Rick Stein in Sri Lanka in search of recipes

“Ask him what happened,” David, the director, said.

“What actually happened to you in the tsunami?” I said, thinking what a great place for a party the house on the tiny Taprobane island would be.


Airy bedrooms with antique four-poster beds set around a spacious central area with a tropical breeze blowing through one bright open door from the sea and out towards the shore on the Sri Lankan mainland.

“I was swimming around Taprobane,” Geoffrey Dobbs said. “All I felt was a slight swell under me but then I noticed that I was about 20ft higher up the island than seconds before. The next thing I was swept across the bay and found myself clinging on to the mast of a fishing boat like that one on the shore over there, just by that house.”

He pointed to a pale blue and yellow outrigger about half a mile from where we were standing.

I asked him if he had been frightened.

“I didn’t have time. I didn’t even realise it was a tsunami until all the water that had swelled inland rushed back out again and the whole of Weligama Bay drained out to sea. I could have walked over to a couple of spots that I dive to regularly.”

The swaying palm trees and arrival of my second lime soda made it all seem so improbable. It was hard to imagine the immense loss of life and the suffering of the communities living all along the shores of the Indian Ocean.

I didn’t stay at Taprobane. Instead, I was at one of Dobbs’s other guest residences, the Sun House, near Galle, a cool colonial home surrounded by verandas and frangipani trees with fans swishing in every elegant room.

We were making my Far Eastern Odyssey, a cookery series set in South-East Asia, and that morning had filmed a fish curry being cooked by the wife and aunt of a fisherman in a nearby village, just behind the beach. They were using a fish called parawer, caught that morning.

I had been out with the fishermen, watching them pay out a long net in a large circle that they pulled in by hand. I had been much enthused by their spirit, cheerfulness and skilful co-operation in the tricky undertaking of setting the net and pulling it in with nothing but muscle power.

I watched Chandrika, the aunt, delicately and somewhat dangerously slice garlic, red onions and ginger against a large, sharp blade held between her feet as she sat on the floor in the tiny kitchen of the fisherman’s house.

She lost three of her family, including her baby son, in the tsunami. Their pictures were on the table in the front room, where we later sat down to eat the fish. She had simmered it in water and coconut milk, then fried together the onions and garlic with green chillies, cinnamon, curry leaves and roasted spice.

She layered the cooked fish with the spicy vegetables and left it all to infuse for 20 minutes while she boiled red rice. I sat down with them and ate the delicious fish with my fingers while reflecting on the power of food to at least help to alleviate the effects of tragedy.

I had felt similarly a few days earlier in Colombo, while eating crab at the New Yarl Eating House, a Tamil restaurant at Wellawatta. It was the day after the Tamil Tigers had rather defiantly flown two tiny aircraft from a clearing in the jungle in the north and bombed Colombo. Both were shot down, one crashing into the main tax office. Two people were killed and about 50 injured.

We had been sitting at a table by the pool, overlooking the sea, at the Mount Lavinia Hotel eating prawns with tomato, pineapple curry with cinnamon and pandan leaves, and egg hoppers — crisp and lacy rice pancakes with a fried egg in the centre — that were sprinkled with a hot sambol of grated coconut and roasted chilli. We thought it was a firework display somewhere in the city.

The next day I sat eating chilli crab in the tiny, sweltering New Yarl. It was one of the best crab dishes I have tasted. Frightfully hot, it was made with tomato and coconut milk, roasted Sri Lankan spice powder and masses of chilli and served with ice-cold Coca-Cola.

My companion was Savin, a local journalist, who endeared himself to me by pronouncing that Coke tasted better out of glass bottles. Again I had this feeling, in a restaurant full of Tamil and Sinhalese customers, of the civilising influence of great food.

I reflected, too, on the occasional glory of a soft drink and the wonderfulness of Sri Lankan crabs or, indeed, any seafood from there. In a world were there is ample evidence of overfishing, at least there are plenty of fish in the waters around Sri Lanka.

Roadside stalls selling fish are all along the coast road from Colombo to Galle. And there’s not a fish farm on the island; even the prawns, as big as lobsters, that I saw being sold by a fisherman holding them up in the middle of a busy road in Colombo were wild.

I went to the Negombo fish market, which is on the beach just north of Colombo, with Dharshan Munidasa, a Sri Lankan-Japanese restaurateur. With his Japanese hat firmly on he explained that the market was heaven for perfect sushi and sashimi.

There were a bewildering number of pelagic fish such as tuna, Spanish mackerel, bonito, trevally and kingfish, and plenty of large snapper and mullet. The prawns were still jumping and the squid and cuttlefish were so alive that you could see their skin change colour where you touched them.

Munidasa bought tuna, snapper, trevally, squid and prawns and a fish unknown to me that he called half beak. It looked like garfish and he later took it back to his restaurant, Nihonbashi, right in the centre of Colombo and created a sashimi that would equal anything in Tokyo.

I’m sure that I could be called a little naive to recommend Sri Lanka as a holiday destination — because of the bloody civil war — but the people I met made me believe that reconciliation could prevail and that the local population would welcome us.

They are attractive, funny, hard-working and sunny in spite of the hardships of living in a Third World country that had a devastating tsunami four years ago and a long-running civil war.

What I should also be saying is: go there, because the curries are so good, the beaches are so unspoilt and empty, the surf is consistent and the countryside will charm you. I had no idea how good the food would be: not only the seafood but also the vegetable curries that were so delicious that they would almost convert me to vegetarianism.

I ate jackfruit curry, deep-fried egg and tomato curry, cashew and snake gourd curry. I had pumpkin curry and garlic curry. All were rich in coconut milk and flavoured with long dark pieces of cinnamon, deeply roasted curry spices, fiery green chillies and the almost distinctly tropical flavour of curry and pandan leaves.

At times, when I was eating those curries — particularly at the Sun House — I was known to utter with extreme emotion on the perfect match between a fiery curry and a cold Lion beer.

Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey, £25, BBC Books. The accompanying TV series is on Thursdays, BBC Two, 8pm

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