Sri Lanka: Extra hot and spicy

Peter Kuruvita endures tropical heat and downpours to cook for his TV show, writes Lissa Christopher.

Flying Fish chef and restaurateur Peter Kuruvita has recent, first-hand experience of what it’s like to cook outdoors in the tropics in front of a television camera. ”I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone,” he says.

The challenges included ill-timed downpours of biblical proportions; muddy, equipment-laden treks to picturesque locations (where it inevitably rained again); being ”gently baked” under the cameraman’s scrim in ”250 per cent humidity”; and the fact that ”a four-minute cooking segment takes at least five hours to film”.

But the labour has borne its fruits: a 10-part cooking and culture series called My Sri Lanka, of which Kuruvita is rightly proud. The series is beautiful looking and appetite whetting and includes some extremely endearing monkey and elephant cameos.

”I’ve always wanted to be able to show Sri Lanka to people in a positive light,” Kuruvita says. ”I wanted to show how beautiful the country is, how vibrant the people are and how food there really brings people together.”

Kuruvita spent some of his well-travelled childhood in Sri Lanka – his father was born and raised in Colombo – and he still goes back every year.

In My Sri Lanka, he recalls fond memories while strolling through markets or temple grounds, or preparing a chicken and sandalwood curry on the top of a mountain with a hungry dog pacing behind him.

Just about everyone in Sri Lanka is a keen cook and has strong opinions about how things should be done, Kuruvita says. Households make recipes that ”have been handed down through generations but are never written down. And while every household may make a similar curry, they’re all slightly different,” he says.

There’s a sort of local joke, he says, that if you’re invited to eat at another Sri Lankan home and you’re served the most sumptuous feast, after you leave, someone in your party will inevitably say, ”That was really nice but, you know what, not as good as home.”

Ayurveda also plays a significant role in Sri Lankan cuisine – it’s almost medicine before it’s food.

“If you ask anyone in Sri Lanka what something is – at a market, say – they will tell you, ‘Well, it’s really good for your blood pressure’ or, ‘That’s great if your body is overheating’, before they tell you what it actually is,” Kuruvita says.

“And people are so proud of their produce. Even if they’ve got five chillies, it’s the most beautiful pile of five chillies.”

While Kuruvita says he wouldn’t recommend making a TV cooking show outdoors in the tropics, it seems he isn’t taking his own advice. This week, even before My Sri Lanka goes to air, he’s flying off to start filming another series, this time in Indonesia, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands and the Philippines.

”This series will be more about adventure,” he says. ”Sri Lanka, for me, was easy; it’s like home. The next one will be taking me out of my comfort zone.”

My Sri Lanka starts Thursday on SBS One at 7.30pm.

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