Food and Leisure

The land of cinnamon

FEAST WITH ME - Stephanie Zubiri-Crespi - The Philippine Star

Old portraits of Ceylon. The result of sightings, glances from trading vessels, the theories of sextant. The shapes different so much they seem to be translations… Growing from mythic shapes into eventual accuracy. Amoeba, the stout rectangle, and the island as we know it now, a pendant off the ear of India…

“At the edge of the maps the scrolled mantling depicts ferocious slipper-footed elephants, a white queen offering a necklace to natives who carry tusks and a conch, a Moorish king who stands amidst the power of books and armour…

“The island seduced all of Europe. The Portuguese. The Dutch. The English. And so its name changed, as well as its shape — Serendip, Ratnapida (“island of gems”), Taprobane, Zeloan, Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon and Ceylon — the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword or bible or language.”

This is from Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. My own spiced first impressions? Everything is awash in cinnamon. As the plane slowly kissed the dark runway, the moon was big and bright, tinged a pinkish-orange ocher whose light was reflected like oil on the inky waters of the night shore. Their earth is the same color. Clay-like and rich, creating a blanket of that same pinkish-orange ocher-colored dust on everything, as if someone had spilled a bottle of cinnamon. Mixed with water during the rains, it was opaque and thick like paint, splashing designs on their feet, on the hems of saris and wheels of tuk-tuks.  Even the people… they look like fragrant sticks of cinnamon, their skin smooth and warm, their smiles radiant and hearts as generous as the scent of the spice.

Strangely enough, for the land of true cinnamon, one hardly smells any. Sri Lanka belongs to mustard seeds and the crows. The smoky scent of fried mustard seeds present in their rice and curries constantly fills the air, whetting your appetite for the flavorful, brightly colored fare. The sound-scape is distinct. The constant cawing of oily black crows, so piercing in the beginning, slowly fades to ambient white noise the longer you stay. Ominous at first, their beady eyes stare straight at you hoping for you to drop a half-nibbled cashew; at times they even boldly swipe it from your hands, then they become like old friends. Part of the scenery, from city to mountains to sea, the crows rule Ceylon.

Charming chaos in Colombo

The name alone feeds the flames of the imagination. Colombo, seat of politics, bustling but at its own rhythm, a burgeoning city caught between past and present — and makes no apologies keeping old traditions. It’s hot, not always pretty, but in its chaos is a certain charm in its sincerity. A few skyscrapers jut out from the otherwise low skyline, the air is hot and thick and the sea breeze is a gift from God. And amid all the jumble of blaring tuk-tuks, weaving motorcycles and the colorful swishing saris there are pockets of peace and serenity. Narrow pathways open up to grandiose colonial courtyards, where architectural frangipani trees frame history. The pace of life seems to be set by the languid movement of the ever-present ceiling fans. Slow and constant. A calming whir of fresh air.

Casa Colombo is a must-stay. A mansion updated with seriously modern and cheeky lighting, where the impossibly high ceilings and large arches make you feel like royalty. Not to mention their domo, Kumara Veeranga, who thinks not one but two steps ahead, anticipating our needs and desires even before we knew ourselves. We have a hearty Sri Lankan breakfast of egg hoppers — paper-thin basket-shaped pancakes crisp on the rim and soft in the middle, filled with coddled eggs and topped with some curry and spicy onion chutney and sambol. I had it every day, except in the early, packed breakfast moments when tomato sandwiches were the standard. 

Gallery Café is beautiful but their food is so-so. It’s still worth a visit for some decent espresso and nice cakes. Watch the cinnamon sun set over the ocean at the Galle Face Hotel. Have their Old World Charm, a nice easy drink of Pimms, cinnamon and mint. Feed the cute squirrels some bits of nuts but be wary of the aggressive crows. Eat at Ministry of Crab where the jaw-droppingly delicious fresh mud crabs broke down all my social graces as I devoured one kilo entirely on my own. It was a delightfully messy affair that deserves a passage all its own.

Crustacean foreplay

The bowl comes steaming. The crustacean swims in a rich, dark pool of fresh pepper sauce. The bright red is sexy and almost vulgar. You can’t wait and you grab a piece. The heat burns your fingers and makes you crave it even more. Your body swells with desire as you count the slow seconds before it is cool enough to manipulate. A lick of dripping sauce. A smack of the lips, singing with peppery lust. A touch of resistance. Patience, perseverance, anticipation. All make for heightened pleasure when the hard crimson shell yields to the soft tender pearls of delight.

Of rocks and buddha

We snaked our way through the countryside, aspiring to immerse ourselves in the temples and vestiges of a grand Buddhist Sinhalese kingdom in barely 24 hours. The harrowing drive was pleasant and worth it. When we reached Dambulla, moving past the garish, boldly colored new temple, up the hill where the monkeys scamper around, a long white colonnade lines the mountain. In abrupt contrast to the searing heat and bright sun, tiny ornate doorways open to dim and cool cavernous spaces where solemn Buddha statues carved from solid rock sit, lie, stand in peace and enlightenment. The ceiling is a rugged sloping surface softened by plaster and intricate hand-painted motifs, stained beautifully with age and moisture. There’s a true reverence in the air. Voices are hushed and spirits are calmed.

Not far away is Sigiriya, Sinhalese King Kasyapa’s fortress built between 477-495 AD, abandoned by the royals after his death but used as a Buddhist monastery till the 14th century. A marvelous, gargantuan piece of — again the recurring theme — cinnamon-colored rock, striped like a zebra with testaments of its geological past. It stands alone. Regal. Surrounded by greenery and ancient gardens where the ghosts of a grand old time linger amid the rustling of the leaves. A tiring but achievable climb will bring you into a world of great feats, romance and mystery. The large paws of a lion lead upward to the king’s swimming pool and a view to eternity. The actual royal chambers are yet to be found … perhaps still hidden deep within the rock, is a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Soak your aching legs in the glassy pool of the Jetwing Vil Uyana. Nestled in the marshlands of Sigiriya park, the resort is nestled in pure, unadulterated nature. The infinity pool spills over to the jade green lake, reflecting the saffron and blood orange colors of the spectacular sunset. Indulge in a crisp rosé from Provence or handpick a wine from their impressive walk-in cellar. Their lavish curries are spectacular: black chicken curry, beetroot curry, dahl in mustard seeds… the table spread looks like an elaborate tapestry. The aromas are like perfumes from the spice heavens.

Ratnapida: The island of gems

It was painful. Waking up before dawn was unearthly. But we meandered on and soon lost ourselves in the beauty Sri Lanka had to offer. Just barely above the trees, not quite in the clouds, the movement is lazy and gentle. Floating in a basket, watching the soft sun rise from behind the painted mountains that look like a sleeping soldier, the mist blurring the lines between heaven and earth … God is everywhere. Morning is quiet, only the songs of birds, the strange meow of peacocks and a haunting electronic melody of Fur Elise streaming from the bread truck pierce the calm. The staccato whoosh of balloon flames every now and then is the only reminder that you’re not simply part of the wind.

Ratnapida, island of gems, has a veracity beyond the mines. The shimmering emerald paddy fields, golden coconuts, bright citrine and turquoise kingfishers, wild sapphire peacocks perched on an achingly beautiful dead tree like a glorious earring hanging off an elegant old woman’s neck. Little birds dressed smartly in black and white tuxedos — like something out of the pages of The Great Gatsby — with flashes of crimson, streak through the sky, elegant throughout this bejeweled avian ball.

It’s even more so in tea country, where the shades of green vary from jade to emerald to peridot. The little shoots of tealeaves are a sparkling chartreuse. The true gems are not just the surroundings but also the pockets of old-world sensibility.

A fragment of the past

The Ceylon Tea Trails and Amangalla have to be the two most wonderful experiences of my life. The colonial lifestyle is not a farce; it is a reality, reflected in the most understated and impeccable personal service. They are not trying to be. They just are. The tea trails have you reading books and stories of Ceylon, while your butler brings high tea. There are no menus, as the chef will come and tease out your fantasies and make them into culinary reality. The only Relais Chateau hotel in Sri Lanka, this place is truly special and merits a minimum of three days of pure luxury doing absolutely nothing.

Galle Fort is one of the most wonderful towns I’ve been in. Colorful old buildings are rendered elegant with age and sea spray, the quaint small stores sell antiques, jewelry and vintage posters, the people sit and have a chat under the large trees by the lighthouse. Amangalla, in true Aman form, exceeded our expectations. Service was so discreet our butler was only present just when our wine glasses had been emptied of the last drop and would disappear under the frangipani trees till the need arose again. Have a drink by the balcony, where the sun sets over the terracotta rooftops and the sea reaches straight out to the Antarctic … no barriers, no hurdles, infinite space, like the infinite moments in Ceylon.

Hemingway and Ondaatje: Ceylon’s moveable feast

Rangana, our driver whose warm, unobtrusive personality will stay forever in my heart, was our driver. He made it through winding roads, curtains of monsoon rains and managed to feed us with nice snacks roadside with a side of wise insights into their local culture. Michael Ondaatje, however, was my tour guide. The pages of Running in the Family and the stories of his ancestors in Sri Lanka accompanied me throughout. He held my hand, providing poetry and prose, a living narration of the movie I was living. I couldn’t help but think of Hemingway, however. And that yes, for him it was Paris, but for me it was Sri Lanka. A moveable feast. A voyage for the senses, where there is not just a landscape but also a melting of sound, scent, taste and touch, woven together by the golden strands of the sun and forged by the dust of their beautiful cinnamon earth. We had left for the Maldives, a paradise on its own, and yet our hearts were heavy. Missing the slow movement, the honesty of Ceylon. And like the wife of Ondaatje’s Cinnamon Peeler, I was left pleasurably scarred by the land.

What good is it to be the lime burner’s daughter,

left with no trace

as if not spoked to in the act of love

as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar.

You touched your belly to my hand

In the dry air and said

I am the cinnamon peeler’s wife. Smell me.

—Michael Ondaatje


For information visit the following websites:

Casa Colombo- www.casacolombo.com

Gallery Cafe and Paradise road-www.paradiseroad.lk

Ministry of Crab-www.ministryofcrab.com

Jetwing Vil Uyana-http://www.jetwinghotels.com/jetwingviluyana/

Ceylon Tea Trails-www.teatrails.com



For drivers, and other tours and bookings I highly recommend contacting Rasith Gunaratna of Different Discovery at rasith@toursrilanka.info and request Rangana as your driver.

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