Festive feast master class | Daily News

Festive feast master class

Negombo is a great place to learn how to create a local festive feast first hand. The area’s names derives itself from the Sinhalese word Meegamuwa, which means the ‘village of honey’, based on a centuries old legend that a swarm of bees landed in a boat, which eventually came to shore in Negombo. Today it is still producing sweet stuff in the form of some of the island’s best treacle tapped early morning from the palm trees and so its sweet history continues in the form of hundred per cent pure coconut sap. A sight to see, early morning in Negombo’s coconut gardens across the road from Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilion’s, where the tappers collect the treacle sap as the sun rises in hand thrown terracotta pots, which go up and down the trees on coconut coir ropes. The scene is like one out of a tableau, where spiders weave spindles, but instead of spiders, it is humans crossing the air, anointing the cosmos with their manic energy and concentration.

This is the start of an extraordinary half day tour, run by Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions that takes you from buying the ingredients in the local market to sitting on a foot stool, village style, using a coconut scraper and cooking on firewood. For centuries Negombo fishermen have been going out at 3 am and returning around 7am with the catch of the day to sell in Negombo’s fish market in the old quarter, where we see what remains of the colonial fort houses. The first thing that hits you is the smell of fish and the spectacular choice; one can see over a hundred different varieties on any given day.

Octopus was readily available the day I visited, all sizes of prawns and the old men were bashing the nets out to get the small fish known as sprats, which are very popular dried and served in sambols. You must take your shoes off if you want to have a go at pulling in the catch of the day or giving a helping hand with bashing the little fish out of the nets unwieldy web, as this is both hygienic and respectful. Baskets full of sardine fish passed us to be weighed and sold in the central market area, where you can also see fish being dried out on old sacking cloth in the tropical sun and old men haggling over the prices.

On the way to Negombo’s elephant village we also explored an ayurveda shop that has been with the same family since 1865. This is a wonderful place full of secret remedies and old copper coins from over forty years ago, which are used to weigh the different remedies, that are then wrapped up in yesterday’s newspaper as everything here is recycled. This you will also see at Saint Mary’s festival where the giant prawns on closer inspection are made of plastic bottles cleverly coloured to match Mary’s statue on the top, which is a superb replica of what you see inside the church. We also enjoyed a stop at the colourful spice shop where they blend everything from roasted curry powder to more expensive blends like chicken and chilli curry powder. Here we bought cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, chilli powder, turmeric, dhal and rice. I learn how, in the olden days, Sri Lanka was very healthy and had over 150 varieties of rice to choose from and now this has been reduced to only a hand full of varieties. We head off to the colourful and very lively fruit and vegetable market next, where men hover over scales waiting to sell you everything like bitter gourd, which is especially good for diabetics, digestion and cleaning the blood. To me it looked like a mini crocodile. We also bought spring onions, aubergine, kohila and ‘Alponsu’ mangoes.

After picking the ingredients we drove for fifteen minutes to a traditional house, still using firewood to cook on, and prepared the ingredients in hand made terracotta pots with coconut spoons giving the food that delicious earthy feel. You will notice the difference in taste as it is closer to nature and the traditional way of making spices is on a grinding stone. My teachers in elephant village are local chef Mary Jaya, and Cyril, her entertaining blue eyed brother who helped with preparations and daughter, Amindra, who all live in this rural idyll called Ath gaala, which literally means elephant village. They explain, as we chop up salad and then vegetables holding the knife steady with my feet squatting on the floor, that it is not as easy as it looks. So as I sliced on the sharpest, largest clever I have ever used, Jaya says, “The village is no longer full of wild jungle elephants and the only time you will see them now is at festival time when they bring them in processions ornately dressed with a rich tapestry cloth across their backs for the Katana temple procession, which happens during Poson full moon day.

Descaling the fish is even harder than scraping the skin off the vegetables with a ‘Sinbad the sailor’ type knife. We talk, as silvery flakes of scale flick in all directions, about how this village was, in the olden days, the base for Negombo traders who housed the elephants for selling overseas, during both the Portuguese and Dutch times. Indeed the bus station area was another such holding pen, which was, until recent times, just a big jungle trading post for animals and spices.

Surrounding this two acre property, with 80 coconut trees acting as a cooling canopy, you can enjoy a walk while the food cooks and learn in the process about the many fruits and medicinal trees like Mee, which is used as an oil to help heal bones and how toddy is tapped and made into the local whisky in the early morning. From one tree they can, I am told, make one bottle of the local `fire water’ per day to accompany the rice and curry banquet. As the walk continues around the property I am shown how oranges, bananas, wild eggplant, guava, and Beli are grown. Beli is the tree for making strong tea way before the British came and still is preferred by village folk as a drink to give you energy throughout the day.

Our festive feast after it has been made is served in the tropical family garden and the six different curries are accompanied by curry leaf juice created with a mirisgala, a grinding stone that crushes the leaves and makes the juice by hand. The meal included delicious fried sardines, Sri Lankan style, and curried sliced mullet fish in a rich spicy sauce with homemade curry powder, accompanied by a range of vegetables including; aubergine curry first fried and then spices added and coconut milk; bitter gourd sambol sautéed and fried and then red onion capsicum , tomatoes, lime juice, salt and pepper are added, which take away the bitter taste; delicious dhal with turmeric powder which gives it that lovely yellow colour; cinnamon and curry leaves, green chilli and freshly made coconut milk. We finish off with a glass of the local firewater, which will put hairs on your chest and get any festive season going. 


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