One of the main reasons why I travel is to taste local food around the globe. Nearly all of my meals consist of traditional food wherever I may, and usually from food stalls or small, locally operated restaurants. What could be better than learning to cook cultural cuisine while impacting the community responsible for it and sharing a meal with local friends? A cooking class really can make a far greater impact than simply learning to make a new delicious dish. I had the chance to visit Ecowave, a social enterprise in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka that teaches travelers how to create traditional rice and curry.
Ecowave promotes the livelihood of marginalized small-scale farmers and rural communities by developing sustainability practices in local agriculture and facilitating ethical community tourism. Most of their beneficiaries are from nearby Panama and Urani villages. Each of the Ecowave projects focuses on enhancing environmental practices and all profits are funneled back into the community. Even the Ecowave building itself is eco-friendly, it was constructed with locally sourced clay and grass.
The culinary lesson at Ecowave was incredibly authentic. I joined seven other travelers to help prepare an array of gorgeous organic produce including vegetables, herbs, and local spices. Everything we used during the lesson had been sourced from locally-owned farms that are operated by beneficiaries of Ecowave. While the organization and farmers can’t afford to become certified organic producers they are committed to abstaining from using pesticides or chemicals.
During the epic four-hour culinary lesson and feast I learned to create the most iconic Sri Lankan dish – rice and curry. This may sound like a simple meal. But don’t underestimate a Sri Lankan rice and curry. The traditional meal goes way beyond just one dish. Usually, 4 to 6 curries are served in small portions with rice as the main. Ibraham, our teacher, guided us through local food traditions as I discovered exotic flavors and ancient recipes.
We seriously spiced up our lives as we added not spoonfuls, but handfuls, of local herbs and peppers into the mix as we prepared traditional dishes. Black pepper, cinnamon sticks, chili powder, curry powder, cumin, ginger, and turmeric were the main ingredients complimented by finely chopped onion, crushed garlic, diced tomatoes and branches of curry leaves.
The menu we whipped up included brinjal (eggplant) salad, okra curry, pumpkin curry, ash banana curry, green bean curry, snake gourd curry, beet curry, dahl (lentil) curry, fish curry, and my all time favorite thing, coconut sambal. Absolutely everything was handmade and locally sourced, even the beautiful serving plates and cutlery. Besides the fish curry, everything was vegan. We used oil to create the curries but as I learned when preparing Ayurvedic food at Mahagedara Retreat, coconut milk would’ve been enough liquid if you want to make a healthier, lower fat curry.
We primarily only helped with the preparation as Ibraham recalled the recipes by heart and a local village woman cooked the curries. The actual cooking was more of a demonstration which was fine by me as I hardly could keep up with enjoying the course, writing down the recipe and capturing photographs. Sri Lankan curries are incredibly simple to make and pack a lot of flavors, I can’t wait to cook these for my family the next time I visit the States. I won’t share the recipes here as I truly believe the only way to learn the Sri Lankan cooking process is directly from a local who’s been taught by his/her forefathers.
Although we did not actually cook the class was still very hands on. Literally, as I had the opportunity to create coconut milk by squeezing the grated coconut (that thankfully someone else grated it first) mixed with water until the meat was completely dry and a thick creamy coconut concoction was left in the bowl. This liquid is set aside and is referred to as the coconut cream. The coconut is then squeezed again with water which creates a thinner liquid, aka coconut milk.
Ultimately the cooking course went beyond the meal we were preparing and became a cultural exchange as we traded stories of our travels around the tear-drop shaped island. Although we devoured nearly all of the curry it was a massive amount of food so definitely have a very light lunch prior to the lesson.
Ecowave certainly lived up to their ethos of “doing good, doing green.” As promised I certainly discovered the secrets of Sri Lankan food. It’s simple really, every dish is made with an extra portion of ādaraya, love in Singhalese. This was truly a highlight of my month spent exploring Sri Lanka.
The Ecowave outpost in Arugam Bay also runs a small shop where travelers can make ethical purchases of traditional Sri Lankan handicrafts including these gorgeous handmade bags created by the farmer’s wives from recycled rice bags. I loved coconut shell products too, from serving spoons to key rings. Guests can also shop from an assortment of spices and herbs produced by the partner farms in the shop, organic fruits and vegetables, organic Ceylon tea, ethically sourced bee honey, raw nuts, and more. The shop pays fair wages to the employees and also the artisans who create the souvenirs.
I’ve loved developing my culinary skills as I travel and have taken lessons in Thailand, Morocco, and India. Have you had any cooking-centric vacations? Tell me about them in the comments!