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My trip to Colombo with Curry Life

By Rupert Rowley

Rupert Rowley is a Michelin Star chef who recently travelled to Colombo, Sri Lanka and headed the Curry Life delegation to Taste of Britain Curry Festival at Hilton Colombo. Here, he writes about the Festival and his experience on tour …

Having fully recovered from my trip to India it was nice to have a call from Belal of Curry Life asking to meet up in Rotherham over a curry as he and Pasha (his brother) were passing through.
As I was closing the door my wife shouted: “Make sure you don’t sign yourself up for another three-week trip or there will be trouble!” All this was still echoing in my head as I sat listening to Belal telling me the next festival had been agreed in Sri Lanka in January and it was for only five nights. I thought that must be OK as she did say three weeks and January is always quiet in the life of chef, so I agreed and started googling Sri Lanka as it’s a country I have never been to.
With things all settled with the wife, I have now seen more than enough pictures to know this looks like a fantastic and interesting place to visit.
Menus done, bags packed, various tubs of white powders from MSK have been hidden in the suitcase. This always concerns me having watched Midnight Express and I know we will have a stop in Istanbul.
On arrival at the Birmingham Airport meeting with old friends Abul and Pasha, we start talking about the trip.
Although we were big team on the trip to Colombo, we were split up to take different flights because of location and convenience. Belal and his wife Taslima flew from London a day earlier. Shamsul Islam another important colleague from the Curry Life team, also had to fly out a day earlier to make preparations. That meant five of us: myself, chef Abul Monsur, chef Syedus Zaman Kamran, chef Vijay Singh Panwar and Syed Pasha from Curry Life were the last contingent to fly out from Birmingham together, enjoying the hospitality of wonderful Turkish Airlines.
I had not realized, in my ignorance, that it was a five-hours flight to Istanbul and then another 10 to Colombo. A quick detour to the duty free to pick up a pillow was needed.
Twenty hours later we arrived in Colombo having not slept a wink because, I was sat next to a nice lady who was travelling alone with her two-year-old son and I was her designated assistant.
Having cleared passport control we headed to the taxi for transfer to the hotel. It was about forty-five minutes’ drive to the Hilton Hotel. As we turn the corner to go up the very lavish driveway to the hotel there is a huge billboard with the Curry Life logo on advertising the Taste of Britain Curry Festival and guess who’s ugly mug is grinning at me from the poster!
We checked into our rooms and a quick change and we are all in our chef whites and down for a briefing with head chef Kazi. I have a feeling this is going to be bit different from my previous experience in India the year before. Ten of us sit there as chef Kazi goes through hour by hours and day by day what we will be doing and where we will need to be. I left very impressed from the briefing. This is a chef after my own heart – very organised. As the week goes on, the enormity of the chef Kazi’s job becomes apparent to me; if he wasn’t this organised it would be a disaster. The hotel has a total of 177 chefs and makes everything, and I mean everything, on site even down to the huge variety of breads available to toast for breakfast.
After the meeting, I go one way and the curry chefs go to look at their kitchen. I have sent orders and recipe sheets through beforehand. This was a necessity on this trip due to the quick turnaround. I am off now for a tasting and to go through my dishes for Restaurant IL Ponte. It very soon becomes apparent to me what a joy it will be working with these chefs. The tasting is great, and we get everything sorted for the press launch on the next day.
Before I left for Sri Lanka, Belal had told me about a famous restaurant in Colombo called Ministry of Crab. I had a look at their website and had made a note to myself I must go there. To my joy Pasha told me the table was booked for Thursday lunch-time – can’t wait!
The week was hectic and there was a lot to get done, Colombo is a city that is definitely on the up. Literally everywhere you look there are cranes and buildings and hotels popping up. On the second day I decide to take a bit of a walk around the city. I managed to walk around the block and spoke to about 15 people, heard all about their families and told them all about me, why I’m here what I will be doing etc. I even got two invites to someone’s house for a cup of tea. To say Sri Lankans are friendly is a huge understatement. On walking back into the entrance of the hotel, I realise that a 5 x 4 billboard with my face on it on the side of the hotel is not going to help me going for a quiet stroll.
I cannot write anything interesting or funny about the cooking or kitchens at the hotel because everything ran like a military operation. It was huge fun to be part of, but didn’t leave me with any funny stories, just admiration for the team.
Thursday soon arrived and to say I was looking forward to Ministry of Crab was an understatement. Crab has to be my favorite food in the world. I still remember vividly eating it freshly caught in San Francisco with my wife 12 years ago. The menu offers different sizes of crabs ranging from ½ kilo to Crabzilla at a whopping 2kg. Shamsul and I decide to share a 1 kg crab.
After we have had pictures with various sized crabs with the chefs we settle down to oysters, not my favorite food as I have always struggled with them but I think I have never eaten Sri Lankan oysters so, let’s give it a go. They are paired with an Asian sauce and chilli vinegar. These are delicious and now I really can’t wait for the main course.
The waiter then says that they would like to offer us a bottle of wine on the house and as I am the only one in the party who drinks, I rise to the challenge as it is very rude not to accept a gift, especially when it’s free booze.
We all get dressed in our bibs and are given various surgical implements to dismember our lunch. The crab was outstanding and is something that I will never forget even though I managed to polish off a very nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with it (this led to some difficulties cooking later that day).
Overall, Sri Lanka is a great country and I am definitely going to have to visit there again and not spend so much time in the kitchen. I have never worked in a big five-star hotel as it has never really interested me but seeing chef Kazi and his team operate made me really think I would like to be part of that.


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