Cooking is no longer the exclusive domain of professional chefs or so it seems. The phenomenal success of MasterChef reality TV programme that puts amateur chefs on the pedestal, has exploded throughout the world. From the UK where MasterChef initially kicked off to total block buster status in Australia and on to cult status in the US, MasterChef has done for amateur chefs what American Idol did for budding singers.
What captured my heart was Australian MasterChef – with a fine ethnic representation in its contestant line up, it was natural that the dishes created were fusion food, most with a hint of cultural representations of each contestant. It was great to see Kate Nugara who was among the MasterChef 2010 line up, call herself a half Sri Lankan. Her style of cooking was listed as Sri Lankan ; there were others who listed Thai and Asian as their own unique signature style of cooking.
The icing on the cake for Sri Lanka on MasterChef Australia came when celebrity chef Peter Kuruwita who spoke of his ‘deep Lankan roots’ created his own special take on Fish Ambulthiyal and Miris Malu. Goraka, karapincha and traditional Lankan spices took centre stage as Chef Kuruwita went about it. When the beloved Lankan dishes flew off the menu at his Flying Fish restaurant in the MasterChef episode, I sat wowed by the whole thing. This was good- this was potential for cuisine tourism. With some of the world’s finest chefs from Sri Lanka, cuisine tourism could easily become a new and innovative area for us as we look for new ways to re-package tourism.
Sri Lankan cuisine was the highlight of MasterChef Australia’s 64th episode in the taste test. That’s not all – on the Junior MasterChef Australia, a young contestant Lucy cooked Sri Lankan Fish Curry , complete with pol sambol. The dish looked picture perfect and I was enjoying the elevation of pol sambol to cult dish status.
So what’s the catch here? It is no secret that we Lankans , at least the majority, need our rice and curry staple. I discovered how significant that was on a trip to the US. I had never dreamt of tempered dhal, dry fish badun and rice before. There’s plenty of promise in Sri Lankan cuisine. I remember how foreign friends swooned over ala hodhi – potato white curry. They positively begged for the recipe. As Chef Kuruwita’s MasterChef Australia dishes showed, the fragrance of karapincha, the pungent odors of goraka and the sweet smelling aroma of cinnamon could create culinary vistas tourists would come to cherish.
We are not talking savvy, sophisticated fusion dishes of elegant restaurants but the kind of comfort, simple fare on the tables of everyday Sri Lankan homes. The kind of comfort foods Nigella Lawson became famous for. Our own comfort foods – pol sambol and ala thel dala ( tempered potatoes ) could emerge easy winners in cuisine tourism. There’s always something sentimental, something so homely it touches you deep inside, about signature dishes of mothers everywhere. That’s just the kind of essence cuisine tourism can capture.
With Thai and Indian cuisine firmly established on the world’s cuisine stage, time has indeed come for Sri Lankan cuisine to rise and shine. Felicia Sorensen pioneered Lankan cuisine on the world stage long before anyone else – Charmaine Solomon has also been featured for her foray into beloved Lankan dishes, among her many Asian favourites . Having seen the potential for our own signature dishes, one can be certain of the interest they will attract if positioned and marketed right.
The world loves new textures, new dishes, new ideas – just the platter for humble Sri Lankan dishes to make their mark on the global culinary stage, perhaps as celebrated as the finest tea made here. Highlights could be the flavours of each dish, some made according to a regional recipe and others staple favourites of every Lankan. The diversity and the richness of the Sri Lankan dishes that compliment rice can offer healthy alternatives to rich soups and thick gravy. Given the recent emergence of coconut as a wonder plant, it would add the icing on the cake.
From apple pie to sushi, red curry, paella, nasigoreng, kimchi, bouillabaisse, sauerkraut and fish and chips, each nation has an in- built aura around dishes that once were strictly national but today are international favourites found on the menus everywhere. We too can look forward to seeing polos curry and pol sambol win cult status as some of the world’s favourite dishes.