When Augi De Hoedt was a boy, day-to-day life was shaped by ritual. Each morning, the eldest of four would get up before anyone else and start the fire to make tea.
"We didn't have any gas, it was a wood fire. I would be the one to light the fire and boil the water for mum," he tells SBS Food. "We would have black tea with milk and sugar. It's what everyone drank in Sri Lanka, even the kids."
Twice a week, he and his mum would go to the local food markets. "You can get all the local produce. The villagers bring fish, vegetables, condiments, plants, spices, chilli, everything."
The abundant variety of fruit is something De Hoedt recalls with relish. "There were all kinds of bananas, mangoes, wood apples. It was absolutely amazing," he says.
"My favourite was King coconut, an unbelievably sweet variety. The flesh is softer and sweeter and the farther inland it's grown, the sweeter the taste. I've not seen it anywhere else."
Spices are foundational ingredients in Sri Lankan cooking. Prepared in dry mixes and pastes, spices bring life to meat, seafood and vegetable curry dishes.
De Hoedt's mum bought fresh spices at the market or from villagers who came to the family's home with offerings of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and chillies.
"Mum would prepare the spices in the old way, either roasted or unroasted," he says.
"She would line up all the ingredients, wash out the sand and dry them in the sun. The roasted spices were done in a wok. The unroasted was only sun-dried, then both were sent to the mills to grind. The roasted one was stronger in flavour; all the aroma comes out. It's more for finishing. The raw spices were used to cook the curry."
They also made the coconut relish pol sambol at home, using a stone mortar so large it took two people to carry it.
"We had a long pestle made out of coconut bark, and we had to pound the ingredients for pol sambol. The mortar was so heavy, it lived in one spot in the kitchen."
The day was punctuated by villagers who would drop in to see if the De Hoedts needed a hand around the home or kitchen.
"Back in the day it was very common for domestics [helpers] to come help and to spread news," he says. "We had no telephone, so people would come from the village to help and have a chat. I remember they would drink tea, help peel onions, make cakes or do the washing.
"It was very fluid. Nowadays you have to call to make an appointment, but back then people just turned up. If there was a ripe mango or jackfruit on the tree, they'd ask to pick one. It was community."
Curries were a daily affair, served with rice or hoppers, the thin, crepe-like bowls made from fermented rice flour. But it's the food his mum made for special occasions that De Hoedt remembers most fondly.
"Every Christmas my mum made beef smore. She'd take a rump or topside, and put on a dry rub with unroasted curry powder."
Lemons or lime slices were inserted into cuts in the meat, and then it would marinate overnight. "The next day, she'd get out the clay pot and slowly cook the piece of beef over the fire."
After it was sufficiently tender, the meat was removed from the pot, and the gravy was simmered and thickened. The beef was thinly sliced and browned in coconut oil and served with gravy.
"She'd get out the clay pot and slowly cook the piece of beef over the fire."
From those humble beginnings, watching his mum use traditional methods to prepare curries and hoppers, De Hoedt has gone on to have an impressive career, heading up the kitchens at luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, Bahrain and Australia.
At his eatery, The Fold Café, in Sydney's inner west, he's returned to his roots and put together a menu that reflects his mum's cooking and the food he grew up eating.
De Hoedt's mum is in her 70s now, living with one of her daughters in Boston. She proudly keeps an eye on her son's career through social media and still does a lot of cooking.
"My sister got her a special chair so she can sit at the table and cook. My sister tells her she doesn't have to, but when you love doing something, you can't stop.
"It doesn't matter if cooking is physically hard now. She just wants to do it. And when people taste her food, she still gets a beautiful feeling."
Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @cultofclothes. Photographs by Augi De Hoedt
- 1 kg beef (strip loin or brisket)
- 15 g coriander seeds
- 5 g cumin seeds
- ½ tsp fennel seeds
- ½ tsp black peppercorns
- ¼ tsp fenugreek seeds
- 1 stick Ceylon cinnamon
- 2 sprigs curry leaves
- ½ leaf fresh pandan leaf
- 1-2 green chillies
- 1 -2 green limes
- 2 tbsp roasted curry powder (Roast dry mix ingredients above and blend to a fine powder)
- 1 -2 tsp chilli powder
- 15 ml coconut vinegar
- 50 g ginger
- 50 g peeled garlic
- 10 g clove, cardamom pods
- 2 medium-sized brown onions
- 100 ml coconut oil
- 500 ml coconut milk (fresh)
- Salt to taste
- A large clay pot or heavy bottom pan, ladle
1. Trim the excess fat from the beef and dry with a paper towel.
2. Grind the dry spice mix with a spice grinder or pound in a mortar and pestle.
3. Cut limes into thick slices. Make incisions in the beef and place the limes deep into the beef. Rub the dry spice mix all over the beef, place in a vacuum or ziplock bag and refrigerate overnight.
4. Take the beef out of the fridge the next day and let rest for approximately 1 hour.
5. Peel and slice the onion, finely chop the ginger and garlic.
6. Place a heavy bottom pan on medium heat, add cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Add the onion, ginger, garlic, pandan leaves, curry leaves and cook until curry leaves are slightly brown.
7. Place the beef in the clay pot and sear all sides. Add 300 ml of coconut milk, coconut vinegar and adequate water to cover the beef. Add chilli and turmeric powder and 1 tsp salt.
8. Cover and cook on low heat adding water until the beef is well cooked (but still holds its shape). Constantly turn the beef so that it cooks evenly.
9. Once the beef is well cooked take it out of the clay pot and set aside to rest.
10. Add the roasted curry powder to the gravy and adjust the seasoning, adding the remaining 200 ml of coconut milk. Place the gravy into a bowl.
11. Slice the beef across the grain and quick fry in the clay pot with 1 tbsp of coconut oil.
12. Finally add back the gravy and simmer for a few minutes.
13. Serve with steamed rice.