Galkadawala Forest Lodge, Habanara
One half of Squidbeak (Jill) has been on holiday in Sri Lanka so although it’s outside our remit by a few thousand miles, we have to report on some terrific food and great places to stay if you happen to be passing that way.
Galkadawala Forest Lodge is right in the centre of the island close to Minneriya National Park (where we saw elephants in the wild) and Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle. The lodge is a deceptively simple guest house built amid scrub jungle.
The owner Maulie is a strong and thoughtful Sri Lankan who quit the capital Colombo with a vision of providing visitors with a tranquil place to stay ‘in which animals, birds, reptiles and insects also have their due place’. With architect friend Vijitha Basnayaka she created a series of simply furnished ‘decks’ based on the thatched watch-huts on stilts used by farmers as look-outs for elephants.
Rather more sophisticated than a watch-hut, our room was furnished with a mattress, a mosquito net, storage and an ensuite bathroom with hot shower but otherwise open to the elements so that the morning brought a cacophony of birdsong while at night we were treated to amazing firefly displays.
Apart from our elephant safari and the inevitable big Buddhas, food was the highlight of our stay here. Maulie presided over the best kitchen we found in Sri Lanka, all produced on three small wood fires in an open plan kitchen in the grounds. She said it was just simple local food, but to us it was special.
This lush island is rich in both fruit and vegetables. Countless roadside stalls sell pineapples, king coconut, papaya, jack fruit, durian, vegetables and terracotta bowls of fresh buffalo curd (delicious creamy yoghurt served with palm syrup).
Maulie’s vegetarian meals were served each evening on a candlelit deck beneath the stars. The staff, three local men moved soundlessly round the table serving the rice, dhal and curries that might be aubergine, potato and tomato, cucumber, green beans and chopped cabbage greens. Coconut sambal – a mix of crushed, fresh coconut, onion, green chilli, salt and limejuice – spiced up the generally mild curries. It was all prepared with immense care and pride, each flavour allowed to sing and served with great reverence.
One evening they made us ‘hoppers’: thin, crisp pancakes made with a batter swirled round a hot, oiled metal bowl until the sides were paper thin but the base retained some sponginess. The bowl was given a good crack on the side with a spoon to release a delicate little basket to be filled with potato curry. Later they came with a fried egg in the base, a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast dish, and for pudding we ate them with sliced banana and palm syrup.
Breakfast was puttu: red rice, white rice and millet steamed in a metal tube, sliced and served with dhal curry and then with coconut milk and sugar. There was always fruit: pineapple, papaya, banana, mango. Delicate fruit juices too such as wood apple, watermelon and ginger tea served with jaggery, a palm sugar fudge.
During the civil war, Maulie’s guesthouse was sustained by a handful of dedicated Sri Lankan bird watchers and naturalists who braved landmines to spend time in this beautiful spot in the forest. We were glad to be able to enjoy it in peace. Book a room for £52 through Airbnb; lunch and dinner are extra for about 600 rupees, the best £2.75 meals I’ve ever eaten.