Ulpotha: an island paradise in the cookbook world
They come in droves, returning again and again, enchanted by the gentle pace, the exquisitely simple life of swimming and lounging, sun salutations and no communication - there is no signal, no phone and no electricity. It's a place that is making its own legend, reviving almost lost traditions of farming for the villagers and introducing harassed urbanites to another, more beautiful way of life.
They return to their own worlds dazed, delighted - and hungry for more of the Sri Lankan food they are served at Ulpotha. It's not easy to come by, which is why the British food writer and chef Carina Cooper was moved to publish Ulpotha: A Kitchen in Paradise, a book that conjures up the experience of staying there - with the help of luscious photography by Ingrid Rasmussen - and offers a selection of recipes from the village, adapted for a western kitchen.
"I was cooking at the Galle Literary Festival about six years ago with Rose Gray and I met Giles and Veren, the owners of Ulpotha," she explains. "I'd always heard about Ulpotha and it was already on my list, so I ended up going there. I think lots of people had said they wanted to do a book but nobody had got it together, so I did."
As she describes it, Ulpotha was quite an experience. "It's a little village in the middle of the jungle surrounded by these rather strange boulder mountains. You're tucked into this semicircle of mountains with jungle on the side and you're swimming in this big freshwater lake and it's gorgeous - it's very gentle and beautiful.
"When you're in a very comforting place in nature, it just nurtures you, so you're sort of held, really, you don't even think where am I? Where's the nearest place or the nearest town? You're just present with what's going on there."
For a well-travelled cook like Cooper to be so impressed with what was, essentially, simple, rustic food that she wanted to bring the recipes back with her and share them in a book, is an indication of the almost mystical pleasure that visitors to Ulpotha find in their meals - and it's not just to do with good cooking.
"One, it's grown there," she says. "Two, it's organic. Three, it's cooked in clay pots on open fires, so you get all the minerals from the pots and you get slightly smoky aromas. And it's done not in a hurry - it's slow food and easy food, even though it doesn't take long to cook. And it's cooked in a really lovely ambience and I think that is really hugely important. You know, if you're cooking in a kitchen where people are screaming or shouting or angry or unpleasant, the food really does reflect that."
The food at Ulpotha may be simple and natural - one-pot curries, cakes wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in pots - but is it really possible to recreate the magic of one of the village's meals without dragging out the clay pots and lighting a fire in the back yard? And what of those extraordinary home-grown fruit and vegetables, untouched by artificial chemicals or preservatives? Well, says Cooper, there are ways around it: you can buy spices as fresh as possible and roast and grind them yourself; buy organic ingredients where you can; and substitute organic coconut milk and oil for the fresh coconut that is used throughout Sri Lankan food. (Of course, it's far easier to find proper coconut in the UAE than in Cooper's London stomping grounds.)
For the rare rice that is grown in the village, red rice will work; and terracotta or clay casserole dishes will help to achieve the ambience, if not the actual smokiness.
She is also careful to point out that these are adapted recipes - the Ulpotha cooks make the food to suit a more westernised palate, cutting down on the searing chilli used so liberally in the country's curries, and she herself has made them suitable for cooking domestically.
"You could say it's two steps from authentic Sri Lankan food," she says. "I've said in the book that these are not Ulpotha recipes; they're interpretations and expressions of Ulpotha food, so if I've done a beetroot curry, it would be based on the way they would have done one, but I'll have done it here, so it might have a few slightly different ingredients. It's an interpretation of Ulpotha; it'll give you a flavour of Ulpotha."
Warm aubergine salad (Serves four) as an accompaniment
1 large aubergine sliced into rough chunks
2 cloves garlic finely sliced1 tomato, thinly sliced into quarters
1 red onion thinly sliced
1 teaspoon of natural sugar
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of turmeric
Sea salt flakes
In a frying pan, warm a swirl of vegetable oil, fry the aubergine until cooked. Remove and dry on kitchen paper. Place the chunks in a bowl, add salt, sugar, mustard and turmeric and mix well.Scantily cover the bottom of a heavy-based frying pan in a thin coating of coconut oil. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the onion, tomato and garlic. When the ingredients are almost cooked, add the aubergine mixture, season well and serve warm.
Serves four to six
2 dessert spoons of coconut oil
1 large red onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large beetroot, cut into strips1/4 green chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
4 cardamom pods, crushed
A handful of curry leaves
400ml coconut milk
2 tablespoons of fragrant curry powder
1 handful of desiccated coconut, keep a little for decorationSea salt flakes
A handful of fresh basil
Put the coconut oil in a large earthenware pot or casserole dish over a low heat. Add the onions and garlic and sauté. When the onions start to soften, add the cinnamon stick, curry leaves, curry powder, chilli and desiccated coconut. Stir together well. Add the beetroot, stir well and sauté for a few more minutes. Pour over the coconut milk and add the crushed cardamom. Cover and simmer gently until the beetroot is tender but still crunchy, stirring occasionally. Season well with salt.Decorate with the fresh basil and sprinkle with a little bit of desiccated coconut and a squeeze of lime.
Ulpotha: A Kitchen in Paradise will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon