The spice story from Sri Lanka

COLOMBO: A Sri Lankan and his spices can never be separated. “Well, neither can an Indian’s — we’re aware of that too,” adds Chandana Alwis, a native of the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. A chef at one of the country’s major hotels, he has enjoyed a long association with Sri Lankan spices. “It’s amazing how almost all visitors start savouring the flavours, smell and taste of our curries and spices soon after they land here,” he adds as I enjoy the Galor Kola Kanda a coconut-based green soup with jaggery, followed by a plateful of rice and curry (that incidentally, Sri Lankans too love to eat with their hands), string hoppers and small-sized rotis.

“Our meals generally comprise boiled or steamed rice served with fish or meat curry. Besides of course, dal, veggies and fruits, sambol and a variety of coconut-based chutneys too that form a part of what’s generally prepared in our homes,” smiles Alwis. In fact, many homes grow not just their own vegetables but also their spices — “a precious part of our heritage”.

Legend has it that way back in time, snakes guarded the island’s spices, and birds had been trained to fetch them for users! Stories such as these have us enthralled as we walk into the beautifully spread-out Ranweli Spice Garden, close to Kandy in Sri Lanka.

“Ah, you’re from India? People from your country also enjoy the special flavours of our spices,” smiles Marco, offering me a piece of fresh turmeric that he plucks from a plant nearby. “You must have heard of golden milk?” As we nod taking in the richness of the haldi fruit, he continues, “You would. After all, we share the same interest in spices. But not many would know that while it’s good to have turmeric with milk, a pinch of black pepper is a must with it too — to let its properties get suitably absorbed,” he adds.

Although it was a lush turmeric plant that set the ball rolling for us in this picturesque corner of Matale, Marco is quick to add that cinnamon is one of the spices that rules the roost in Sri Lanka. History has it that this ‘king of spices’ attracted traders even as far back as 6,000 years! From Egyptians and Romans in the early period to Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and the British in the later ones.

Moving ahead, we stop near a cardamom plant, another of Sri Lanka’s precious spices. “This is best grown in a shaded environment. And remember, only the seeds should be used. The skin or the outer covering can just be thrown away.” Moving ahead, he goes on to show us a plant laden with cloves. It’s difficult not to be charmed by the aroma of this spice’s tall trees with ‘blossoms’ that are really dried flower buds growing in clusters.

Taking in the lush look of the curry leaf tree that’s a familiar sight all over Sri Lanka (and India), we move past trees and thick foliage enjoying the smell of cocoa, vanilla, areca nut, pineapple, nutmeg, and bandicoot berry plants.

Later, as we relish a typical street food of Sri Lanka (called roti, it’s really a samosa-like preparation with several parat (layers) and veggie stuffing, our friend Marcus Fernando suggests a visit to a nearby tea factory. After all, the beverage enjoys a haloed history in Sri Lanka.

It was in the 1800s when a tea bush that was first planted by a young Scotsman, James Taylor, in Hewaheta, caught the island’s fancy, So much so that people started preferring it to even coffee.

With the soil and climate perfect for its cultivation, tea grew to become not just one of the major industries of the country but also zoomed high up on the exports chart. And in the year 1972, when the country’s name was changed to Sri Lanka, this beverage continued to be referred to by its original moniker — Ceylon tea.

It’s interesting to see the sorting, grinding, drying, and packaging processes that we’re told takes about three days. Soon we’re led into a tasting room decorated with dark polished wood where it’s a treat tasting the varieties of tea. Savouring their taste, I stand near the open windows enjoying the cool breeze and stunning views of well-manicured bushes of shimmering tea leaves spread across for miles.

Although supermarkets sell a wide variety, it’s difficult not to get tempted to pick up a few packets from the colourful tea counter where you’re sure to be spoilt for choice. “Ceylon is where India’s tea story began,” says a worker handing me my boxes of tea. “No wonder, both our countries share a deep-rooted bond, but after the way India helped us in our hour of need, we Sri Lankans always raise a (tea) toast to your country,” he adds with a laugh.

© Deccan Herald

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