I've been in my thoughts a lot this year. Big life changes will do that I suppose. I miss my friends in Australia every damn day and I'd be lying if I said my heart didn't hurt just a little when I think of them, and all my other friends who live far far away...
I'm always fascinated watching groups of people, seeing how certain people are drawn to each other as if like magic. When I travelled to Sri Lanka earlier this year and was thrown into a bus with a bunch of strangers from all over the world, I did a lot of observing. We as a group hung out pretty much all day, every day for 5 days straight and it only took a day to start seeing people pair off. Not in a clicky way, but in more of a 'I know you, you feel like my people' kinda way. Without even trying, I found myself surrounded by two of the most beautiful people I've had the pleasure of knowing. And even though we came from different backgrounds, countries and customs, we just clicked. By the end of the 5 days it felt as though we'd known each other for years and the thought of leaving them both had me in tears more than once. It was such a luxury to have the time, real-time, to get to know people. Unlike real life where I'm lucky if I get to see even my closest friends once a month, let alone have the time to get to know someone new, on the trip everything was taken care of for us, so we had more than enough time to chat, hang out and just be. I've not felt that happy in a long time and I'm so grateful for the experience both Cinnamon Hotels and SriLankan Airlines gave to me.
Some of my most memorable experiences of the trip were had were at Cinnamon Wild Yala, the most beautiful safari-style luxury accommodation that borders Yala National Park in the south. We arrived just after dark, as our guide Praki shone his torch out into the darkness little beady yellow eyes stared back. I'd been told earlier in the trip that there were no crocodiles in Sri Lanka so wasn't sure what to make of his scare tactics. We arrived to a gorgeous welcome (something we were lucky enough to experience at 4 different Cinnamon Hotels!) and no sooner had we downed our welcome drink, when we were given the safety brief, gulp. We were not to walk alone at night around the premises, as wild animals (mostly wild boar) roam free, okaaaay. All my fears were then confirmed as we were led down to the side of the lake, to where the most amazing bbq buffet had been set up. Whoever had told me there were no crocodiles in Sri Lanka was lying, for surrounding our dining table, a mere 5 metres or so away were a bunch of large crocodiles just going about their business! Most of the other bloggers thought it was great fun and proceeded to take a gazillions photos/snaps/Instagram shots. Me, I was scared stiff and sat at the very head of the table, furthest away from those beady little eyes and sharp teeth. (I did take a couple of photos for evidence, although they weren't the best I've included two of them above. The table scene and the photo above it. If you look closely at the dark photo with the line of fancy canapes, you'll see the faint outline of the crocodile in the background!). Thankfully I live to tell the tale, ha. No, thankfully crocs don't like light... and the staff at Wild Yala had done this many times before and know to set up tons of bright lights to keep them away. As scared as I was, it really was the craziest and most amazing experience. A story I'll be telling my grandchildren, that's for sure!
I awoke the next morning to the sounds of wild boar running around out the front of my room and cheeky monkeys in the trees. We ate some of the most amazing food of the trip (their vegetarian food at Wild Yala was insanely good), then set off in jeeps for what was my first ever safari! We travelled through Yala National Park spotting many elephants along the way. Sadly no leopards, I think we were up and about a little too late. But all good. Again, it was the people who made this day the most special. By luck or fluke I found myself in a jeep full of lovely ladies, a Canadian, an Irish, a mother and daughter from Copenhagen and our lovely guide, local conservationist Gayan Gamage. We laughed the whole way around (possibly ruining any chances we had of seeing a leopard!).
This is my version of a beetroot curry I ate at Cinnamon Wild Yala, which had by far the best vegetarian selection of the Cinnamon hotels I stayed at during my trip. The one I ate was firey hot and not something my kids would have been able to tolerate. So here I've tamed the heat of the chilli and only added one. If you'd like it more traditionally hot, add a pinch-1/4 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes as well.
1 large (400g) beetroot, peeled, trimmed + sliced into 1cm matchsticks
3 tablespoons ghee or olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped (de-seed for less heat if desired)
1 sprig curry leaves
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
165ml coconut milk
60ml (1/4 cup) cold water
the juice 1/2 lemon
Cooked basmati rice, seeni sambol (recipe below), asparagus curry, to serve
Prepare beetroot. Heat ghee/oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook stirring often for 5-8 minutes, or until tender and starting to colour. Add garlic, chilli and curry leaves (discard the stalk) and cook for a further 30-60 seconds. Add ground coriander, cinnamon and salt. Stir well and cook 20-30 seconds or until fragrant. Add beetroot, coconut milk and water, bring to the boil then reduce to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and cook 15-20 minutes or until the beetroot is tender and the sauce reduced. Add the lemon juice and serve spooned over basmati rice with a good dollop of seeni sambol (see below) and asparagus curry on the side.
Seeni Sambol is something that you see at nearly every Sri Lankan feast and was one of my favourites! It's basically a gorgeously spiced caramelised onion and while it's perfect alongside curries, I imagine it would also be lovely served alongside all manner of things.
Makes about 2 cups
1kg red onions
5 tablespoons ghee/olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
3 sprigs curry leaves
4 cardamom pods, bruised
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon tamarind puree
35g (1/4 cup) coconut sugar
Peel and finely slice the onions. Heat ghee/oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often for a good 10 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, curry leaves (discard the stalks), cardamom pods, spices, salt and pepper and give it all a good stir. Reduce heat and continue to cook, stirring often for 30-35 minutes or until deeply golden and soft. Add tamarind puree and coconut sugar and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, until deep dark and sticky. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Any excess will store nicely in the fridge for up to a week. If you've used ghee, you'll just need to re-heat it gently in a saucepan to melt the ghee before serving.
To read my first Sri Lankan post click here.