Published by Andy from The Travel Hub
Andy is one of the Co-Founders of The Travel Hub. Passionate about travel, Andy hosted a group from Dubai in Sri Lanka, where they experienced so much of the islands unique, colourful and vibrant culture. It also presented an opportunity to enjoy another passion - local cuisine.
A love of travel and of food almost go hand in hand - both allow you to really experience the unique culture of a destination. Trying local cuisines is something I am passionate about and on a recent visit to Sri Lanka, was fortunate enough to have an incredible food experience at Owl and the Pussycat Hotel & Restaurant in Talpe, Gallery.
Owl and the Pussycat Hotel & Restaurant is a short drive along the coast from Galle (map). When you enter the property you are immediately taken aback by the perfect mix of colour and style, set against the back-drop of a beautiful Indian Ocean view.
I must confess that I absolutely love exploring fresh food markets in cities I visit around the world - I find it a fascinating insight into the culture of a place. I can spend hours watching fresh fish get delivered or wander a market and sample local fruits that you don't find back home. So the opportunity to spend a morning with a chef at a local food market was something I was already excited about.
We met with head chef Anthony D'Costa (instagram: @anthony_dc9211) at the hotel and jumped into the mini van for the short drive to our first stop, the fish markets. There are several fish markets dotted along the coast close to Galle and Anthony took us to his favourite. The stalls are literally casting distance from where the boats moor. A very simple arrangement of stalls, but buzzing with activity as locals inspect the catch and salesmen spruik their product. There is a range of local species including snapper, garfish, mahi mahi and whitebait, but the premium item on the list is freshly caught tuna. Anthony explained how different fish suited different cooking styles and ingredients - from curries with white flesh fish, frying the smaller white bait whole, through to allowing the natural flavour of the tuna be the hero by only slightly searing the fish. For now, the purchases went in the cool box and we were off to our next stop - the vegetable market!
The vegetable market was expectedly full of colour, however it was the people around the stalls that brought the most vibrance! The sellers and customers were keen to stop and chat, have a photo or talk about the different vegetables that filled the stands. Many even tempted us to try the small chillies - fortunately, Anthony explained that only one or two of these in a whole dish would be plenty! There were many familiar vegetables, but also some locally grown produce which I didn't have much experience with. One purchase was the "banana blossom" - the edible flower of the banana plant which is a common ingredient in southern Sri Lanka.
Adjacent to the vegetable market are a number a stalls selling a range of spices. Just walking into the small shop, the aroma fills your nostrils. We went through some of the different flavours that go into making authentic southern Sri Lankan dishes. Of particular note was cinnamon, a spice not only used in local food, but also playing a significant role in the history of Galle and Sri Lanka. For centuries, Cinnamon was a relatively rare and expensive commodity that was keenly sought after in Europe. Portuguese, Dutch and then British settlements controlled the Cinnamon trade in Sri Lanka from early 1500's for around 300 years, shipping the valuable spice back to Europe. Sri Lanka remains the largest exporter of the Ceylon variety of cinnamon and it is readily available in every spice stall.
Last stop on our market tour was the fruit market. Certainly something that is hugely popular especially in Galle is freshly grown fruit! King Coconuts line the streets and it takes 2 minutes to find someone selling the fresh and rehydrating coconuts with a straw! Did you know that technically, coconuts are a fruit, not a nut! So they are right at home at the fruit market!
The fruit market was like a rainbow of colours, with many of the fruits a familiar favourite - apples, grapes, mangoes, pineapples, etc! Something that did catch our attention were clay pots that were sitting quite openly in the sun. These sealed pots contained a curd that was allowed to "sour" in the warmth. The curd, made from buffalo milk, is a local delicacy for dessert!
We now had a van full of fresh local ingredients and it was time to head back to Anthony's "office" for a cooking masterclass!
Back at Owl and the Pussycat it was time to bring all these flavours together. Anthony is head chef of The Runcible spoon at the hotel - a lovely restaurant with an open plan kitchen that lends itself to guests gaining a greater appreciation of the skills that go into making their meals.
First, it was that fresh tuna. Anthony rolled the fillet in sesame seeds and it was ever so lightly seared. The garnishing of ginger, wasabi and light soy sauce were just enough to not over-power the real hero - that undeniably fresh tuna. You can't compare tuna that has literally been caught that morning to that brought from stores after days of transport - it quite literally melts in your mouth
Now it was time for the main courses. Anthony took us through several dishes - ranging from seasoned and grilled whole fish, a prawn curry, through to beans mall made with a unique "winged bean".
The combinations of different flavours, especially the addition of all those spices were the true art in the whole process. It was fascinating to watch as Anthony built up each dish around the main ingredient! The way in which a dish like the prawn curry was so methodically constructed, adding each ingredient in turn before leaving it quietly to simmer. Even the way the colour changed during the simmering process from a pale yellow to a more orange-gold as the coconut milk reduced and the curry powder took over.
One of the things I really loved, was the way all the different ingredients we had seen at the market only and hour or so earlier, were being incorporated. The unfamiliar banana blossom, which I had seen but never really knew what it was or how it was used, was now the key ingredient in a dish that I couldn't wait to try.
Slowly all the elements were coming together each in a different dish that would highlight the texture, flavour or colour of the ingredients. We went back outside to take up a spot at the table beneath the palm trees, sipping on fresh king coconuts and listening to the waves crash onto the beach behind us........patiently waiting as Anthony put the finishing touches on the dishes.
The final result was a banquet that truly represented the tour through the markets that morning - a rich tapestry of ingredients that had come together perfectly. It was impossible not to try at least a little bit of everything. It is rare that you can have such a spread of dishes and love every single bit. I was faced with a significant problem when it came time to "go back for seconds", I genuinely wasn't sure I could eat another round of everything, but couldn't choose anything to leave behind! Times like this, it pays to be a big eater........so I had a little bit more of everything! No judgements!
It was far too easy to get caught up in the spread of local flavours before us and forget we still had that local delicacy of the buffalo curd to try for dessert. The clay pot was borough to the table, opened and the thin layer of paper carefully peeled from the top. The set curd had a consistency somewhat like creme caramel and was easily spooned into a bowl. It had a unique tangy taste, a bit like a natural yogurt and was enjoyed with a drizzle of kithu treacle.
The market tour and cooking experience at Owl and the Pussycat was truly one of the highlights of our Sri Lanka trip! I am a self confessed foodie, so I do love these sorts of things, especially the opportunity to tour local markets with a chef! Owl and the Pussycat is a wonderful property very close to Galle and located right on the beach. The rooms are delightfully set out and are more apartments than hotel rooms - most having their own kitchenette. The decor is so charming, each room has its own theme and even its own name, derived from a line in the poem from which the property takes its name! There is a gym, wellness centre and a reading room that even if the weather was bad, would make for the perfect place to sit and lose yourself in a good book. But when we visited, the weather was typically beautiful, so the best place to be was sitting between the pool and the ocean with a fresh king coconut!
The Travel Hub and its guests spent a total of 5 nights in Sri Lanka, traveling to Colombo, Kandy and Galle. We were fortunate enough to enjoy the comforts of Business Class on board flydubai, who have flights daily between Dubai and Colombo. Be sure to see our link to flydubai or visit their website for some more travel inspiration.