The chef who cultivates his own plants | Sunday Observer

The chef who cultivates his own plants

25 July, 2021

In the Manana village in Horawala, Welithenna, some five kilometres from Mathugama town is a haven of rare plants of Sri Lanka.

It is located alongside a small sale outlet of organically grown fruits, vegetables and heirloom rice varieties of this country and other such products which includes diverse sun dried fruits and vegetables.

Within the plant nursery is a small garden space replete with a stone table and bench where visitors can enjoy traditional teas and coriander. Along with these refreshing drinks come sweetmeats such as Kavum served totally devoid of oil because it has been steamed after frying. The brainchild of this initiative; 41 year old Suranga Lakshan Kariyawasam, has by now, within the five years that he has commenced the plant cultivation, café and sale outlet, provided employment for many in the immediate locality.

“I provide the area people with the seed varieties or saplings which I collect from all over the country and I get them to breed these plants and provide me to sell them.

Sometimes the villagers have some of these plants and they have opened small nurseries and sell them to me. From Ran Thambili to Thippili to Bulath to Bing Kohomba and different Jack fruit varieties, I have a wide range of locally grown plants which I supply throughout the country”.


On an average he gets around two dozen visitors from all over the country. Although not formally advertised in the media the word has spread that he supplies ‘dhurlaba deshiya pela’ (rare traditional plant varieties), says Suranga who is also an internationally well known chef.

He has promoted Sri Lanka’s traditional fruits and vegetables globally, especially in the Middle East where he had worked for over a decade.

His shift towards cultivating local plant varieties had commenced based on inspiration from one of his foreign bosses abroad who encouraged him to start his own business upon returning to Sri Lanka.

Having received unstinted support from veteran traditional physicians of Sri Lanka in identifying these plants and their medicinal uses, he has won the respect of Sri Lankan agricultural and forestry officials who appreciates his role in assisting to free the country from the bondage of chemical agriculture.

His life story thus far is a lesson in perseverance and in having a creative approach to maximising one’s career, in his case, a career that began in the culinary sphere.

Having obtained his education at the Horawala Navodya Maha Vidyalaya and having completed his Advanced Level examination in the stream of Arts, his direction to the world of exotic cuisine had begun at the age of 18.

Through an uncle who worked in the hotel industry he had joined the Golden Grill, well known restaurant and Banquet Hall in Bentota as a kitchen helper and gradually worked his way up, joining the Eden Resort in Alutgama few years later and commencing training in pastry making.

“The hotels I worked in were my universities. I learnt all about food there and about presentation as well as nutrition.


The very first restaurant gifted me with an experience equivalent to a first degree in a campus. The rest of my career as a chef abroad I could equal to a Masters Degree or a PhD.

The actual fact is that it is up to us to make the best of a work experience and to make it an educational journey that will help shape our future,” he said.

He has since he returned from Qatar five years ago, begun to train young people in the hotel field and in the agrarian entrepreneurship field, often combining the two disciplines in terms of creating awareness on health and linking it to how it matters whether a plant is grown organically or not.

The idea to get into cultivation had been first put to him by one of his foreign colleagues whose sister had started a flower nursery.

“When I worked in Qatar at a very famous hotel there I learnt a lot from the different people I worked with. They were of different nationalities. One of my bosses was a former German soldier who valued discipline very highly.

In this hotel the staff was made up Europeans, an Egyptian who was also a former soldier, another Sri Lankan and myself.

All of the foreign staff loved Sri Lanka. We collectively promoted Sri Lanka by getting down Sri Lankan fruits and vegetables. The pineapples, passion fruit and papaw were from Sri Lanka. We started the trend of using dehydrated Sri Lankan fruits in many recipes.”

He said that one key lesson he learnt in food preparation in the hotel industry was not to waste.

For example the thorny pineapple skin which is usually thrown away had been used for garnishing after being dehydrated. His exposure to dehydrating different fruits and vegetables had sparked off the first ideas on creating his own food outlet that included a cultivation centre.

“This is what I am now doing Islandwide. Using a jackfruit plantation I own and being inspired by mineral engineer and academic Dr. Sudath Rohitha who has started an island-wide movement to cultivate jackfruit trees for food security and entrepreneurship creation I have started experimenting with a series jackfruit products.”


“We are in the midst of a major health challenge. This means that the health of the people has to be improved. One way to do it is to take them away from unhealthy foods and replace it with health based products. I am now in the process of creating a jackfruit based series of preservable products that include ‘instant jackfruit’ food alternatives which will have both vegetarian and fish based seasoning which do not have any preservatives.”

The preservation will be facilitated through sun drying options alone and without artificial preservatives, he said.

He said: “Because now I am familiar with all the medicinal and rare plants I am creating a range of health foods which are also ‘instant’ foods but without any harmful substances.”

The food range includes jackfruit seed powder that could be used for diverse recipes including milkshakes.

“With my specialisation in pastry making as an internationally represented chef I am now thinking out a series of Sri Lankan traditional food based pastry products that could replace the unhealthy fast food culture with an immunity boosting option which will have an appeal to the younger generation as well.”

What does he think of the recent Sri Lankan transition to organic agriculture? Does he think it practically possible?

His answer is a prompt yes.

“I have for the past five years been cultivating using only nature’s decree as our ancestors have done. What we must realise is that by not recognising our authentic historic agrarian knowledge that we our throwing our money on food imports.

I am now cultivating in the paddy fields diverse traditional rice varieties such as Batapola wee and Ran Kahawunu. The fact about the messed up national economy is based on our ignorance of what is ours.

As a country we are sitting on a goldmine and begging.

If we do not wake up even now we will find that soon the Western food industrialists will export to us our own traditional rice and other indigenous food.

Think of the irony of our kemgovithena that we threw away as superstition now being mastered by Europe and taught in their universities as bio dynamic agriculture.”

Suranga is now planning island-wide training for schoolchildren on identification of indigenous plant varieties, how to grow them, how to use them in food and on the potential of food entrepreneurship.

Having developed several new recipes he is in the process of compiling these into a book for young people who want to work in the hotel and food sector.


He is focusing on helping to create awareness from the point a food is ‘born’ as a plant to the point it gets to the plate, hoping more people will combine cultivation with agro industries and food creation.

He said that six years ago he could not identify over 80 percent of the rare plants of Sri Lanka but now there seems to be not a single variety that he does not recognise.

Not only is he an expert at plant identification but from what he has learnt from Sri Lanka’s traditional physicians he also knows the range of ailments that the plants are used for. Registering in several farming associations had further helped him.

“We are not a country which has to be fearful during this pandemic. The West may not know how to handle this Covid virus but if we are true to our medicinal and food heritage this is no challenge for us. I am doing my part by ensuring that ordinary people realise that they can easily cultivate in small or large scale and use our plants in their daily diet for a life without illness.

What should be remembered is that Sri Lanka’s authentic food if grown organically, is its medicine and traditional medicine is its food?”


So what is the response he has received from the general public? Is there enthusiasm for cultivating our traditional plants organically as we did historically?

He said that the response has been overwhelming. He shows the visitors’ books he has maintained which mentions the names, addresses, phone numbers and comments of people from around the country, including areas such as the North.

So, it is not only the Sinhalese who come to his shop and buy the plants, the food produce and drink coriander in his garden café space? His response is as follows:

“I have scores of Sri Lankan visitors from around the country and who belong to all four communities of the country; Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. There are doctors, lawyers and engineers and diverse white collar professionals and artists and poets. People from every social category. There are also young chefs who have heard of me through other chefs.

Earlier there was a family from Badulla and in the morning a person from Ampara. I look forward to training children throughout the country including in the North and the East to cultivate plants suited to different soil and use it appropriately in the food production/entrepreneurship process. The earth feeds all of us. It certainly does not discriminate according to ethnicity,” he notes.

“When I open my shop by 8.00am it is by 9.00pm that I close it. There is a marked increase of interest in medicinal plants and cultivating food after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic.”

The projects that he has in the pipeline are many and includes his own food creation and food cultivation media channel.

Having excellent links with international television media as developed from his days abroad he believes in using international media to showcase Sri Lanka positively.

“I learnt the art of public relations and networking through the hotel industry as part of the professional training we got. This does not mean being artificial or false but being genuine in our interactions and wanting everyone to do well and human connections to be used fruitfully. This is the Buddhist way.”

What is his message to the younger generation of Sri Lankans?

“Be united. Learn about your country. Learn about Sri Lanka’s natural heritage. You may not have studied these in school but make every day a new learning opportunity and expand your life experiences by getting close to mother earth. Join different associations such as those related to entrepreneurship, soil healing and plants.

We are not a country that has to be in debt. Develop ways we could build our country in diverse ways. Innovate. Never think that we are a poor country. We are not.”