Lellama Fish Market Visit and Cooking Experience – Jetwing Beach Hotel, Negombo, Sri Lanka

Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience - Negombo, Sri Lanka

Monday 7th December, 2015

Ever since my Year 7 geography class and learning about the capital cities and countries of the world, I’ve had a yearning to travel to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it once was known) to see the tea plantations with my own eyes and learn more about Sri Lankan culture and cuisine firsthand. I was determined that this was going to be the year to actively try and make that trip become a reality.

Knowing that my trip was indeed a “once in a lifetime” experience, I researched a number of places to stay on Google and TripAdvisor, looking for something that would give me an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka, and somewhere luxurious to rest and recharge for a few days, but which also offered a unique culinary programme. Sounds impossible? And after a bit of clicking and surfing, I stumbled across the Jetwing Beach website which had a link offering a trip to the local fish market and hands-on cooking experience with the chef for US$45. After sending a few email enquiries to confirm that the culinary experience was still available, I booked my accommodation and eagerly anticipated my impending holiday adventure.

Persistence and a little dash of tenacity are the key ingredients in securing this activity. Despite having a copy of the original email response from the Restaurant Manager, I enquired with the front desk on three separate occasions on the morning of my first day at the hotel as to when this would be taking place, more so that I could plan when to drag myself away from the pool, alcoholic beverages and palm trees and be ready for some knife-wielding action.

A lot of nodding ensued, a few casual “We will ask” responses and then in the afternoon, I called by the reception desk to ask about the activity once more. After a little wait, I was asked if I would be willing to go downstairs to the hotel kitchen and meet with the Executive Chef in his office to discuss my culinary adventure in more detail. Talking briefly about what I wanted to learn, see and do, a trip to the fish market was arranged for five a.m. on Monday morning, where I would be escorted by a couple of hotel chefs to visit one of the oldest fish markets in Sri Lanka and select the fish I wanted to cook with.

I think after that initial meeting with the chef, most of the restaurant and hotel staff recognised my face and were keen to talk to me about my visit, with a few short greetings of “Madam, you are going to the fish market in the morning. No?”. The manager on duty in the restaurant on Sunday night came to my table to introduce myself and ask if I was still okay to start the next morning at five a.m. Yep, bring it on.

Granted, getting up just after four a.m. at a resort to go and pick the catch of the day isn’t everyone’s idea of relaxation or fun, and it’s not something I’ve succumbed to doing at the markets back home. However, travel makes everyone embrace adventure, even jumping into a swank black car with tinted windows and four guys I’ve never met before, in the dead of night without a second thought, to go and look at some fish.

The avenue of neon palm trees - Negombo, Sri Lanka
The avenue of neon palm trees – Negombo, Sri Lanka

On the way to the market, we drove through an avenue of fluorescent glow sticks that symbolically resembled a grove of palm trees. I wasn’t sure if it was part of the town’s Christmas decorations but it was spectacular to behold. I was a little slow getting my camera to capture the image (the photo here was taken on the way back as the sun was coming up) but in truth, I’m glad I made the effort to get out of bed a little earlier than usual.

When we arrived at the market just after five a.m., trading was in full swing with tuk-tuk’s, bicycles, cars and even small motorboats, all jostling for a position around the perimeter of the building. To one side was the local fish sales and the opposite side housed the commercial enterprise, with large trawlers docked against the jetty.

I was led through the smaller market to look at the stalls selling a variety of mullet fish, tuna, shark, swordfish and crustaceans. My chef friends were asking me what fish I wanted to try, and to be honest, at at hour of the morning I did not have a definitive menu planned in advance. The difficult thing though was that once the vendors knew that I was the purchaser, the price seemed to escalate tenfold and so I needed to wander off and become somewhat interested in someone else’s stall in order to secure some of the chef’s recommendations.

Across the other side was the fishing co-operative and large portions of tuna and other fish captured in the night’s haul were being cut, weighed and sold. We came across a few men struggling to lift a massive shark onto a set of scales to be weighed, and there were a few shouts when the final reading came to a staggering 232 kilograms.

The 232 kilogram catch of the day - Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka
The 232 kilogram catch of the day – Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka

It was fascinating wandering around the market, watching the dawn slowly break, seeing the trawlers head back out and other boats come back in. Yet in all the frantic hustle, my appearance did seem to be a little out of the ordinary, with one fisherman quite keen to ensure that I took a picture of him and some of his catch for prosperity.

Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka
Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka

With my fish portions secured and also fresh fish purchased for the hotel’s daily menu requirements, we headed back to the hotel and arrived just after six a.m. My chef companions went to the kitchen to start their day and gave me instructions to meet them outside the hotel restaurant at eleven a.m., ready to start my hands-on cooking lesson.

Having fortified myself with a few cups of coffee during the morning, I arrived early before the appointed hour, looking forward to learning the secrets of Sri Lankan fish curries and a few new culinary skills to add to my repertoire.

A cooking station had been set up outside for my lesson, with portable gas stoves and barbecue plates primed for action. The first order of business was to get my apron and chef’s hat on, which in the heat and humidity kind of gave me the same hairstyle as Krusty the Clown, but given the idyllic setting, I just had to go with it.

Armed with a sharp knife, my chef demonstrated how the vegetables were to be cut and I got to work on prepping the onion, green peppers, tomatoes, ginger, limes and lemongrass for our different curries.

It was a little disconcerting to have an audience ratio of four staff to one amateur cook to begin with, but once it became apparent that I can listen and follow instructions, chop vegetables without losing body parts and know a little bit about cooking in general, I had a one-on-one professional and highly enjoyable cooking experience.

The lunch menu consisted of a Vietnamese style steamed fish (mullet), fish curry (another variety of mullet), another fish curry (swordfish), grilled tuna, prawn curry and a dahl curry. I received a couple of recipes presented in a folder for a fish curry and the dahl curry to take home with me, but essentially the lesson was hands-on, cooking by instinct and taste.

The steamed fish was seasoned with salt, light soy sauce, sesame oil and fresh ginger, coriander and lemongrass. Whilst it was similar to what I prepare at home, what shocked me was that it is generally accepted that fish is steamed flat, yet our version was tightly wrapped in foil and bent in such a way to ensure it was snugly placed around the circumference of a small steamer and left to cook for 25 minutes.

We then progressed onto preparing the first version of the fish curry by slicing the mullet fish into thick slices and marinating the pieces in a combination of curry powder and chilli powder, before sautéing a mixture of the vegetables and coconut milk with the prepared fish.

While the pot was boiling, I was slicing pieces of swordfish for another fish curry and another flurry of spices, vegetables and coconut milk ensued to create another exotic dish. The chef asked me what I wanted to do with the piece of yellow fin tuna that was purchased, and with the midday sun beating down on us, it was perfect weather for seared tuna cooked on the grill plate, served rare. My little suggestion earnt me a winning smile from my teacher who then taught me to slice the tuna correctly and then create a simple marinade of cracked black pepper, sea salt and lime juice.

With the tuna set to one side, I then stepped up to the hotplate again to create the dahl curry from pre-washed red lentils, in much the same manner as the fish curries; a pinch of this, a dash of that, a spoonful or two of coconut milk, season, stir then sit. My chef also thought that the meal would be incomplete without the inclusion of prawns so I was set to work on creating a dry curry (sans coconut milk) on the strove top.

After an hour or so of learning, listening and instinctive cooking, I had made and prepared my own lunch to now sit and enjoy with the stunning view of the beach before me.

Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience - Negombo, Sri Lanka
Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience – Negombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan’s take their hospitality very seriously and strongly recommended that my meal could not be appreciated without a bottle of Chardonnay to complement the fish and spices. Really, after getting up at an ungodly hour and cooking up a storm, who was I to argue? I was treated like royalty throughout the whole experience and the personal attention continued with my dishes served onto my plate, cold wine poured and steamed rice, coconut sambal and pappdums brought out to compliment my cooking. The head pastry chef suddenly appeared at my table to introduce himself and ask how I enjoyed my morning.

I was perfectly content and grateful that I had persevered in ensuring that I didn’t miss out on enjoying this unique experience, just absentmindedly gazing out to the sea when the chef approached my table with a gift of spices from the hotel kitchen, as a thank-you for participating in the culinary experience.

And just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat any more, a beautiful palate-cleansing fruit platter arrived to revive me. Truly, great holiday memories are undoubtedly created from doing the things we love and learning from those who are willing to share their love of food and culinary heritage with new-found friends.

Foodie Trails – Gourmet Indian Masala Trail, Melbourne CBD

It’s funny how we are prepared to try new experiences on holidays, but rarely undertake similar adventures in the places in which we live. One of the first things that I do when planning a holiday to a foreign destination, is to sign up for a culinary food tour or cooking class in that country once I arrive, so that I can get a greater appreciation of the cuisine and culture. Although I live in a beautiful city with a rich and diverse offering of foods from many different nationalities, I rarely take the time to discover the edible treasures readily available on my own doorstep.

When I saw an advertisement for a walking tour around the Melbourne CBD with Foodie Trails, sampling authentic Indian cuisine combined with the opportunity to discover wonderful new places to source spices and obscure food items, it was a journey of discovery that I didn’t want to miss.

The starting point of the journey was the Visitor Information Centre at Federation Square where we met our guide Himanshi, before setting off on our gourmet adventure. What was exciting was that we only needed to walk a couple of hundred metres down Flinders Street before arriving at our first location on the tour, an Indian restaurant and café called Flora. I actually walk past this restaurant every day on my way to work but never had the courage to actually step inside and discover what lay beyond the glass doors.

Seated at a large table towards the back of the restaurant, Himanshi treated our group to a narrative of her love of food and travel stemming from her childhood upbringing in India. With maps of the states and provinces before us, we learnt about the origins of popular Indian dishes and spices, and how centuries of various rulers and empires from around the world had contributed to and influenced, what we know as Indian cuisine today.

The best part of any food tour is being introduced to new dishes under the guidance of someone who knows how it should best be eaten. Himanshi had arranged for servings of a traditional South Indian breakfast dish called idli, a savoury cake or dumpling, served in a warm red lentil and vegetable soup flavoured with chilli and mustard seeds known as sambar for everyone to try, served with a cold coconut chutney as an accompaniment. After watching Himanshi demonstrate how to eat the dumpling with the soup and coconut sauce, we all reciprocated and tried it for ourselves. Yum! It was absolutely delicious, and I particularly loved the coconut sauce which had fresh coriander through it.

No breakfast is complete without a hot beverage and Himanshi obliged by ordering chai masala tea for us to enjoy with our soup. Vastly different from a chai latte, masala tea is made from loose leaf tea, fresh ginger, various herbs and dry-roasted spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, which has been boiled and strained before served with milk. The warm spiced tea had a lovely taste and was very easy to drink, and although I could have happily indulged in another cup, it was time for us to leave and head towards our next destination.

After a short walk through the Melbourne city centre, we arrived at a small shop located in Russell Street called Ceylon Curry Corner, which is in close proximity to Chinatown. I must admit that one of the main motivators for joining the tour apart from my love of Indian cuisine, was to discover a place in the city that sold spices and traditional Indian foods. Once we walked into the shop, I knew that I had found that place.

With walls laden with packets of dried herbs and spices, and shelves stocked with jars of various foodstuffs, Himanshi took the time to explain the traditional elements and key ingredients found in Indian cuisine by passing them around our group. We then had an opportunity to buy our own spices to bring home and incorporate into our own cooking. I had been searching for a five-seed spice blend called panch phoran to use in a recipe for a Sri Lankan curry for quite some time, and I was excited to finally get my hands on a packet for only a couple of dollars.

Our last destination for the afternoon was a well-known Indian restaurant located at the top of Bourke Street called Red Pepper. Red Pepper has a contemporary, modern interior and our group was looking forward to enjoying what Himanshi had ordered for our lunch. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an authentic mango lassi and didn’t hesitate to order one to accompany the food, but I found that it was so delicious and refreshing that my glass was empty within only a few minutes.

Soon after, several individual platters of food were served, containing large portions of warm butter naan, and smaller bowls of goat curry, raita, butter chicken, chicken curry, lentil soup , rice and a small salad. Thankfully I had brought my appetite with me on the tour but where to start? Butter chicken is always a favourite and a dish that I have mastered making at home in my own kitchen, so naturally I started there. Everything on the platter was beyond compare – fresh, delicious, full of flavour, the meat dishes were tender and succulent, the sauces were beautifully spiced and not unbearably hot to taste. Naan bread is always wonderful and this was no exception yet somehow I had some left over to mop up the left over remnants of the curries at the end of the meal.

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another mouthful of food, our gulab juman dessert arrived. These delectable dumplings are made from cottage cheese, immersed in a sweet sugar syrup with a touch of cinnamon and absolutely yummy, even on a full stomach.

This marked the end of a wonderful tour of the Melbourne CBD area, sampling a fantastic selection of culinary delights at popular Indian cafés and restaurants within its locale. Himanshi surprised us all with a little goody bag by way of thank you for participating in the tour which contained a lovely key charm and a packet of spice mix to make our exotic Indian creations at home. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the city?

http://foodietrails.com.au/

Flora Indian Restaurant & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ceylon Curry Corner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Red Pepper Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mr Hendricks Café, Balwyn

As much as I love the art of decluttering and adhering to organising and minimalist principles, I must admit that my iPad is in complete disarray; absolutely chock full of saved bookmarks from newspaper articles and random, unfiled notes on cafés across a multitude of apps, highlighting places that I should potentially go and visit for breakfast. Somewhere in all that mess, I happened to come across something that recalled to mind that there was a café called Mr Hendricks Café located in Balwyn on my must-go list. With the added bonus of staying in Kew this week and discovering that the café is also directly located on the #109 tram route, it would seem like a wasted opportunity to be in such close proximity and not make an effort to go there for breakfast.

Finding the location was easy enough and I seemed to arrive in the nick of time to be able to secure a table, because within fifteen minutes the place was busy and a small queue had started to form. It’s so exciting to see a unique breakfast menu with a number of original signature dishes, not often seen or replicated elsewhere. I’m always a sucker for French Toast at the best of times, particularly when it’s of the brioche variety, but I had already consoled myself with a couple of images from Instagram and moved on. The Francophile in me particularly warmed to the thought of indulging in a Cassoulet with braised beans, smoked ham hock, lamb shoulder, toulouse sausage, confit duck leg, persilade and fried egg. The description of the Prawn and Corn Fritters was beyond compare and even the Avocado on Toast sounded extraordinary with the inclusion of wekame, sesame, pickled cucumber salad and lemon gel as key elements within the dish. My coffee arrived and someone was keen to take my order, but inexplicably I needed another couple of minutes to arrive at a decision. After much deliberation, I finally settled on the Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham jock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts.

The café fit-out is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity and elegance, almost a refined industrial décor that made the frustrated interior designer in me just sit back and admire the room’s composition in jealous admiration. Soft tan leather cushions on the banquette seating, attractive pendant lighting, glossy black Thonet chairs, elegant gold lettering on every door and window and beautiful polished wooden bench tops and tables in rich warm tones ticked all of my aesthetic boxes.

Coffee is available in a standard cup size, although after my spree of ordering larger versions, the glass seemed to have shrunk. My latte was creamy and delicious but after a couple of sips, another glass was definitely in order.

Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham hock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts - Mr Hendricks Cafe, Balwyn
Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham hock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts – Mr Hendricks Cafe, Balwyn

Trying to capture an appropriate image for my food chronicle was no mean feat – there were so many colours and items on the plate that trying to fit them into one frame was a frustrating task. Photographic duties aside, I went straight for the ham hock which was simply delicious, slightly crispy yet soft and salty at the same time. There was plenty of meat on the plate, yet it was something I found myself wanting more and more of. The crumb on the boiled eggs came away easily and delicious with the sweet potato puree, but made for a bit of sport trying to scoop a mouthful onto my fork. “Slippery little suckers”, one might say.

I’m not a huge advocate of salad for breakfast yet surprisingly, I loved it and would say it was absolutely my favourite part of breakfast. From the crunch of the candied walnuts to the finely shaved fennel, the entire salad was beautifully dressed with a silky, smooth and slightly sweet honey mustard dressing, with every leaf glistening with the sheen of olive oil.

Completely satisfied with my breakfast, I even ordered a third cup of coffee just so I could sit and prolong the indulgence for just a little bit longer. A way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, and Mr Hendricks, I’d have to say that you have certainly captured mine.

Mr Hendricks Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato