
Given Peter’s status as a celebrity chef, the tours also have a strong foodie focus, where he navigates bustling market scenes and spontaneously brings the bus to a grinding halt, to allow passengers to explore rice fields.
“There is Pettah Market in Colombo, where pretty much all of the food from around the country will come, and it happens every day. Around the outside are the wholesalers, guys who only sell chillies, onions, lentils, fish, all the dry goods, and the centre is like the farmers market, where everyday folk can go shopping, it’s great fun. And then every town has its own weekend market, called polla,” he says.
“Most people buy for the day and the markets are very important, yes they have a fridge but it’s for the leftover food for the next day, it’s not like us stocking the larder. Even spices, you go to the spice market and you buy a little bag of spices to keep it really fresh.
“The market is a great way to start a tour because you show people what produce the country has and then we travel the country and pull it out of the ground from different places. Sri Lanka is abundant with tropical fruits and vegetables, they have 15 varieties of gourds/squash and 38 varieties of bananas.”
As Sri Lanka is the mecca of Buddhism (Peter later tells me a story about the tooth of Lord Buddha being smuggled from India into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess, which is now enshrined in a temple), their diets are richly vegetarian.
“It’s very health orientated and we talk about Ayurveda a lot because when I was growing up, every single thing I looked at or put in my mouth was explained. My grandmother would say, ‘That’s a carrot, it’s very good for your eyes and has lots of fibre so it’s good for your digestion’. Why do you think there are curry leaves in everything? Curry leaves are a natural digestif which are very good for your body, as is ginger and chilli. And my grandmother would cook for us according to how we felt, if you had a fever you would never have any root vegetables which were heating, you’d have cooling meals, like green salads and mangoes, but you wouldn’t have green mangoes, you’d have ripe mangoes. So I try and touch on a little of that and explain it and then we start eating.
“We’ll eat Burgher (descendants from Dutch, Portuguese and British settlers in Sri Lanka) food and because the Dutch invaded Indonesia first, they use a lot of belacan (shrimp paste); then we’ll go to a Muslim restaurant and eat biryani, which was created by the Persians 5000 years ago; then you have Tamal and Jaffa food, which is beautifully spicy, and then there is the Senegalese food.”
Having spent his formative years in Sri Lanka from the age of four until 12, Peter says his dad was a real adventurer, often taking him on road trips.
“Our life in Sri Lanka was full of fun and travel and Dad was always going to new places and showing us new things and even now, I’m learning more and more about the history,” he says.
“It’s important to be a good traveller, not just someone who breezes through and takes, takes, takes, if you stop to think for five minutes and understand them, you’ll go away being a much better human being and for me, that’s what travel is all about – respect the country, respect the rules, respect dress.”
Returning to Sri Lanka feels like going home for Peter, who has recently taken on a tutor to improve his Sinhala.
“I used to be fluent in Tamil, Sinhala, German, English but when we got to Australia in the 1970s, speaking another language or being from somewhere else wasn’t the best thing, so I told my parents to stop, which I regret now, but there was a reason for it,” he says.
“I just love the buzz of the place, I know it and I love seeing it evolve, it’s changing, it’s moving forward.”
This month, Peter returns to Sri Lanka for his tour with World Expeditions, and will host another in October.