In the central heartland of Sri Lanka, dining experiences at three eco-friendly resorts connect guests with the soil and local culture.
Sri Lankaâ€™s Cultural Triangle is known chiefly for the vestiges of its pastâ€”rock-cut temples, ruined palaces, and once-teeming capitals like Polonnaruwa. But I am here on a mission to see how three local resorts are expressing the regionâ€™s culinary traditions with a dash of contemporary flair.
1. Kalundewa Retreat
I start my journey an hourâ€™s drive north of Kandy, in an area where ancient kings began to make their indelible mark on the landscape roughly 1,700 years ago. These ambitious rulers carved out huge man-made lakes to improve irrigation in an otherwise dry landscape. Over the centuries, farmers have utilized these lakes to water their crops and feed their families.
Thereâ€™s a strong sense of that agricultural heritage at Kalundewa Retreat, a 42-hectare eco-resort in the shadow of its namesake mountain. More than 18 hectares are given over to farmlands, and most of the crops harvested here are organically grown. These vary in the dry season, but come wet season, the farmlands are flooded with water from the surrounding lakes and turned into glistening paddy fields. On my visit, I help executive chef Shanil Guna-sekera pick vegetables from the kitchen garden â€”white eggplants, wrinkly bitter gourd, crisp cauliflowerâ€”to prepare in his traditional Sri Lankan degustation.
Gunasekera chooses his main ingredients according to the seasons, and I soon enjoy a dry curry of twice-cooked bitter gourd and tomato, yellow lentil coconut curry, and eggplant served two ways: sliced lengthwise to be cooked with chili and mustard seeds, and cut into delicate strips to be stir-fried with translucent cloves of garlic, onion, turmeric, and unroasted curry spices. Combined with a rich sunset-hued coconut sambal, it makes for a rustic, homey experience inside the propertyâ€™s breezy Tree House restaurant.
2. Heritance Kandalama
Just beyond Kalundewa Mountain, chef Prasantha Giragama helms the sprawling, 374-square-meter kitchen at the Heritance Kandalama. I learn that Giragama cut his teeth here as a sous chef; after a successful stint in Australia as the executive chef at Canberraâ€™s Crowne Plaza, he returned to Sri Lanka to lead the rotating roster of at least 75 chefs of all levels. Together they are tasked with feeding guests in the 150-odd rooms and five restaurants as well as The Cave, a table set in one of the natural grottoes located beside the greenery-draped hotel.
Special dining experiences here arenâ€™t just suited for romance; I get an inside look at the sheer scale of the hotel kitchen during a dinner at the chefâ€™s table, amid a tiled setting flanked by stainless-steel counters and cooking stations. The first course comprises pan-fried lake prawns served with stewed tamarind, spices, and roasted garlic. What follows is the local staple kothu roti, or a traditional flatbread stir-fried in a chicken curry gravy and served with a pungent but sweet combination of pickled young jackfruit, mustard seed, and red onion.
Iâ€™m struck by how different this condiment tastes from a mature jackfruit. Next up, the desserts served by Giragama could easily be a meal on their own. I enjoy spoonfuls of Sri Lankan buffalo curd in kithul palm syrup, then a butterscotch-marinated starfruit and traditional watalappan, or coconut custard pudding, and finally a rolled pancake â€ścigarâ€ť in a cardamom-spiced young coconut and sesame sauce. Giragamaâ€™s modern take on the classic flavors of Sri Lanka certainly packs a punch.
3. Santani Wellness Retreat
Moving away from the lake-pocked plains around Kandalama, I head two hours south to Santani Wellness Retreat for a culinary experience rooted in Ayurvedic principles. A key element of Ayurveda is health through nutrition, and Santaniâ€™s commitment to holistic wellbeing extends to the personalized menus created for each guest over the course of their stay. These are determined by a private consultation and diagnosis by the resident Ayurvedic expert, Dr. Ravi Sooraj. â€śUnfortunately, Ayurveda is treated like a fad now, and is applied in a patchwork manner,â€ť he tells me. â€śWhen it doesnâ€™t work, people criticize the entire system. If it is not applied in a holistic manner, then you wonâ€™t get holistic results.â€ť
To develop a gourmet Ayurvedic menu, Dr. Sooraj works closely with Santaniâ€™s executive chef, Wajira Gamage, who spent 16 years in France honing his skills. This fortuitous pairing of doctor and chef is responsible for the culinary creations at Santani, which incorporate the six tastes that should come with every meal: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
Meals at Santani are as delicious as they are nourishing. The relatively soft flavors of a green vegetable soup prepare me for the herby punch of the excellent grilled sea mullet that follows; this is balanced by the earthiness of a mushroom and quinoa risotto. A hibiscus jelly and citrus fruit salad caps off this light but satisfying meal. Santaniâ€™s digital-free environment provides ample space for self-reflection, and by the end of my stay I feel healthy, balanced, and full of respect for the ways local chefs are showcasing the produce of the Sri Lankan soil.
doubles from US$224
doubles from US$225
Santani Wellness Retreat
94/76-399-1919; doubles from US$347.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śBearing Fruitâ€ť).