Halfway into a trip to Sri Lanka hosted by Cinnamon Life, Australian MasterChef judge George Calombaris is struck by the genuine SriLankan warmth and generosity. ‘This country is a little gem - it’s an absolute little gem. Having been privileged enough to travel the world
By Kaveesha Fernando
with my craft and visit so many places - within 48 hours I can honestly say within my heart I know what is wonderful and I know what is not.What makes a country wonderful is not a monument or statue or big building. It’s the people, and the people here are incredibly generous, absolutely beautiful and real and that is the most important thing I’ve taken away in the last 48 hours,” he says with conviction.
Any Sri Lankan fan of the hugely popular Australian TV show MasterChef, would be curious to know what George Calombaris loved about Sri Lanka? Was it the modern twists on culinary staples such as
hoppers piled high with unconventional combinations such as pomegranate and chicken curry with cashewnuts and seenisambol? Is it the food made with the finest imported ingredients at the best restaurants
in Colombo? No, it is the everyday food of Sri Lanka such as manioc and pol sambol which he was amazed by. “The steamed tapioca was just phenomenal with just that - I call it a sambal with that grated coconut and chilli in it,” he says.
It is clear that he can take the ordinary and make it quite extraordinary. “Yesterday morning I had the most amazing mangosteen and I was just blown away by it, so tonight, we’re going to do an added course which is not on the menu,” he says. “Just before the dessert goes out, we’re going to serve something refreshing -we’ve halved the mangosteen and filled the bottom of it with vanilla ice cream and we’ve filled the rest of it up with mangosteen sorbet so you get this creamy, icy texture and then we finished it up with a lemon meringue pie over the top,” he says, speaking at a press conference on Friday about the dinner he will be hosting later that night.
It might be no coincidence that he decided to make an additional dessert because he feels that the Sri Lankan sweet tooth is the one thing he does not quite find appealing. “I have also learnt that your curries here are delicious and what I love about them is, you can actually taste the ingredients. I was blown away by the fragrance, I was blown away by the fresh curry leaf, I thought that was absolutely delicious, really good for cholesterol. There was only one problem, as I got to dessert, I suddenly got diabetes! So we’ll work on the desserts,” he laughs.
Although he admits that he found that the sweets had a bit too much sugar, George does not believe in preaching about food to Sri Lankans. “I would never come here and cook the exact food I’m cooking back in Melbourne - it would be disrespectful of me or not respecting the culture of where we are. We did lots of research - obviously with local help back in Melbourne and we understood what ingredients are phenomenal here - and you’ve got some phenomenal local ingredients and a lot of stuff I wish you could get back in Oz.
The menu we’ve created for the next two nights have influences of where we are and things like fresh tamarind, passion fruit, coconut, King coconut is delicious. The teas, obviously.
I’m super excited about what we’re going to be feeding everyone over the next three days,” he says.
It is this excitement he feels any chef should have if they intend to establish themselves. “Don’t go and become a professional if you don’t understand that being a chef is about reputation and hard work and long hours, and that can sometimes chew up your love for food. A lot of homecooks who love food, their friends tell them they’re amazing, they make the best jalebi, you must go an open up a jalebi store. They go and do it, and after a week they’re tired, after week two they’re exhausted and
after week three they’re not making money and essentially going broke and by week four, they hate life. So sometimes, turning into a professional can really turn your idea of food,” he says.
“Sometimes doing it at home is a wonderful thing, and having people into your house. There’s no pressure because they’re not paying for it. They’re not going to come in there and tell you your butter chicken is
crap are they? They’re not going to tell you that you’ve got a bad haircut and your furniture is a bit wobbly. Everyone every single day comes into my restaurant and is critiquing,” he cautions.
It is this criticism perhaps that has helped him gain perspective andremain humble. “What I witnessed (at Habarana Village) is something…It makes me realize that I’ve got all the high tech equipment back in Melbourne - I’ve got an incredible development kitchen with equipment that you would generally find in a hospital or a lab and here we are in that village and mortar and pestle is a big block of stone and big piece of stone and the cutting knife is a handle with a knife shaped up and the ladies are slicing onions, no joke and they are looking at me going do you want to have a go? And I’m like no way! Because I would definitely cut myself,” he laughs.
“What I loved about the experience yesterday ( cooking in a village off Habarana) - It was real!” he says emphatically. “No preservatives, no additives, nothing bleached, nothing refined, everything was real and delicious - the way food is meant to be and that - that little hour and a half, two hours is seriously gold. That is the commercial that needs to be posted around the world just tell people how wonderful this place is. It was an awesome experience, and I was seriously blown away by just the care, the love and commitment to hospitality - and that’s hospitality. It wasn’t about lots of things, it was about individual items done really, really well.”
Have a conversation with George and you will be struck by how much he detests anything processed, refined or artificial. “In Australia, two supermarkets control 94% of what our consumers buy. It’s scary, so I don’t walk into supermarkets. But, if you ask me where to get great meat from, I’ll tell you to go see Gary at the market or go to this farmer’s market or collect this, and that’s embedded in me and my kids are fortunate to know how parsley is grown and their father has bees to make honey and chickens to lay eggs and they know where all that stuff is. That’s my responsibility.”
Asked if he buys anything from supermarkets, he replies “Toilet paper! They do a good five ply. Let’s not kid ourselves, there’s a socio-demographic issue - there are people out there - 80% of them in Australia that can’t afford to go to a farmer’s market, that can’t afford to go and buy meat from the artisan butcher that ages things properly and there’s no hormones being used. Also, we’ve got to be realistic, that’s a bigger political conversation that I’m not going to delve into.”
However, he feels that there is another solution. “But we’ve also got to realize that the food I ate yesterday in that village was not expensive. A bunch of okra is not expensive, but the care and love that went into that and it was a delicious meal that is good for you. That’s the bit we’ve got to educate people to go ‘what?’ That meal wasn’t expensive to make, just cook the okra that’s in season, cook it deliciously and eat it and enjoy it.”
On his trip to Sri Lanka, George Calombaris is to host curated dinners, masterclasses and high teas. At a recent press conference, President of the Leisure Sector of Cinnamon Resorts and Hotels, Krishan Balendra expressed his pleasure at hosting George Calombaris. “We are honoured to be hosting a culinary connoisseur of George’s calibre and look forward to the many activities, teas and dinners in the pipeline over the next few days,” he said. “George’s visit is the very first high profile lifestyle event that is being hosted by Cinnamon Life,” Balendra added.
Australian Deputy High Commissioner Tim Huggins has a lot to say about Sri Lanka and what can be experienced here. “This is the 70 th anniversary of official bilateral relations. Over those 70 years, we’ve had a lot of visitors come to and fro between Australia and Sri Lanka, a lot of cricket teams, a lot of ministers and officials and a lot of tourists over time as well but I think you’re the most senior chef and ambassador for Australian food that we’ve had here in Colombo,” he told Calombaris.
“There’s a lot of things that bind Australia and Sri Lanka together. I’ve mentioned cricket and democracy and ministerial visits and those sorts of things but there are three things that bind us together as nations. One - we’re both very friendly people. Secondly, we both love to travel and third; and probably most importantly, we both love food.”
Just make sure that you try koththu - definitely the noisiest dish to be produced in any kitchen. You’ve got to try the seafood - the largest prawns you’ll ever see in your life are made here in Sri Lanka. And to top it off, I’ve got to warn you, this is a country that loves cake. There’s one in particular you’ve got to try; Watalappam - Sri Lanka’s take on crème caramel - fantastic!”
The organizers hope that this will be one of many events promoting Sri Lankan tourism that Cinnamon Life (an integrated resort developed by Cinnamon Resorts and Hotels scheduled to open in 2020) will hold.
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