“You know what, I would love to go to Sri Lanka”. Two months later, Grant and I partnered Causeartist with Lokal Travel to curate a sweet two-week press trip checking out sustainable properties and activities across the country focused on economic, social and environmental impact. The itinerary: Colombo (including Mount Lavinia), Hikkadawa (a random day trip south), Kandy, Sigiriya, Gal Oya National Park, and back to Colombo. In just two weeks, I was able to experience beautiful beaches, a UNESCO world heritage site, mountains, vibrant wildlife, Sri Lanka’s first outdoor electronic music festival on the eve of the 26th (!), and relaxing (but working) poolside afternoons at two of the most gorgeous properties I’ve ever stayed at. Even more than my luxury sustainable resort experience in Nicaragua in 2014.
I’ll be publishing the Sri Lanka Sustainable Travel Guide on Causeartist by the end of the month, but couldn’t help but share my memorable experience with the ladies of the Women’s Development Centre in Kandy. This nonprofit organization provides resources and workshops for marginalized women in the community, including young mothers and individuals living with disabilities. Their social enterprise cafe, Sthree, provides economic opportunity to their community and I was honoured to attend their FIRST cooking class EVER. My morning started with a bus ride in from Digana where I was staying at Polwaththa Ecolodge, thanks to Lokal Travel. I arrived at Sthree to a very nervous Thilini, the café and shop manager, running around the place making sure everything was perfect for our class, while I stood in awe looking at the incredible artisanal goods for sale in the shop. All the products for sale, from fashion to art to kitchenware, are handmade by artisans in the community. The organization actually actively seeks artisans working with environmentally friendly materials in the community and provides them a platform for marketing and sales. 100% of profits go back to the artisans.
For over 30 years, the organization has taken a grassroots approach to connecting women and various organizations in Kandy to their initiatives including: skill development workshops (such as learning to handloom), daycare for the rising number of young mothers in Sri Lanka, and crisis intervention and rehabilitation programming. In January this year, they opened the café side as a social enterprise model to help with funding. All dishes are made with fresh, local produce bought every morning in Kandy. Traditional Sri Lankan dishes are enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and high tea, prepared by women passionate about food and community. So far the café has been extremely successful. Funding has been provided by G Adventures’ Planeterra, and the cafe regularly hosts locals and high profile individuals, including the Canadian embassy for high tea. And after experiencing the cooking class, I can only imagine the growth the cafe is about to experience, as it was definitely the highlight of my trip and left me with a permanent smile painted across my face throughout the entire day (and a full belly).
Chef Nirmala is hands down the cleanest chef I’ve ever met. Every time she completed a task, she would swiftly clean the area and resume with the next dish. I, on the other hand, am a totally “fling everything everywhere!” kind of cook, and had to be extremely careful not to be the Tasmanian Devil next to her. Luckily, even with a slight mess made, I was able to charm her with my giggles while I Boomerang-ed every little thing she did.
Our menu for the day included:
Sri Lanka Red Rice
Dhal (lentil) Curry
Sri Lanka String Beans
Ambarella – a sour, pear-like fruit native to Sri Lanka that we simmered in a delicious syrup
Batu Moju – lightly friend eggplant dish
Papadam – thin, fried bread
Coconut roti – round little patties pan fried and filled with fresh coconut shavings
This was followed by a delicious dessert of fresh curd with treacle, a Sri Lankan syrup, that Thilini surprised us with.
We started our class with chopping and shredding fresh coconuts, which we used to make three separate batches of coconut milk. The first batch of blended coconut and water created a light coconut milk that was used in our cassava dish. We squeezed the water out of the shredded coconut and placed it back in the blender for the second batch. This coconut milk was used for the dhal. We repeated and made a third batch, this time for our string beans. We then used what was left of the shredded coconut to make our coconut roti – talk about zero waste cooking! Every dish was cooked with coconut oil (made in-house!) and spiced with turmeric, red chili, salt, and coriander.
While chopping, simmering, spicing and shredding, I got to know Thilini and Nirmala’s stories. Thilini is a Kandy girl with two sons and a picky mother-in-law that likes when she chops salad extremely thin. She has a passion for development and absolutely loves her job – and you can tell. Nirmala is from a village outside of Kandy and is in her mid-40s. She is an orphan who relies quite heavily on a close male cousin as she is unmarried. Working with the Women’s Development Centre has given her a lot of opportunity to be independent and explore her skills. It was really beautiful having her teach us dishes she’s been making for years, and with such patience for our silliness and constant string of questions. She totally boosted my ego when she complimented my cutting skills. I’m sure you’d feel like a bad ass too if an amazing Sri Lankan Chef complimented you!
The class was about 2 hours, from 10am to 12pm, and of course ended with devouring our delicious meal that I’m still drooling about. I was almost shocked that I had anything to do with it. It was absolutely one of my favorite meals in Sri Lanka. And it went down so smoothly knowing the impact I was making by simply eating at Sthree.
I skipped back to the bus stop with a full belly and a tote bag filled with new, handmade kitchenware made from coconut waste. I've already been happily using them to cook in the new Hara House kitchen.
Can't wait to share the rest of my adventures with you. Stay tuned for more stories from Sri Lanka!