Live life with a little spice | Daily News


Live life with a little spice

Owners, Ashkar and Sanju of Galle Forts cutest spice shop, Chilli Dragon, grew up in Labuduwa rural area where they grow peppers, cinnamon, tea and organic vegetables. Both of them are passionate about the outdoor life and their love for the old citadel Fort Galle is infectious. It is where they created their spice shop, out of love, in a garden alleyway just off Lighthouse Street, next to one of the most popular places to eat in Galle Fort - Elita.

As a family, they feel the voodoo of the location is key to their successful venture that includes spice packaging and traditional ways of cooking. In their garden surrounding their lovely shop, they do amazing cooking classes and grow chilli, mint, turmeric, bananas, lemon grass, curry leaves, water spinach, tomato and celery.

Galle Fort spice girl, Sanju’s traditional rice and curry cooking classes last around two hours, followed by eating a feast of six dishes. Her family beetroot curry recipe is so good it was picked for an exciting chapter in a new cookbook commissioned by Penguin, Random called Spice Odyssey, written by fabulous foodie travel writer, Cariema Isaacs, who has, in turn, inspired Sanju to produce her own Galle Fort Cook book. Sanju has compiled her favourite 21 recipes from the region and through the pages tells the story of village life, wellness and the reasons spices are so important to the health system. She has also launched, this month, another hot new brand - Chilli Fashion. Sanju, the owner of this fabulous new collection, explains that her inspirations come from going on a course five years ago, as part of an international women’s empowerment forum. This was a game changer for her, as, at the time, she was helping her highly successful brother run Elita and decided to strike out alone. She was inspired by the feedback she received from the talk she gave to the women’s group about life for rural women in the village. She did this with six other women from Galle who also today have their own businesses, as the event inspired all of them to think ‘out of the box’ and believe in themselves.

At the time, Sanju never imagined of creating her own brand and, unlike most dreamers, she made this come true by throwing caution to the wind and setting up with her husband, Ashkar, a small, but stunning shop by the Lighthouse, called Chilli Dragon - a name given by a little boy she would look after from time to time, Samad Careem, who said everyone loves dragons and the spice everyone knows and talks about most is chilli, so being a person with red hot ideas he gifted her the name Chilli Dragon and this was the start of many exciting new ideas. It soon became clear that Sanju’s love of food and spices was infectious and so she branched out and started a cooking school that is popular even in the low season, as her success is not due to Trip Advisor or Google, but old fashioned word of mouth, as a result of the quality of the products she sells. Honesty and creativity are her top strengths and of course being a great cook in her own right makes her an excellent person from whom to study how to make southern super-healthy curries. Whether you buy spices off her or learn from her the secrets of the Galle Fort curry making traditions, Sanju is always creating something with a wicked sparkle in her eyes.

Always one to spread her wings, she opened another visionary shop by the main Galle Fort gate and this time not on Hospital Street by the lighthouse, but on the street called Lighthouse, with another entrance from Middle Street. One would think her light bulb ideas were inspired by the light that guides the ships safely at night, when eating her fresh fish, which both her brother and her like to cook with the sauciest of sauces, as they both believe the best food is always the freshest. However, running the most successful spice shop, with cooking classes, is not enough for this fort entrepreneur, as she also loves helping her friends with fashion and styling, whether it is a sari dress for a wedding or a bright purple butterfly dress, to help someone fly again. She feels you may be what you eat, but what you wear is where you will go in life. So, her look is tropical fantasy glamour with flowers and her husband is cool, sporty and elegant in style. They can be called a deeply romantic couple with an extremely cheeky son Nehan who can outplay the staff in cricket and tennis at the local club. Clearly, he is going to give his parents a run for their money with his own ideas and, while he is entertaining everyone, Sanju is sketching out her next great idea - The Galle Fort recipe book covering the best of cooking master classes.

The fashion ideas came from the fact that she feels all the material and styles are very old fashioned and not suited to the Sri Lankan weather, or for modern Asian or western women to juggle busy careers with having children. Seeing this gap in the market, she decided to explore every backstreet material stall in Petah and the village markets, looking for new innovative materials and giving them a modern twist, like the men’s shirt in floral. She likes the way Megan Markle has shaken up UK fashions and wants to do the same in Sri Lanka. For example, Sanju says, “I have made short dresses with flowers that make mounting a motorbike easier, as saris catch in the wheels and are dangerous.” She has also developed cards for birthdays and Christmas, and packaging with her uber cool business name on it.

Her shop is full of useful items from the hopper making bowls to coconut spoons, and now she only wants to work sustainably so her spices are all in screw fit reusable bottles that you can bring back for a refill. On the wall, she says, “Spice up your life and live life with a little spice,” which is something she says we should all do. We think she gets her passion from the red-hot chills she cooks, with her hotter than hot clothes set off by hanging baskets full of chills, which, as decoration for the kitchen, are yet more reasons to stop by and meet this entrepreneurial couple. Each shelf in her shop has a story to tell, whether it’s buying tea from the plantations or handmade rattan fans to keep you cool on a hot day, as she loves to sell people things made by local people and from nature, as she feels people connect better with objects that have a unique personal story to tell. Ashkar, her husband is very good at creating the look of the shop and developing it with seasonal changes. Ashkar’s vision is to create the Chilli Hunter brand, as he knows people compete all over the world to try the hottest chilli and men see it as the ultimate challenge for showing their true manhood. They are a really fun couple who love to learn from their customers and are amazed when people come back many times over and sometimes buy thirty packets of the No 1 best seller - meat curry powder. When they asked the guy what he was doing with so many packets, he explained, to their amazement, that he wanted to keep and cook with them all.

Even people who first met them five years ago came back looking for them around the fort with their empty packaging and this is a sure sign that over the next fifty years these two are going to lead Sri Lanka into a much better way of life that will give the earth and our planet the really healthy future we need for the next generation to survive and thrive. For both their birthdays, they like gifting their presents to the cancer hospital and the mental ward at the hospital, giving ice creams to everyone along with hundreds of king coconuts, which take hours to cut open, which made Sanju realise what a tough life it is, being a coconut seller. This might be the one profession she does not embark on. Go on! Spice up your life and meet this gorgeous duo and their very cheeky son, on No 32 Middle Street in the garden alleyway at the back of this beautiful historic house restaurant Elita also with an entrance on Lighthouse Street.


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