Colombo’s chaotic Bandaranaike International Airport is the entry point to Sri Lanka, an island country where spice gardens meet surfing beaches and ancient temples line the route to majestic tea plantations.

In the heat of Bandaranaike’s arrivals hall, bleary-eyed travellers are pushing trolleys and selecting whitegoods. The airport’s duty-free stores showcase washing machines, fridges and all manner of household electrical goods. Locals enthusiastically partake in the tax-free offerings before clearing customs.

Leaving the homewares shopping spree behind, the centre of Colombo is a 40-minute drive away. Here in the heart of the capital, Galle Face Green is the social mecca of the city. The seaside park is an escape from the bustle of Colombo, and the locals’ favourite location to watch the sunset. Couples walk arm in arm, children fly kites and street vendors sell soccer balls for spontaneous tournaments on the grass. Prawn cakes, slices of pineapple rolled in chilli and salt, and bags of roasted peanuts are on offer from the food stalls that line the edges of the green.

The Galle Face Hotel, a grand colonial residence built in 1864, overlooks the park. On the terrace, visitors sip glasses of arrack sour: arrack — a spirit made from the sap of coconut flowers — is mixed with fresh lime juice and sugar syrup. The cocktails are served with a bowl of warm devilled cashew nuts, spiced with curry leaves and sprinkled with chilli powder and salt, as the sun sinks into the sea.

Off to Market

A morning visit to Colombo’s Pettah Market, walking distance from Galle Face Green, is a feast for the senses. The sprawling market covers a square kilometre of the city centre. Australian chef and TV presenter, Peter Kuruvita, frequented the market as a child and still shops at his favourite stalls whenever he returns. “Everything revolves around food in Sri Lanka,” he says. “In Colombo, Pettah is the epicentre.” Kuruvita suggests a walking tour of the markets, where guides will help you navigate the interconnecting streets and alleyways of food and produce.

A fruit stall showcases nine varieties of mangoes and pretty banana blossoms. A vegetable stall displays bunches of snake beans, wing beans and piles of okra (ladyfingers) used to make bandakka maluwa, a vegetarian curry, as well as eggplants used for brinjal moju, a popular pickle. Kitchenware peddlers sell coconut scrapers and Sri Lankans’ cookware of choice, traditional clay pots known as chatties. A buffalo farmer is trading pots of buffalo curd flavoured with kitul syrup (a dark sweet syrup similar to maple), a breakfast staple.

Nearby, spice merchants mix garam masala and curry powder to order, and sell arm lengths of cinnamon bark from trees grown just north of Colombo. Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka, one of the world’s biggest exporters of the spice. It has been central to the nation’s history; in the 17th century, the Dutch waged war on the Portuguese for control of the country (then known as Ceylon) in pursuit of the spice.

The recent end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war has seen an increase in international visitors. A series of super highways linking Colombo with the major regional centres is under construction. Until their completion, the fastest way to get between key destinations is by air taxi.

A 20-minute drive through Colombo and we arrive at Sri Lankan Air Taxi’s ‘airport’, east of the capital. Walking through a garden complete with Buddhist temple and towering jackfruit trees heavy with fruit, we reach the landing strip, a section of the Kelani River. A 15-seat seaplane is waiting, ready for our flight to Kandy, the spiritual centre of the island nation.

Heart of the Nation

The 40-minute flight east takes us over jungle and spice plantations. Vanilla and pepper grow here, as do nutmeg, cardamom and rice. The terraced rice paddies are empty and ready for replanting, which happens twice a year. The country has suffered a rice shortage in recent years, and so basmati is imported from Pakistan and India.

Our water landing takes place on the Mahaweli River, a short drive north from the centre of Kandy. The Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa), which Sri Lankans believe enshrines actual remains of the Buddha’s teeth, is found in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city and is a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists. Locals arrive at the temple for afternoon prayers, carrying trays of lotus flowers from street florists as an offering.

The wide bridges that straddle the lake are lined with street-food sellers. They hawk bags of popcorn, ice-cream cones and cups of fresh lime juice from the back of push bikes in the afternoon heat. Impromptu fruit stalls beside them offer guava, pineapples, papaya and several varietals of bananas (still on the stem) for sale. Tuktuks carrying school girls in their crisp white uniforms stop to pick up afternoon tea for their passengers. As if on cue, the sky opens at 3pm and the rain begins. Drops the size of five-cent coins fall furiously. Women in pretty saris pull matching umbrellas from their bags and schoolchildren shelter under the canopies of mara trees on their way home. Sri Lanka’s wet season stretches from May to August, but short afternoon downpours are common throughout the year.

Kandy House, high in the hills above the Dalada Maligawa, is a 208-year-old guesthouse and former home of Kandy’s chief minister. British-born hotelier Tim Jacobson greets us with glasses of ginger beer and, later, a round of arrack sours in the downstairs Butterfly Bar. Dinner is served in the main dining room at the 16-seat ancestral dining table. A salad of prawns with delicately shaved coconut is our entree, followed by a black wild boar curry, fragrant with ginger and turmeric. The curry’s charcoal appearance is a result of the use of goraka kokum — a fluted orange fruit dried and used for its souring and thickening properties. Dessert arrives in a glass, a cool creamy tapioca mango pudding.

Tea Time

From Kandy, it’s easy to travel further into the hills to tea country. The road south-east winds through small towns, perched on the edge of steeply terraced tea fields. Elegant sari-clad tea pickers, wearing heavy baskets on their heads, carefully pluck new shoots. As the sun goes down, they deliver the day’s haul to a weighing station on the side of the road.

The first commercial tea plantation was planted in Sri Lanka in 1867. Before then, the island was a coffee-growing nation. “That was until a fungal blight struck and wiped out the coffee trees,” says Merrill J Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea.

High in the hills that rise above the town of Hatton, in the Bogawantalawa Valley, lies Ceylon Tea Trails, a cluster of four cottages owned by the Dilmah company. Fernando is extremely passionate about tea education. He opened the bungalows — formerly occupied by tea plantation owners — to guests keen to learn where their daily cup comes from.

Each bungalow contains its own kitchen, supervised by executive chef Wajira Gamage and his staff of local chefs, who create daily menus based on guests’ requests. “There are no written menus,” Gamage tells me. “If guests feel like curry, we present 10 curries.”

Among the most popular dishes is seer fish (kingfish) in coconut milk. The fish comes from the Negombo markets on the west coast, a two-hour drive away. Gamage leaves the plantations after midnight, arriving in time to meet the fishermen’s boats. He buys local grouper, mullet and seer fish, as well as yellow fin tuna and prawns for curries.

Gamage has also developed a repertoire of dishes using tea: for instance Earl Grey, rich in bergamot, flavours a dark-chocolate mousse, while a vanilla tea is used to infuse a crème brûlée.

In the morning, following a traditional breakfast of egg hoppers — delicate bowl-shaped rice pancakes housing a poached egg, accompanied by a chicken curry and chilli sambal — a tour of the tea plantations awaits. Resident tea planter Andrew Taylor guides us through the process of growing and roasting tea from leaf to cup. We see just picked buds laid out on drying trays to remove water, a process known as ‘withering’. They are then left to oxidise for several weeks before they are roasted. Taylor concludes the morning with a tea ‘cupping’, teaching us how to quickly slurp the tea to the back of our throats, then move the liquid around our mouths to fully taste it before we spit it out.

Surf and Sambal

Another 40-minute seaplane trip and we arrive in Tangalla, at the southern tip of the island. It’s renowned for its coconut-rimmed beaches with stellar surfing conditions, not to mention its relatively close proximity to Udawalawe National Park. At Amanwella resort, surf instructor Bandu shows me how to catch waves in the morning; in the afternoon chef Sujith Vithanage teaches me to make curry powder. I must admit here, I’m infinitely better at the latter. Starting with whole chillies, cumin, coriander seeds, turmeric, sprouting ginger, toasted rice, grated coconut, curry leaves, cloves and cinnamon, Vithanage demonstrates how to roast each spice individually in a frying pan before grinding them together in a mortar and pestle.

At dinner we dine under coconut trees, feet in the sand. As bowls of crab curry and coconut mint sambal hit the long candle-lit table, waves crash behind us. Vithanage tells me that it’s my curry powder we are eating.

I carry home with me bags of curry powder, as well as garam masala, chilli sambal and cinnamon sticks, which I bought from the local markets, souvenirs that transport me back to Ceylon every time I turn out a curry — preluded by an arrack sour, naturally.