A chief is the best-known Sri Lankan in Australia


From Samson Abeyagunawardena, reporting from Canberra

The current best known expatriate Sri Lankan in Australia surely is Peter Kuruvita, a chef. His weekly My Sri Lanka television show broadcast nationally across Australia by Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), now into its fifth episode in a ten-part series, is drawing record audiences at peak viewing time. He is winning the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Australians …through their stomachs.

Kuruvita’s television show is about the food and cooking culture of Sri Lanka. Several similar shows about the culinary cultures of other countries presented by high-profile chefs are broadcast weekly by Australia’s national and regional television stations. But since Kuruvita burst into the scene a month ago, his show has drawn the most number of media reviews – all highly favourable. This is a considerable achievement considering the high quality of the other shows he has to compete with.

My Sri Lanka is a much-watched show because presenter Kuruvita does not merely inform. He entertains with his interesting narration. One media television critic observed that "Kuruvita clearly loves the country where he spent much of his childhood and has an effortless rapport with the people he meets."

In each episode he explores historic sites in Sri Lanka, takes viewers to places where spices such as cinnamon, pepper and cardamom are cultivated, harvested and processed for the market. He takes viewers to markets where a wide range of vegetables and fruits eaten by Sri Lankans are on sale. He cooks his dishes against such exotic backgrounds that one media reviewer stated he would have liked to see more of Sri Lanka’s scenery. To cook a dish of fried fish, Kuruvita goes to the south-west coast, sits on a stilt, throws a line and takes his catch to a make-shift open-air kitchen on the beach. There, as he prepares the fish to be cooked in a clay pot on an open fire, he explains the various ingredients he uses and how they are blended to make the dish so special. To make kalu dodol, he goes further south to a village near Hambantota to catch up with a woman whose livelihood is making this much-loved Sri Lankan sweet.

Kuruvita gives interesting insights into the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans. To show how hoppers are made, he goes to the modest home of an old friend who shows how the hopper mixture is prepared. Then Kuruvita takes over to make the hoppers with the dexterity of a juggler who throws several balls into the air and catches them with ease.

On his travels to the island’s south he makes detours to introduce viewers to cinnamon growers and pepper growers. He goes to the hill country for close-ups of people working on the tea plantations.

After previewing the first episode of My Sri Lanka, the television show critic of the quality newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald wrote: "Kuruvita comes from Sri Lanka, which doesn’t lack for exoticism. His (cooking) tips are sound but it’s a pity there’s not more about Sri Lanka.’

Peter Kuruvita was born in London of mixed parentage in 1963. His father, an engineer, was a Sri Lankan and his mother an Austrian. In 1967 the family moved to Sri Lanka, where Peter spent his early childhood. When away from school, Peter spent time watching his grandmother cooking meals following recipes handed down by her mother. That was the beginning of his interest in cooking.

In 1974 Peter’s family migrated to Australia and settled in Sydney. There at high school he excelled in home economics. When he left high school he worked for some time in a seafood restaurant where his first task was to slice garlic bread. After a few months he was assigned to help the chef in cooking some of the main dishes. Peter then knew that cooking was what he liked and that would be his career. So he studied catering at a technical college and served his apprenticeship at one of Sydney’s fashionable seafood restaurants.

Upon completion of the required period of apprenticeship, he worked for some years in one of Sydney’s top restaurants. With the experience gained, Kuruvita went on to hold positions variously as chef, head chef and executive chef at hotels – some of them with five-star ratings – in Australia and overseas, winning several awards.

In 2008 Peter and his wife Karen established their own restaurant, the Flying Fish, in Sydney.

One Australian journalist observes that housewives in this country are unlikely to try making kalu dodol or baking hoppers, but having watched Kuruvita’s show they would want to book a holiday trip to Sri Lanka.

Kuruvita’s show comes after years of mostly gloomy news about Sri Lanka broadcast on the Australian electronic media. My Sri Lanka is all good news. Greg Hassall wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: "It has been suggested that Kuruvita is ignoring Sri Lanka’s troubled recent history but that’s a pretty tough call. Kuruvita is a chef, not a journalist, and no country should be defined by its darkest days."

Well said.

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