Karan Gokani's Sri Lanka

Karan Gokani's Sri Lanka Photo
Interview by Neil Davey

Getting Karan Gohani to open up about Sri Lanka is not what you’d call a challenge.

‘I can do this for hours,’ he admits down the phone from the island. ‘There are amazing beaches, amazing hotels, amazing hospitality and food… And right now, I’m sitting here, watching the sun set. I mean,
what’s not to love?’

Indeed, it’s impossible not to be swept along by Karan’s enthusiasm for the country – made all the more remarkable, perhaps, by the fact Sri Lanka is neither his birthplace nor his home. Born to doctor parents in Mumbai, Karan trained as a lawyer, obtaining degrees in India and then the UK, before working in a London law firm for three years. Food, however, was always part of the story.

‘I always knew I wanted to do something with restaurants,’ says Karan. A summer job in an Indian hotel kitchen reinforced the idea but also showed Karan he didn’t want to work permanently in a kitchen.

‘But I loved to cook; I’d cook wherever, whenever, I could, on holidays, at weekends, and it was during the time I was in London, staying in halls of residence, that I made my first Sri Lankan friends. I was cooking, this guy walked in, and we got talking about biryani…

‘We realised we were doing the same course and lived in the same place. He – and a childhood friend of his who was in the same halls – ended up becoming two of my best friends. We spent the rest of that year cooking for about 15 people every night and we’d invite more – because inviting people meant they cleaned up while we got to do the fun bit!

‘At the end of our studies, I went with them to Sri Lanka for the first time – and I fell in love with the country. I’d planned to see lots of the island but, after living in London, I’d forgotten how hot this part of the world is, so I mostly stayed home with the AC on. But I went to the market every day with my friend’s mum and we’d come back and cook incredible food – fish curries, meat curries and particularly crab curries (I featured her recipe in the Hoppers book). I spent two weeks just cooking and eating in their home. But ever since, I’ve wanted to discover more, to be on the move. My trips here now are very different.

Even so, Karan thinks Colombo is an excellent starting point for the Sri Lanka visitor.

‘It’s a great city,’ he says. There’s just something about a bustling city in this part of the world – like Mumbai, Bangkok and Tokyo too – that’s at the centre of what propels the country. I feel a lot of people travel through Colombo but don’t see the city. You need to go to a market – you’ll see incredible fish on sale, and some of the food here is the
best in the world.

‘Yes, Sri Lanka has been hit by this horrible crisis, which left so much inflation, and the rupee has fallen,’ he continues, ‘but for Westerners that actually makes it very attractive. And, rather than being opportunistic, it’s great to get the pounds and dollars back in here.

‘You’ll find produce that’s all grown here: you can easily survive on local fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. And you’ll get an indication of what’s fresh and what you should be ordering in local restaurants.

‘There’s Pettah Market, where go for food and inspiration. It’s a fun place to walk around, with streets specialising in different things, like chemicals and fertilisers… Then you turn the corner and it’s dried fish or rice or glassware. You can also visit landmarks like the mosque and a little town hall in the middle. My favourite market for fresh fruit and veg is Kollupitiya.

‘There are great restaurants for Jaffna food, Muslim food, biryani, fried chicken (which they call roast chicken here). Walk around, look for the queues, see where the locals eat, and you won’t go wrong.

‘But if you don’t want to be adventurous on day one, my recommendation would be Nuga Gama, which is in a five-star hotel. I’m not one for buffets usually but this is great, always fresh – you’ve got a lot of live counters and it’s all authentic. You’ll see freshly made rotis and hoppers and they tend to celebrate food from regional Sri Lanka that’s not the mainstream.

‘I always recommend Barefoot too, selling things you’d see in Sri Lankan homes, like the iconic bright woven fabrics. They also have a café, which has an amazing black pork curry. This is one of my favourite dishes, which inspired the black pork on the Hoppers menu. It’s a dish I’d never eaten anywhere else in the world and I spent the longest time reverse-engineering it for the restaurant and the book.’

If Sri Lankan Tourism aren’t already using his obvious affection and enthusiasm, they’ve missed a trick. ‘Don’t go to India. Go to Sri Lanka,’ Karan laughs. ‘Don’t quote me on that! But seriously, if you’re thinking of going to India for a week… consider Sri Lanka instead. It’s similar but different, and you can feel there’s a natural connection, but it’s a bite-sized version of India. If you’ve got three, four, five weeks? Definitely do India. But a few days? Sri Lanka.’

Karan isn’t short of ideas beyond Colombo either – so where else should a visitor go? ‘I always end my trips in Negombo,’ he says. ‘It’s right by the coast, closer to the airport. They have a lagoon and they do
incredible crab curries. But before that, if you have time, there’s the whole trip down south to do, to Galle. The Fort there is just magical – it’s a time warp and the minute you set foot in there, it’s like nothing else in the world. When I’m there, I just get lost, I wander… There are amazing antique sellers, artisans, little cafés, it’s one of those places that’s ever changing yet somehow stays exactly the same. A lot of the artefacts you’ll have seen in the restaurants came from there. The green elephant in our King’s Cross restaurant came from there and was carried back in our luggage,’ Karan laughs.

‘From there, there’s the beach trail; places like Tangalle and Ahangama with amazing surf and some really great boutique bars. But the amazing thing about this country is you can do the beach one night and the next day be on safari or sitting in tea country, and then be back to a buzzing capital city. There’s so much you can do, the distances aren’t bad and the roads and trains are very good.

The National Parks, like Yala, are more touristy but are still a great place to see animals like leopards and bears. I’d recommend trekking east if you have a little longer – it’s not as easily accessible as places down south, but you’ve got Batticaloa, which was badly hit by the tsunami, but it’s recovering and is still very quaint. The east coast is great for surfers, divers, the more adventurous.

‘I wouldn’t recommend heading north for a first trip but if you’ve been a few times and really want to get under the skin of Sri Lanka, then Jaffna’s great. The food is very different. It’s safe to go there but they don’t cater to visitors the way the rest of the country does, so you’ve got to do your research before you go. And then there’s Hill Country in the Central Highlands, which is wonderful.

It’s almost a shame to cut Karan off but he takes my need to go with good grace. ‘As I said,’ he laughs, ‘I can talk about Sri Lanka for hours.’ His affection for the place is palpable and infectious but, as Karan explains, he has good reason.

‘Sri Lanka has so much to offer. It’s given me so much, an identity, a profession, and I probably have more friends here than anywhere else in the world. It’s a circle. I fell in love with Sri Lanka – and Sri Lanka came to define me.’

K A R A N ’ S H O T S P O T S

This Hill Country colonial property has recently been refurbished – it’s honestly one of the nicest hotels if you want the height of luxury. thegrandhotelnuwaraeliya.com

I usually stay in one of the Jetwing properties that cover the country, ranging from the very luxury to the budget. It’s a family that, I think, really cares about Sri Lanka. jetwinghotels.com

Nothing fancy – just a good, old-school, standalone place that’s open from breakfast to dinner. upalis.com

There’s a multi-course dish called lamprais, cooked in parcels, originating from the Dutch Burgher community. DBU’s is the best I’ve had. thedutchburgherunion.org

The best way to eat is to make friends and get invited to homes. After that, ask locals, your driver, where to go for rice and curry. But for something different, the Israeli-influenced Citra in the south would give any London restaurant a run for its money. We ate the menu one-and-a-half times over. citra-restaurant.com

Another southern choice, this is a café by day but by night it’s a very cool bar. It feels like going to someone’s house for a party. These guys are ones to watch – they’re going to make
some great bars. Matara Road

Karan Gokani's Sri Lanka Photo
Interview by Neil Davey

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