Every night so far we had eaten at the guesthouse and almost every night, bar two, when we had eaten fresh steamed Red Snapper and grilled king prawns, Rohan the chef had cooked us a different Sri Lankan curry of some kind, usually a vegetable dish or two with either a fish, prawn or chicken curry to go with it. Every Day we had said to each other that we would go out to one of the local restaurants, which had been recommended by other guests to eat, but by the time we had been out for a visit, had returned back to the villa, cooled down with a refreshing swim, we didn’t really fancy going back out again and anyway we were going to be eating out a lot on our travels around the country. Rohan was a great cook and as he was only cooking for the few guests that were staying, everything was freshly prepared to order, this was Sri Lankan home cooking at its best and we wanted to enjoy every mouthful.
Mondays in Bentota is market day. This regular event is one of the highlights of the week where all of the local farmers come to sell their produce to the Bentotans who stock up on their fruit and veg for the next seven days. We love markets and as all aspects of life can be seen on market day, we really didn’t want to miss out on a visit. After our regular breakfast of fresh tropical fruits and pancakes, oh and a couple of cups of Ceylon tea… Its was a hard life!
Rowan arrived with a smile and his tuk-tuk to take us into town. He had become our regular driver, he didn’t speak much English and the only Sinhalese word that we could remember was ‘stutti’ (pronounced ‘astutti’) which means ‘thank you’, but it didn’t matter, we all got on fine and always ended up having a laugh with him. So off we ventured, armed with camera at the ready!
We were dropped off at the entrance to a street beside the Bentota Bridge and river. Rowan pointed us in the direction of the market and off we trotted, out in to the big wide world. We walked down the street, which had a few market stalls on either side selling basically the same tat that you seem to get in most markets these days; cheap, imported goods from China mainly, shiny nylon t.shirts, plastic bowls of every shape and size, not very inspiring stuff. However, nestled in amongst the trashy goods, were the local shops and stalls, selling all manner of things. Hardware shops, full of odd bits and pieces and also recognisable items that we would see at home; spice shops, with counters full of open wooden boxes containing dried spices and herbs, some used for cooking others for Ayurvedic medicines; shops selling woven basket ware, tailors shops with fabrics , saris and sarongs for sale; outside of the shops, sat on the floor, were older women, with a few vegetables or fruit to sell, all dressed in brightly coloured saris or frocks, trying to make a few rupees. All were chatting among themselves and gave us big smiles when we caught their eye.
Further along the road and we encountered the fruit stalls. Bananas of different colours and sizes, ranging from the typical yellow through to a dark maroon, hung on the sides of the stalls; dark purple mangosteen, red rambutans and green mangoes were piled high on benches, whilst customers prodded, squeezed and smelt the fruit to see if it was ripe enough to buy. All looked mouthwatering and enticing, but we just looked. As always, when wandering around the streets, a young man would attach themselves to us, “where do you come from Sir” is normally the first thing they ask, then they start to point out things which might be of interest “this is the local cinema Sir and look here, these are the local fruit sellers and here is where the local tuk-tuk drivers hang out and before you know it, you have an uninvited Guide on your hands pointing out the bleeding obvious! We are past masters at this and very quickly and politely shrug them off, either by ignoring them or by saying thank you and we are just walking.
So far we hadn’t seen much of a what we would call a bustling market, but then we strolled a bit further and there hidden down what initially looked quite ominous alleyways we saw what we were looking for. We continued on a bit further along the road and then the shops and stalls along the street came to an end, so we wandered back to the covered market passing little wooden hits, with all with a cleaver-wealding man chopping away at huge chunks of meat, these were obviously the butchers; another truck laden with more bananas stood at the entrance to the market and another stall of those strange looking hairy, spiky rambutans spilling out of hessian bags sat opposite a stall selling mobile phone accessories and electrical type goods all beautifully arranged. Next along a couple of stall keepers sat cross-legged on the floor surrounded by large mountains of potatoes, purple shallots and onions, each with a large old fashioned hanging scales strung from a rafter in front of their faces.
We entered the main market area, which was covered in a makeshift roof constructed with large sheets of coloured plastic, that were drooping and flapping in the breeze. According to their colour they cast either a red, green or blue glow onto the faces of the stall holders that sat holding fort over their produce. There was an amazing array of alien looking vegetables, many that we’d seen in Asian shops in a Brick Lane but had no idea what they were or how to cook them. Each stall, or should I say each sectioned off floor space, had a different farmer selling his produce. Surrounding him were his vegetables, all neatly arranged in rows or blocks or set in random stacks; some were thin, metre long green stripy things, other pale green knobbly creatures, others were more recognisable as purple, striped aubergines and orange carrots. Then there were piles of small, shiny red and green chillies; ,blocks of okra or ladies fingers as they called them; limes and lettuces, tomatoes and squashes and all manner of lovely looking vegetables. Then there were the spice sellers and the dried fish mongers, and the tea merchants all peddling their goods.
For a Monday morning market it was quiet and calm, not at all how one would expect it to be. Where were all of the buyers? We thought that everyone would be out in the morning when it was cool, but this didn’t seem to be the case. This was good for us as there was plenty of room to wander around and interact with the stall holders, all of whom were happy to have a photo taken and offered a smile. I made a few friends along the way, there was a young lad selling potatoes, who wanted his photo taken and in return I offered him a chewy fruit sweet that I had in my bag…he looked pleased with his reward and gave me a big grin but wouldn’t eat it until I’d opened a wrapper and popped a sweet in my mouth just to show it was ok to eat. On seeing this a few of the older stall holders also wanted sweets, so I handed out the ones I had in my bag and for a few moments we all shared a laugh together!
The sun was beginning to heat up now, we could feel it burning through the plastic sheeting, so we decided that we’d seen enough and would get a tuk-tuk back to the jguest house, have some lunch and then relax for the rest of the day.
Whilst we were having lunch, Rohan, our chef came to the table and so I described some of the vegetables and asked him the names. He told me that the long thin ones we ‘Snake Gourds’ and the strange knobbly ones were ‘Bitter Gourds’ and that he was going to the market later in the afternoon and that he’d buy some of these vegetables. On hearing this and being one to never miss an opportunity, I asked if I could go along with him to the market and he said yes. He okayed it with his boss, the other Rohan and told me that we would set off at about 4 pm. This was going to be an interesting cultural experience for both me and our chef!
4 o’clock came and Rohan the chef, called to me to get in the tuk tuk. In his hand he had a long shopping list of items he needed to buy for the kitchen for the week. As there are only three rooms at the villa, he cooked everything to order; there was a menu for breakfast, lunch and supper and whatever you wanted he would prepare and cook freshly for you. He had another regular helper Raymond, another jolly chap who could often be seen or heard chopping vegetables or preparing and serving the fresh fruit for breakfast. Each day around mid-day they would ask if we were eating at the villa and if so what we would like. They would then assess whether they needed to go and buy any fresh produce. So for example, one evening we decided to try some fresh fish, so off they went to see the fishermen to buy two of the best catch of the day. They told us that they were very particular about buying only the freshest of ingredients and therefore would only buy the fish if it looked and smelt good. They came home with two freshly caught Red Snapper, which Rohan the Chef roasted in the oven in a banana leaf for us…
Another exciting tuk-tuk drive, and in no time we were being dropped off at a side entrance to the market. This way in to the market was over some rough ground, where a few farmers had their produce laid out on the floor, only small batches, just enough to make a few rupees. I followed Rohan the Chef, as he headed into the covered market area, which was now in full swing, the locals were out in force and the atmosphere was one of determination and focus with both buyers and sellers looking for the best price. This was a huge contrast to our morning visit, now it was the bustling market that we had expected it to be in the morning.
The market traders were singing out to their customers, I guess they were saying similar things to what the Lewisham market traders say, “All these peppers her a pound, look!”, “Here we are ladies, a lovely bowl of fresh apples, give us a quid.” Here they were probably saying, “All these Snake Gourds, a 100 rupees, look!”, or “Jack fruit!, fresh off the tree today ladies!” or “Rambutans, Rambutans, come and get your Rambutans!” Whatever it was that they were each calling out it sounded like a chant which they were speedily repeating over and over again. The market was heaving in the late afternoon heat and where ever you looked there was some serious buying and bartering taking place.
Rohan, had a favourite stall, one that would allow the guest house to pay on a monthly basis, apparently not all traders will consider this. Anyway he pulled out his list and started to work his way through it…snake gourds, bitter gourds, long beans, small round green aubergines, ladies fingers, and then the more common vegetables, which are grown in the cooler hill country area around Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, leeks, garlic and so on. Like all of the other market traders, our man sat on the floor with his scales in hanging in front of his face, weighing the various produce and placing them in plastic bags. His sidekick, wrote in an account book a long list of everything Rohan the Chef had bought, which would then be calculated up at the end of the month along with the other weeks bills and paid as one lump sum.
Rohan the Chef, left the full bags with the stall holder and took me off into the market to show me some of the other vegetables, teas, dried fish and spices. We stopped and looked at some dried fish, he bought a bagful and explained that Sri Lankan people like to eat the dried fish as a snack. We then went to a spice seller, which Rohan recommended as having very good spices that were very cheap, so I bought some curry powder, turmeric and cinnamon, all grown in the spice area in and around a town called Matale. We then went over to see a sugary sweet product which is made from local honey which has been heated to form a crystallised brown sugar block, which is hard and a bit like the consistency of those Sugar Mice we buy at Christmas.
Then it was off to othe fruit stalls back in the main town. It was one of the shops we had seen that morning and the shop keeper seemed keen for me to try some of the fruit. He chose a ripe mangosteen, these are about the size of a small apple and have a dark purple skin, with a kind of rosette of leaves at the top, the skin is quite hard to break through, but once inside you find soft white flesh, which is juicy and sweet a bit like a lychee. He then picked out the ripest, green mango and sliced in to it and gave me a chunk, It was heavenly, juicy and sweet, it was like no other mango I had eaten before… Then came the rambutan those red spiky fruit, with is white interior and large shiny black stone. All of the fruit was mouthwateringly delicious and so I couldn’t resist buying some to take back to the villa for Andy to try and he gave me. Local price!
Once we had finished our market shop, we popped into the local supermarket to buy some milk and other staples for the week and then stopped off to buy some fresh white eggs, before heading back to the villa. All this time Rowen the tuk-tuk driver had been waiting for us in the cool A/C of the supermarket…it seems to be part of the tuk-tuk drivers job to wait around for people, they must be very patient people!
On our way back in the little red tuk-tuk laden with goods, Rowan the Chef said that he would cook a curry that evening for us using each of the vegetables we had bought so we could see how they tasted…that sounded like a proposition not to be ignored; once again we were going to eat in and have a meal freshly prepared for us using the produce we had shopped for at the market along with a fish curry that he would also make using the fresh fish they had picked up earlier…this was going to be – real treat!
Later that evening we sat down to eat and Rohan the Chef didn’t disappoint. He had cooked us a vegetable curry made with 7 of the vegetables we had bought in the market that afternoon and to accompany it dhal and fish curry, with pieces of poppadom and pickles and a mound of rice each, which he proudly presented to us with a Sri Lankan smile! It was delicious; the bitter gourds and what could have been better than having shopped for supper!
P.S. when I got back to the villa I found my own reclining Buddha had taken up residence on the sofa in our room!