From Dutch cakes and Malay custards to British scones and fiery Lankan curries, Kalpana Sunder wolfs it down

I am following in the footsteps of Sinbad the Sailor and Ibn Battuta. They say that Galle in Sri Lanka was discovered by the Portuguese when a storm blew their Maldives-bound ships off course into Galle’s natural harbour. A flotsam of merchants landed here from all over the world to trade in precious gems as well as exotic spices and stamped their imprints on the culture and cuisine of this town. The Dutch who followed the Portuguese made the Fort the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company and built the ramparts and the bastions; today the hidden world behind the resilient walls, which have stood firm against many calamities including the 2004 tsunami, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Galle’s cuisine is a fusion of cultural influences from Arab traders, Portuguese and Dutch explorers, and Malay navigators, as well as the British who came after them; it also draws heavily from Tamil cuisine and that of the Malabar Coast. Living inside the Galle Fort for centuries are the Sri Lankan Moors, descendants of Arab seafarers who came in as traders and eventually settled here. Their unique cuisine and its recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. Staples on the town’s menu are fish curries of seer, mullet and tuna, and hoppers made from rice batter fermented with a dash of palm toddy and coconut milk. The hoppers are served with eggs, meat, or a piquant sweet-and-sour pineapple curry. Every meal comes with rice, usually brown rice cooked in coconut milk. Coconut is the quintessential Sri Lankan ingredient, and every part of the tree is used, from the flesh grated into sambols or baked into sweet delights to the shell carved into cooking tools.

My hotel, the luxurious Amangalla, is located inside the walls of the Fort, woven out of a series of buildings more than 300 years old. With glittering chandeliers and polished wooden floors, it used to be home to the Dutch Governor and a billet for British officers. I walk into a scene straight out of an Enid Blyton book — dining hall with high ceiling, starched white linen, fragrant Ceylon tea in silver teapots, scones with fresh cream and strawberry jam, and impeccable service.

Over the next few days as I explore the historic town and walk through its narrow streets with ochre heritage buildings and old warehouses, food is the omnipresent motif that follows me everywhere. As I walk along the weather-beaten Dutch ramparts and its 14 bastions, there are vendors selling raw mango rubbed with spices and freshly roasted peanuts. Every meal reminds me that I am tasting a bit of history and cultural fusion. I get addicted to the taste of cinnamon-laced curries: the delicate flavour of the cinnamon quills is incomparable. I see Dutch influences in the use of eggs and the butter-rich recipes of the local cakes, the Malay mark in desserts like Wattalappam, a rich, steamed egg custard made with palm sugar, coconut milk and spiced with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.

A unique local custom is ‘short eats’, a version of Indian tiffin or finger food, with vendors selling greasy and spicy treats like chicken nuggets, golf-ball sized potato croquettes, bread rolls, kottu rotis, and tiny samosas in glass cases strapped onto bicycles. I find people feasting on triangular buns stuffed with veggies and meat, hot vadas, and egg rolls. Sitting on the terrace of the Ramparts Hotel and sipping chilled Lion Beer, we people-watch, as the sun casts purplish shadows over the Indian Ocean. I love the funky bohemian vibe of the Serendipity Arts Café, which serves up brilliant coffee and an eclectic mix of local flavours and global comfort food. I escape from the afternoon sun into the atmospheric Pedlar’s Inn Café in a restored old colonial house, where they revive me with their unique avocado milk shake.

The pinnacle of my experience, however, is the cooking class organised by the Amangalla chef. He drives me to a local market housed under 300-year-old gabled roofs to pick up fresh vegetables and herbs. It’s a sensory overload, as we walk through stalls laden with green vegetables and luscious tropical fruits such as passion fruit, mango and reams of bananas. I am intrigued by the huge terracotta pots with their paper covers — they turn out to be deliciously creamy curd, often served with palm treacle. We then walk through lush paddy fields to reach a ‘paddy island’, a piece of land fringed by the fields and home to a stream with bold monitor lizards and cormorants. Here, Lalitha from the village teaches me to cook a complete vegetarian meal, including hand-pressed coconut milk. As I put together the spices and cut vegetables, cooking them in traditional mud vessels, it’s almost a meditative experience. I scrape coconut and add chillies, red onions, lime and herbs to make a fiery sambol.

The accent is on fresh and healthy farm-to-table food: the rice is brown, the vegetables are fresh, the spices home-made. I learn to make a beetroot curry with strings of cinnamon, and a sweet-and-sour eggplant moju. We then feast on the fruits of my labour under the shade of a traditional ambalama or gazebo. I reflect on how true it is that a way to a country’s heart is often through the stomach.

Quick Guide

- Find an easy Wattalappam recipe

- Take a food tour with writer-photographer Juliet Coombe

- Eat at Mama’s Galle Fort Roof Café — fabulous views, best curries, lowest prices