"In Sri Lanka we have a saying that eating curry with a knife and fork is like making love through an interpreter,” says Peter Kuruvita with a cheeky grin. While the quote may actually be attributable to the Shah of Iran, it’s a good rule of thumb for enjoying Sri Lanka's most famous dish, the hopper.
While Kuruvita gets busy with string hopper device made from recycled aluminum cans, Crowne Plaza Terrigal Pacific staff in the Seasalt kitchen replicate his work en masse, so participants in the full ‘Flavours of Sri Lanka’ executive masterclass can all get their fingers sticky.
While most opt to use a fork rather than smoosh the idiyappam made from steamed rice flour into the palm treacle syrup, it’s nice to be inducted into the Sri Lankan way. This particular string hopper is stuffed with a sweet blend of freshly grated coconut, vanilla bean, palm sugar, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, making it the perfect warm-up to the ones we’ll eat with curries and sambols later in the day at the ‘Flavours of Sri Lanka’ Dinner. We eat it while Kuruvita explains the difficult work of toddy tappers who run on ropes strung between palm trees all over the plantation to retrieve earthenware pots filled with sap. The fermented palm sap is drunk as toddy or palm wine, distilled into a stronger drink, or reduced into palm syrup and palm sugar. You can pick up your own kithul treacle at Sunil's Spice Centre in Thornleigh, where you'll also find twenty-buck benchtop coconut grinders if you'd like to switch over to fresh.
We also get some pancake-making tips from Kuruvita, who inducts us into Sri Lankan egg rolls, popular "shorties" or snacks. “The secret to me is oil - oil makes the pancake flexible,” says Kuruvita, who also advises resting any batter with flour in it before cooking. The resulting pliable pancakes are folded around a mildly spiced potato mix, then dipped back in the batter to attach panko crumbs before being deep fried. It's crisp and delicious, so I can see why it's a popular snack.
We’re visiting the hotel for the Flavours of Sri Lanka Package ($399). The package, which includes overnight accommodation for two in an Ocean View Room, two tickets to the ‘Flavours of Sri Lanka’ Dinner event, full buffet breakfast, a signed copy of Peter’s cookbook and overnight hotel parking, starts with a masterclass to give you a chance to get acquainted with Sri Lanka’s most famous chef. Kuruvita grew up in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. He set up Sydney’s Flying Fish Restaurant, and now runs Noosa Beach House and Flying Fish Fiji.
Kuruvita has built a bit of an empire around popularising Sri Lankan cuisine, supplementing his restaurant work with hotel partnerships like this one, cookbooks, television series and leading guided foodie trails through the country with World Expeditions.
Crowne Plaza Terrigal Pacific does not forget their locals either, providing them with Dinner Only ($85/head) tickets that include a welcome Pimms-based cocktail. It’s an appropriate drink for a Sri Lankan dinner. Horatio Davies who bought the Pimm’s company in 1870 expanded the Pimm’s brand internationally by putting it in the hands of colonial administrators. They took it all the way to The Galle Face Hotel in Ceylon (Sri Lanka as it was known by the English colonisers, who replaced the Portuguese colonisers).
The dinner kicks off with bite-sized prawn vadai patties, devilled crumbed mushrooms, and my favourite – black pepper beef and betel leaf rolls.
We’re seated on large tables and through passing around pappadums and raita, we quickly get to know our new friends.
Along with taking the masterclass, Kuruvita spent the day in the Seasalt kitchen overseeing an avalanche of Sri Lankan curries in quantities big enough to serve a hundred and eighty people. Working with the hotel’s kitchen team, Kuruvita made so may curries they literally all won’t fit on the large tables so we consume them in two waves. They're served with an array of sides and condiments, running from a wonderfully sour lime pickle to fluffy turmeric-enhanced samba rice grown in Sri Lanka.
There are also string hoppers, served plain, rather than stuffed like the ones we ate earlier.
They're perfect for grabbing between your fingers and smooshing into plantain curry.
“I’ve been eating turmeric all my life,” Kuruvita explained in the earlier masterclass attributing it to his family enjoying generations of good health. We can now taste his lessons on the palette of Sri Lankan flavours - fresh curry leaves, lime, cardamom, fenugreek, ginger and Indian green chillies - in ridge gourd curry cooked in coconut cream. This one might be an acquired taste.
I’m more impressed with the banana blossom (vazhaipoo) curry, which is intriguingly tannic, like tea.
Even just taking a tiny taste of each, there's a maelstrom of flavours, making it hard to pay attention and hone into each and every dish.
Cooking curry at this size comes with some setbacks. I find the Malay beef curry watery, preferring the old fashioned chicken curry as a result. Both of these meat dishes begged for more heat, which is probably the fault of eating them at a please-all dinner catering to over a hundred guests.
The only dish that had real heat was the cuttlefish in spicy sauce, making it my easy favourite of the night. The squid was tender and really came through the blend of turmeric, cumin, chilli powder, fenugreek, coriander and green chillies it had been cooked it.
While I prefer my tuna pink in the centre, the black tuna curry with black pepper and goroka (a sour fruit added for bitterness) was certainly a good introduction to the difference between Indian and Sri Lankan cuisines.
“There are so many different flavours, textures, colours that we can show people,” enthused Kuruvita, who popped back into the dining room regularly to give some background to his dishes.
You could say the event was a success simplu based upon the fact that half the guests left with his personally signed book tucked under their arms, eager to explore Sri Lankan flavours in their own homes.
With the dinner wrapping up with verrine of buffalo curd, palmyra palm treacle, coconut crunch and Dilmah tea (you didn’t think Kuruvita would fail to fullfil his brand ambassador duties, did you?) it’s clear nobody will be leaving hungry. Kuruvita is slated to return to the Crowne Plaza Terrigal Pacific in November. I'd recommend the experience as good value whether you’re a local or a Sydney blow-in, keen to enjoy a foodie escape to Terrigal.
Level 1, Crowne Plaza Terrigal,
Pine Tree Lane, Terrigal
Ph: (02) 4384 9133