Foodie paradise in Sri Lanka's hill country

Nestled in the middle of world-famous tea plantations, the charming village of Ella offers gourmands the chance to dig deep into the country’s complex culinary traditions.

The charming village of Ella may be nestled in the middle of world-famous tea plantations, but it is locally renowned for something else: delicious home cooking. The town, located in the foothills of Sri Lanka's lush hill country 200km east of Colombo, offers foodies the chance to dig deep into the country’s culinary traditions and learn to eat – and cook – like a local.

Although Sri Lanka only recently emerged from a brutal 25-year civil war, the teardrop-shaped island is quickly emerging as an Asian hotspot for intrepid travellers in search of tropical beaches and ancient temples. Its complex cuisine, however, remains largely unknown, much to the frustration of locals who are inordinately proud of their country's fiery fare, which draws on influences from Portuguese and Dutch colonists as well as culinary heavyweight India, its closest neighbour.

Meals in Sri Lanka are referred to simply as "rice and curry", which belies the wide range of delicious dishes. While many Sri Lankan specialities are vegetarian, such as pumpkin curry flavoured with aromatic fenugreek and mustard seeds, or beetroot with freshly grated coconut and locally grown cinnamon, the island nation has a long history of seafood and mutton dishes as well as “devilled” fish, prawns and chicken, so named for their intense fiery heat. Meals also usually include malum, a salad of chopped leafy greens and coconut, crispy poppadoms (a large circular piece of thin, spiced bread), dal (a type of lentil stew), coconut sambal (a spicy condiment), home-made chutney and of course, fragrant steamed rice.

Spices are a staple of Sri Lankan food, from the cinnamon that drew the colonising Portuguese to the chillies that they left behind. Ella, with its verdant hills and cool nights, is fertile ground for growing many of these spices, such as cardamom, curry leaves and turmeric. As a result, the town is renowned for its delicately flavoured dishes, which use mild coconut milk rather than hot chilli. Locals proudly declare that favourites such as tender jackfruit curry and cinnamon-spiced potato curry are among the best you will ever eat.

Ella Spice Garden started by giving tours of their family-run spice garden, which contains everything from chillies to cinnamon, pepper to pandan. When 24-year-old Chandika Madusanka realised that people wanted to learn not only how the spices were grown but how to use them, he began running cooking classes out of his family's kitchen. He received his culinary training from his mother and younger sister, who still keep an eye on things to make sure he is staying true to their recipes, including several types of curries, dal, sambal, poppadoms and spiced rice. Once the class is over, the participants sit down at the family's dinner table to enjoy what they have prepared together.

Rawana Holiday Resort, known for offering one of Ella’s most delicious and best-value dinner spreads, has also given in to traveller demand for cooking instruction. After being inundated with requests for their recipes, they typed them up and also let those with a dinner reservation come early to watch the chefs prepare the night's “rice and curry” in exchange for a small tip. The evening meal consists of a dozen small plates, including spicy curries made from whatever was freshest at the market, such as young jackfruit, okra, pumpkin or bitter melon, and the Rawana speciality, a rich garlic curry simmered in a pressure cooker until soft and creamy. Their dal, made from red lentils and flavoured with coconut milk, cinnamon and turmeric, is simple yet irresistible.

Not just a prime spot for learning how to cook Sri Lankan fare, Ella is also an excellent place to learn about the country’s storied history in the world of tea. Tea production took off in Sri Lanka in the late 1800s after disease devastated the country's coffee plantations. The cool, emerald hill country turned out to have the perfect ecosystem for the popular beverage, and it was not long before Ceylon – Sri Lanka’s former name – became synonymous with high-quality tea.

Taking a tea factory tour is a must for any aficionado of the heady brew, and there is one in the town of Bandarawela, 13km southwest of Ella. The Uva Halpewaththa Tea Factory’s guided tour shows the various stages of tea manufacturing, from sorting the fresh leaves to separating the different classes of dried tea, culminating  in a tasting on the factory’s top floor with stunning views of the surrounding plantations. If you would like to bring a taste of Ceylon home, the company sells a selection of freshly packaged teas.

Bandarawela is also known for its lively Sunday morning vegetable market, where local farmers and traders gather to sell produce and household products to crowds that come in from neighbouring towns. Ella has a smaller, more convivial market of its own on Wednesday mornings, when Passara Road is lined with women dressed in brightly coloured saris selling fresh vegetables and herbs that will be used to create that evening's dinner in kitchens all over town. Visitors staying at one of the many family-run guest houses, all of which offer home-cooked suppers to their guests, can purchase vegetables to be prepared for their evening meal – the local chefs are remarkably accommodating. In fact, most are happy to give informal cooking lessons in their kitchen. Dinners need to be reserved by midday, though, to allow enough time prepare the many exquisite dishes that make up a Sri Lankan meal.

A few days in Ella will be long enough to sample the tea, gorge on Sri Lankan cuisine and learn to cook it at home. But the town’s unpretentious charm, its culinary surprises and gracious, friendly locals will make you wish you could stay much longer.