How to make a cup of Sri Lankan Tea

Sri Lankan tea is considered some of the best in the world; there are hundreds of tea factories all over this little pearl of the Indian Ocean.Tea is sold every where, in shops,cafes, supermarkets, craft centres, factories, markets…

You’d assume that, seeing as tea is such a big deal in this country, there would be something special about the way Sri Lankans make and drink their tea…

And there is!

We’ve discovered the secret, and I’ve written a 5-step comprehensive guide for all to see:

1. Add tea bag to cup

2. Add hot water to cup

3. Add two – or three – teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk to cup

4. Add two – or three – HEAPED teaspoons of sugar to cup

5. Attempt to dissolve all that sugar in any remaining water.

Serve this to your guests, and you’ll be serving them tea the way Sri Lankans love to drink it.

Along with a high risk of diabetes.

Tea, Curd and Smiley Faces: Ella’s Warm Welcome

The train from Kandy to Ella, in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country area, is renowned for being incredibly beautiful; the train winds through hills and mountains, tea plantations cover the hills like patchwork, and clouds roll in as the train climbs higher and higher.

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We spent 6 and a half hours looking out the train window, our mouths wide open in awe of the beauty of the scenery that we passed. The train wound through tiny villages with waving children and adults alike, people working in the fields, and little homes and buildings covered with brightly coloured clothing spread out to dry on the tin roofs.

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The mountains seemed to go on forever, until the clouds swallowed them whole, waterfalls gushed and the greenery is endless.
What a journey.

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Arriving into Ella, we were greeted by a quaint, sleepy little town full of friendly-faced locals. The one dusty main street is lined with guest houses, little shops and produce stalls, roti huts and restaurants, and of course the obligatory Sri Lankan tuk tuks and their touty drivers. Cafés are quite popular here – but so are tourists, it seems. This is a place you can immediately relax into: no rush, no bustle, not too many honking horns, cows grazing next to the bus stops, lots of good quality Sri Lankan tea, and surrounded by 360 degree views of the most incredible scenery.

Pimped Up Ride

Pimped Up Ride

Ella Junction

Ella Junction

The specialty food here, besides the obvious Sri Lankan rice and curry, is surprisingly Buffalo Curd – often served drizzled in ‘kittul’ or treacle (the local menus refer to it as “hunny”). It’s a strangely delicious any-time snack, and the several tiny market stalls sell it in ceramic bowls. Buffalo curd mixed with fresh diced avocado and a pinch of chilli is a real delicacy.

Curd and Kittul

Curd and Kittul

We spent our first evening in Ella enjoying rice and curry on the balcony of our guest house looking out towards incredible Ella Rock, before retiring under our mosquito net where we spent a happy few hours fighting off  possibly the world’s biggest cockroach and several mammoth mosquitos who were tricky enough to claw their way through the net. We won that round, but in the nights following, their army was to return…

Ella Rock

Ella Rock

Ella is home to two very popular climbs; Ella Rock is the big one, and Little Adam’s Peak is the smaller, more popular one. We decided to tackle Little Adam – an hour or so climb each way, and a guide not necessary. We meandered through the tea plantations and smiled at the Tamil tea pluckers who asked us for money with outstretched hands the moment they saw us.

Little Adam's Peak

Little Adam’s Peak

The very top of the peak was the steepest part of the climb, but the 360 degree views from the top were breath-taking; sitting on a little piece of rock at the top of Little Adam’s Peak, we felt as though we were on top of the world.

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Back in Ella, we explored the little shops and avoided the over crowded tourist cafes (the ones with free wi-fi, western food, sports on TV, overpriced beer – you know what I’m talking about). Instead we sat at the back of some tiny little ‘eatery’ (I would be more inclined to call it a shack with a tarp roof) that sold everything from roti and dahl to biscuits, sugar, lottery tickets, vanilla essence and baby formula.
These little places seem to have a little bit of everything; it’s entertaining to look at all the things shoved into every crevice of shelving and wall space.
On dodgy plastic chairs we ate 90 rupee coconut roti, chilli sambol and dahl whilst the locals chattered and stared at us relentlessly, something we have almost come to accept as normal.

Passing the local “beauty saloon” ( a wooden shack with a tarp roof), Jake was feeling a bit too beardy; for 200 rupees ($1.70 AUD) a well groomed Sri Lankan man worked with absolute pride and precision to ensure Jake’s beard was perfectly manicured.

So manicured

So manicured

The hill country and the areas and towns surrounding Ella are famous for tea – as is Sri Lanka in general. This is like heaven for Jake and I: I could quite easily lay in a pile of tea leaves, cover myself in hot water and milk and be happy forevermore. Unfortunately I can’t quite do that, but here in Ella we got the next best thing – a tea factory tour!

We spent our second full day taking a local bus out of Ella (whilst every passenger on the bus stared at us as if to say “shouldn’t you be in a tuk tuk?”) we clung on for dear life, laughing as the bus swung around corners and darted passed trucks – I think the driver was imagining he was on a race track.

From the bus stop we took a 2km walk up and up and up a winding hill, past rice fields and tomato farms, with a little Sri Lankan girl following us the whole way, requesting that we give her bubble gum and pens. We didn’t have anything to give her, but I made sure I bought a pack of pens to hand out when we got back into town – I can say no to money and candy, but I can not say no to pens for school.

Where milky cups of dreams begin...

Where milky cups of dreams begin…

Halpewatte Tea factory is the biggest tea factory in this province (Uva Province), and it was a pretty cool place to visit – even more so because they gave us these awesome forest green “lab-coaty costumes” which we strutted about in until they got too hot and started sticking to our skin. They were then no longer so awesome.

The tea making process is incredibly laborious and fascinating to learn about; the processes and stages that the leaves must go through, and the hard work people must do to ensure tons of tea are processed each day is very impressive. Tasting the different grades of tea at the end of the tour was deliciously interesting.

The evening was spent in the tiny kitchen of a local lady – Sujatha – who taught us how to cook Sri Lankan curries with love and precision – and lots of spices and deliciousness.

Yep. We made that.

Yep. We made that.

Today is our last full day in Ella, and has so far been spent in a similar fashion to the first two days: we found a routine quickly here and it works well for us. It involves a cold Milo (yes, Sri Lankans are Milo-fanatics here and I love them for it!), a fresh bunch of bananas from the smiley man at the tiny Ella Junction produce stall, a lot of cups of tea on the balcony of Sujatha’s little restaurant while we people watch, a bit of hot roti, and a good dose of vitamin C.  Dinner will involve some sort of Sri Lankan curry feast, and the rest of the day – who knows.

Locals mulling

Locals mulling

Ella has been a fabulous stop in our Sri Lankan travels, and so far a real highlight. The slow pace of the town, the big smiley people, men in their traditional skirts and women in their saris, excellent food, a spontaneous street-side market and spectacular scenery has been a winner for us, and we will no doubt miss it when we leave tomorrow on the train for Haputale.

Spontaneous Mid-Week Markets!

Spontaneous Mid-Week Markets!

A taste of Sri Lankan Kandy

The bus ride from Polonnaruwa to Kandy was spent packed in with a hundred-odd people who loved to stare at us, one chicken, no air conditioning and an overly horn-happy driver with a serious need for speed. Hurtling around narrow bends and built up areas, dodging people, animals and a ton of other road vehicles, we laughed nervously until we rolled into Kandy. We’d arrived in the cultural capital.

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The skies are a little more mysterious here – as if they couldn’t decide whether or not to rain – and the weather is cooler here; it’s a lovely change.

The scenery over the central lake and up above the hills is spectacular and green: tiny houses and buildings jut out and mist covers the distant mountains. This place is stunning.

A good looking view

A good looking view

The busy city centre is a sight worth seeing: women dress in brightly coloured flowing saris, people stream everywhere, and the central area is jam packed full of people and buses and other road users – one enormous chaotic traffic flow.

The buses get so close to you – and other vehicles – that you fear they’re about to collide, and people are packed in like sardines where ever they seem to go – on or off the bus.
There seems to be a few official bus stations, but instead the buses just seem to move about everywhere with no order – it’s as if sometimes they’re stopping here, sometimes they’re stopping there, and at other times, they’re not running at all. Regardless, where ever you go, it’s more than likely you’ll be surrounded by a cloud of petrol fumes and listen to the constant honking of several loud horns.

Traffic police stream the traffic, bringing pedestrians to a halt so that drivers can move, and again, so that people can walk safely – although sneaky tuk tuks try to pass through.

The Green Light

The Green Light

Street vendors are selling their goods where ever seems to suit – a woman selling cleaning products and sponges stands in a park, a shoe fixer sets up station on the busy walk way, and the bubble seller blows bubbles at you as you walk along the side walk.

They'll give you good price, very cheap, local price.

They’ll give you good price, very cheap, local price.

In the fresh produce markets, it’s hard to focus – too many things to see are happening at once and there is such a wide array of colourful fresh products; it’s hard to resist buying them even though we’ve got no where to cook them! The vendors give a quick wink at us as we walk through, then continue weighing on antique-looking scales and shoving egg plants and snake beans into tiny bags.

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We did happen to stumble on a cheeky fish monger who kept posing for us, insisting we photograph him. Of course, how could we resist when he whipped out the bloodied tuna head?

Here's Mr. Fishmonger's 5 minutes of fame

Here’s Mr. Fishmonger’s 5 minutes of fame

Of course, Kandy is a real tourist area – it’s famous dot on the Sri Lankan map lures the tourists in – therefore, there are always going to be those praying upon those who are a little more naïve, and it became a bit of a hassle to keep the pestering at bay, unlike the other areas we’d seen in Sri Lanka.

The tourists seem to move in droves here – we’re like pack animals – all hiding behind each other with our Lonely Planet guide books and mosquito repellant. 5pm comes and we’re all rolling down our pant-legs and rubbing citronella and Deet into our skin. And if you’re looking for the tourists areas – look no further than the 5:30pm nightly cultural dance show, where Kandyan dancing and drumming displays are commercialized yet rather enjoyable!

There are cafes here! Places to just sit, drink and enjoy! There is also a reasonable choice of restaurants! – something we’ve been missing a little in the other places we visited.

Dahl and Roti

Dahl and Roti

As for culture, we pretty much managed to avoid it here – not particularly by choice – but, well, it was more difficult to find than I thought it would be in the “cultural capital.” Perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that we decided not to visit the two “top recommendation for tourists” – the sacred Temple of the Tooth and the Botanic Gardens.

Instead, we spent our time simply wandering about – we explored the markets for hours, ate some good food, visited a tea factory, learned about various spices, cooked Sri Lankan food with our home-stay hosts, took a tuk tuk up a mountain to the famous tea museum which ended up being closed, and walked around the large, beautiful lake.

Little markets

Little markets

...Get in your cot!

…Get in your cot!

Yay! Tea!

Yay! Tea!

Home-cooked curry

Home-cooked curry

Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy was a lovely place to visit; it was good to just simply stroll and explore, but for now, we’re ready to move on and see something new and different. Tomorrow its off to Ella on the train – observation carriage all the way – to soak up the incredible scenery and tea plantations. I’m ready for another cuppa and some hill-country hikes, so let’s see what our next destination has to offer!