Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Learning to Cook Sri Lankan in Unawatuna

During my recent trip to Sri Lanka, I decided to take a cooking class in Unawatuna so that I could recreate all the fantastic curry I was eating back home. Food is a big part of travel for me, I love to learn about new flavour combinations, ingredients that I've never heard of and new approaches to ingredients I know and love. So when my guide book mentioned cooking classes at Sonja's Health Food Restaurant in Unawatuna (about 10 minutes out of Galle) I put it straight on the itinerary for our trip.

For anybody that is heading to Sri Lanka, it is an all day cooking class (about 11am to 4pm) for 3000 rupees per person (about $23), includes a trip to the market and lunch that you cooked (also dinner if you want to pack up your curries and take them with you). So, it's not the cheapest experience in Sri Lanka, however, if you make it last for both your meals then it can work out cost effective. The class is with Karuna, a very cute and fun loving lady who is very easy to get along with and enjoys a laugh. I took the class with my partner Daniel and our travel buddy Sophie. You'll need to call ahead, just a day or two to let her know you want to take the class (use the phone number on the sign in the picture above).

Unfortunately Karuna doesn't give out copies of the recipes any more - despite the fact that she advertises that she does on her sign. She instead gave us a notebook and pen and delegated one of us to write down all the recipes as we went along. A copy of the recipes would have been much easier and we could have easily taken notes on it if required. So, sadly it meant Sophie spent most of her time writing and didn't end up doing much cooking for her 3000 Rs.

Karuna makes ginger tea for us
The cooking class was very vegan friendly. Only one of the dishes on Karuna's regular teaching menu wasn't vegan - a fish curry. We made it anyway, as my two companions weren't vegan and I was happy to learn the curry anyway so that I could use it back home with a different main ingredient. I'm sure that Karuna would be happy to sub in another veggie curry instead of the fish though, she seemed quite flexible about it. All her veggie curries are naturally vegan - so no need to worry about asking her to sub milk/cream or anything as they are all made with coconut milk and cream.

First on the agenda was a trip to the markets to buy fresh vegetables. We then went on to the fish markets and then a store to buy lentils and spices. Here, Karuna shows you which curry powders she uses so that you can buy some to take home if you want (just remember if you are an Aussie that you can't bring whole spices back in through Australian customs).

The class was good fun, although a little disorganised and probably didn't need to take all day. If she had been more organised it could have easily been done in a couple of hours, as none of the dishes needed to cook for long or required much preparation.

Although Karuna was lovely, she appeared to have a bit of a favouritism issue with us! She took a fancy to Daniel and asked him to do almost everything with the cooking. She then delegated Sophie to writing out the recipes as we went and that left me sort of hanging around and jumping in whenever I could. A more even distribution of tasks would have made it more fun!

Daniel mixing the rotti
Daniel chopping up the sambal
Daniel making the coconut cream
More chopping - no kidding, she got him to do pretty much everything

First on the menu was coconut rotti with hot onion sambal - it was amazing! Delicious rotti made with grated fresh coconut flesh (grated with a fabulous contraption she had just for that task) topped with a quick and easy sambal of chilli, tomato, onion and lime juice.

Me grating the coconut

Sophie flips the rotti like a rockstar

Karuna then showed us how to make our own coconut cream and milk using fresh coconut flesh. We made a batch of each to use in all of our curries. Next we made all the curries - devilled potatoes, pumpkin curry, bean curry, dhal and the fish curry. We made them one by one and then put them aside until the others were finished, which meant that the first one we cooked was only lukewarm by the time we ate it, which was a shame. They were delicious though!

Devilled potatoes
Green bean curry
Pumpkin curry cooking on the stove
Dhal (foreground) and fish curry (background)
A plate of delicious curries!

The curries were all absolutely delicious! Not the best organised or run cooking class I have attended (if you want an amazing cooking class go to May Kaidee's in Bangkok!), but despite some of the downsides outlined above, I would definitely recommend it to you because the food was all absolutely amazing. My favourites would probably be the coconut rotti with sambal and the devilled potatoes! The curries were all very adaptable as well, I'm sure you could take the recipes and easily substitute other veggies or some tofu with great results.

Overall it was way too much food! But Karuna skillfully packaged us up little packets of curry to take with us folded up in plastic and newspaper, very neat and handy!

For more information on Sri Lankan food and what I ate (and drank) during my trip, check out my earlier post about Sri Lankan food.


  1. This cooking class looks absolutely incredible. It's a shame your friend Sophie didn't get to do too much cooking because she was too busy writing recipes(!) but I must say I am jealous of the whole experience! The food looks fantastic and I love all the action shots.

  2. This is a great review, I haven't really thought about travelling to Sri Lanka before - but now that I have seen all your great pictures I think I will have to put it on the list. I'll definitely be including this cooking class!

    1. I highly recommend Sri Lanka - it was an amazing travel destination!

  3. Cool. Does Sri Lankan food not use ghee, or did you have to leave it out to make it vegan friendly? All in all it sounds like a pretty decent course, and it's close to Galle :).

    1. Nope, no ghee. She didn't even use oil to start the curries. Just threw everything together in a pot and cooked it. Very healthy and very vegan :)

  4. I read this before breakfast and now I'm craving those devilled potatoes. Everything looks so tasty! I love the open cooking spot too, you really captured the feel of the class.
    That coconut grater looks like a rotary icecream scoop viced to the table :).

  5. Four of us did Karuna's class two weeks ago, now said to be limited to a maximum of 8 participants. Everything ran very smoothly and was heaps of fun! The food was excellent and true to what was served elsewhere in Sri Lanka. Highly recommended. Phil.