In this episode of Fearless Chef, Chef Kiran Jethwa fishes for prawns during monsoon season and goes toddy tapping in coconut trees 100 feet high!
I feel like I’ve been climbing for hours when I eventually reach the canopy. I’m exhausted, petrified and my head is spinning. What am I doing up a coconut tree 100 feet in the air? I begin to wobble as the magnitude of what I’m about to attempt hits me. You fall from here and you die, simple as that.
My most bloodcurdling experience to-date while filming The Fearless Chef took place on the beautiful spice island of Sri Lanka. Knowing of its rich melting pot of cuisines and fascinating culinary heritage, I was excited for the chance to hunt some of the country’s tastiest food offerings. To do this, however, I had to face two of my greatest phobias: claustrophobia and vertigo.
Our destination: the stunning west coast. To get there, I hop on a motorbike in Colombo and head off to find one of the most delicious ingredients that exist on our planet – Estuarine prawns. It’s the monsoon season so I negotiate the wet and very narrow village roads, avoiding tuk tuks, motorbikes, dogs and trucks, until I eventually get to the Madu River. Kumar, the chap I’ve come to meet, leads me through his colourful village until we reach our mode of transportation for prawn fishing– a fiberglass canoe. Nobody had informed me that we were to be fishing in crocodile infested waters but Kumar assures me that to the best of his knowledge nobody has ever been eaten by one.
We reach the intricately designed prawn traps: funnels made from bamboo sticks under the water. Lights attract and trap prawns into the back of the net but the hard part is retrieving them, which involves diving down into a very dark, confined space. After a minute under, Kumar emerges with our first delicious prawn. Now it’s my turn. I drop down to the bottom of the net but the complete lack of visibility makes it very difficult to fish and the floor of the trap is a good three metres down. It’s hard work and after half an hour in the muddy water, my claustrophobia gets the better of me. I manage to scoop out a few midgets which pale in comparison to Kumar’s healthy catch.
Next, we head to the coast where I am planning to take to the treetops to harvest one of Sri Lanka’s delicacies: palm wine. It’s an extreme feat known locally as toddy tapping. As I arrive at the beach I can see ropes tied from one palm tree to another creating a highway in the canopies. They are completely natural and woven entirely from coconut husks but news that they have to be replaced twice a year due to rats scaling the trees and chewing through them does not fill my heart with courage.
I meet Anoura who shows me how he climbs a tree by looping a woven coconut husk around the trunk. It starts to drizzle, making everything a bit damp and slippery. ‘Shouldn’t there be a safety harness, a rope, something to clip in on?’ I think, as my heart pounds away audibly.
The tree is a good 100 feet in the air. “My life is in your hands” I say to Anoura, “Go for it!” He clamps me in and the madness begins. After a mere 20 feet, the ground looks a long way down, I muse to myself that the old saying ‘don’t look down,’ was probably invented by toddy tappers. By the time I reach the top, I am shaking and covered in a cold sweat. Anoura slinks away, expertly using the coconut tightropes to glide across and down to a lower tree. With my level of skill and the precarious safety equipment at my disposition, I decide there is no way on earth I can accomplish this feat. I am surrounded by a morass of ropes and with one false step could come tumbling off.
Torn as to what to do, I glance at Anoura and am suddenly overcome by a sense of confidence. Gingerly I step out onto the rope and edge out into the air. As I reach the midpoint, the opposite tree bends inwards which destabilizes me and leaves me clutching the ropes and shaking with fear. After what feels like hours (but was probably no more than a few seconds) I regain a semblance of balance and decide I have had enough and want to come down. And not a minute too soon as bad weather is moving in and I have no idea how I would handle being up there in a storm.
When my hands and knees are finally on firm ground again and I have had a swig of the tapped toddy, I make sure I tell the tappers exactly how much respect I have for them and their completely insane job. The following morning, I head off a few kilometres inland to a local farm in order to source the last ingredient in my dish: cinnamon. With this, I plan to add some warming spice to balance the fermented sourness of the sap. With my three main ingredients ready, I set to putting my own twist to a favourite Sri Lankan dish: a Tiger prawn and cinnamon curry with toddy dumplings.
I gather my new friends round to my steaming pot of curry and they all pronounce it delicious. With that, I set off home but leave Sri Lanka knowing that I have not even begun to scratch the surface of the greatness of this country. My memories are packed full of adrenaline and fear but my heart is full of the warm love and delicious food the island has to offer.