"As a kid growing up in Sri Lanka, food was a very important part of life. You not only knew how good food tasted, but you also knew what it was good for. If you were at the market and asked an older person what a certain vegetable was, you would first be told of its ayurvedic properties, before being told how it should be prepared.
Things changed very dramatically for me in 1975 when we immigrated to Australia. I was 11 years old. Leaving our 250-year-old ancestral home in Dehiwala, Colombo, and all our relatives and comforts, we arrived in a new land, a harsh land where our traditions meant nothing and we were nobody.
We arrived not long after the White Australia policy had ended and lived in the then wild western suburbs of Sydney. It was a shock to the system. Add to that a very healthy serve of racism not only towards me but my parents – an Austrian mother and a Sri Lankan father – and you had a child who hated the world. My love of food and hours spent with my grandmother and aunties in their kitchen back in Sri Lanka were suppressed and survival mode kicked in.
Cooking never occurred to me again until my dad said, 'Get out of my car and go and ask for a job." I was 16 years and nine months old. School and I did not agree with each other; a fact that did not sit well with my dad, a very proud engineer, who already had one son at university studying science and another on his way to being an engineer and pilot. I was a wayward and rebellious middle son. I was never going to fit the mould of my siblings and finally got my way and left school.
So there I was on the main street of Mortdale, where we then lived in suburban Sydney, looking at my dad who had just ordered me into The Crabapple restaurant to ask for a job. I was very lucky and am thankful to my dad for forcing me into that restaurant, and to the Mylrea family for taking me in.
I was a natural. I picked things up immediately, and had worked my way up to cooking mains in only three months. I was so happy – for the first time in a very long time. I was working hard, had no interaction with anyone from my schooling life and worked anti-social hours. I was in heaven. I had found my passion.
In this book, I will take you on a journey of flavours and skim along the ancient spice routes through the Pacific to Sri Lanka. It is food that is easy to prepare, cost-effective and tasty. The following recipes come from my shows My Sri Lanka and Island Feast.
Experience and imagination is what I used to come up with these recipes, along with a lot of local knowledge. Talking to people is the best way to discover their passion, and when it comes to food, passion is everything. For filming, I made a point of arriving at each destination with only my knives and a chopping board. All the ingredients I used were from the region and it made the people from those areas very proud that I was using their produce."
Edited extract from My Feast with Peter Kuruvita, Peter Kuruvita. Photography by Chris Chen. (Hardie Grant/SBS, $50).
Prawns with okra sambal