Sri Lankan cuisine features scorching chillies, spicy curries, crisp breakfast hoppers (a bowl-shaped pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk) and tangy pickles, and although you can taste influences from neighbouring India and the Dutch and Portuguese colonists, Sri Lanka's food is uniquely its own. And Ella, a sleepy village nestled in the hill country, is one of the best places to sample it.
"Ella is famous for its cooking," says Chandika Madusanka, who runs one of the town's most popular cookery classes. The cooler weather in the mountains is good for growing not only the tea that Sri Lanka is famous for, but also the pandan and curry leaves that show up in local dishes.
"In Ella we use more spices and less chilli powder," Madusanka says, explaining that when chilli isn't overwhelming the nuances of the curries become more apparent. "Here, you can enjoy the real flavour of the cuisine without any trouble."
Sri Lanka doesn't have much of a restaurant culture, so the best way to sample the local specialties is to dine in homes and family-run guest houses. Although dinners are deceptively referred to as simply "rice and curry", they are actually elaborate meals made up of multiple dishes. Vegetarians are easily accommodated, as most meals do not contain fish or meat.
Ella is not only a great place to enjoy the food, it offers many options for learning to cook like a Sri Lankan, too. Women spend hours preparing the family dinner, and those who run guest houses are often happy to allow their guests to watch and learn. For those looking for more formal instruction, here are a few options. Be sure to book at least a day in advance.
Ella Spice Garden
If you're looking for a traditional cookery course, consider Madusanka's popular class at Ella Spice Garden (2,000 rupees [HK$124] per person, including dinner). The 24-year-old started by offering guided tours of his garden, which is filled with peppers, cloves, turmeric and chilli plants, but after frequent inquiries about how to best use the spices, and after he badgered his mother for her recipes, he commandeered the family kitchen and the cookery class was born.
Madusanka's intimate classes are a family affair - his younger sister acts as a sous chef and his mother hovers around to make sure he's doing it right - and offer a window into what really goes on in local kitchens. He gives detailed explanations about each of the spices used to make a couple of curries, spiced rice, dal and poppadoms. He also demonstrates how to make the Sri Lankan speciality coconut sambal, a perfect compliment to curry that is served as a side dish at nearly every meal.
Ella Spice Garden, Wellawaya Rd, Ella. Tel: +94 (0) 75 236 3636
Rawana Holiday Resort
At Rawana Holiday Resort (a simple, albeit grandiosely named, guest house) dinner consists of more than a dozen curries, vegetables, sambals and rice for 450 rupees. You'll need to order around lunchtime, as they cook and prepare only as much as will be needed each night.
After being inundated with requests from diners wanting to know how to replicate dishes they had savoured at dinner, Rawana's owners decided to open the kitchen to guests and provide them with the recipes for their favourite dishes. If you ask nicely the chef will let you hang around the kitchen and watch him prepare the evening's meals as well as provide you with his recipes.
His speciality is a deliciously creamy curry, made from dozens of cloves of garlic, which must be tasted to be believed. Watching him cook is better than anything you'll see on the Food Network. He and a few assistants juggle half-a-dozen dishes at a time, from cucumber and mint salad to zesty sweet and sour aubergine curry. By the time he's finished preparing the enormous spread, you'll be more than ready to sit down and enjoy it.
Rawana Holiday Resort, Wellawaya Rd, Ella. Tel: +94 (0) 57 222 8794
If you'd be more comfortable cooking in a professional kitchen rather than in a family home, the chefs at Nescoffee, one of Ella's few bona fide restaurants, will teach you how to make eight types of curry, including okra, aubergine, potato and lentil, as well as coconut sambal. It's the only daytime class in town - cooking kicks off at 9.30am and culminates in a delicious lunch.
"People who come to Ella are interested in Sri Lankan food," explains Nescoffee's owner Dash Rathnayka. "We started our cooking classes because often, after people eat, they ask if we can teach them how to cook. We have an open kitchen, so we can show people how to make Sri Lankan curries."
Nescoffee, Wellawaya Rd, Ella. Tel: +94 (0) 771 804 020
Here are three classics from the Sri Lankan kitchen:
You can hear this dish being prepared around dusk all over the country. Roti, a slightly chewy flatbread made on heated iron sheets, is chopped up using heavy cleavers, making a tell-tale clanging of metal that signals the approach of a delicious meal. Fried with ingredients that include chicken, vegetables, bacon, onions, egg and even sometimes cheese, kotthu roti is inexpensive and filling. While the dish is not traditional - it's of Tamil origin and has only become popular in the past 50 years - it has quickly become a staple.
Perhaps it's not the best choice for a date night, but curry made from dozens of cloves of garlic is a popular dish. The garlic is fried with fenugreek and turmeric, then stewed - sometimes in a pressure cooker - until it is soft and creamy. Next, coconut milk laced with tamarind juice is added, making a thick gravy for the tender cloves. A pinch of chilli powder adds a hint of heat, but the focus is the melt-in-the-mouth sweetness of the cooked garlic.
You'll find this simple, spicy relish on the table at just about every meal on the island. At breakfast it's served with egg hoppers and at dinner it's offered alongside half a dozen different curries. Fresh grated coconut, chilli, onions and lime juice are ground together until the dish becomes a distinctive orange. Sometimes dried Maldive fish or tomatoes are included for additional punch. The coconut sambal's tangy flavour adds a delicious fresh counterpoint to the creamy curries that are central to every Sri Lankan meal.