Every day, Swarna de Mel is up at 5 a.m., pulling tropical herbs from her garden, harvesting dinosaur-egg-sized jackfruit, and cracking coconuts with a hatchet in preparation for curries, spicy sambols, and mallum salads. You’d expect her home to be filled with the smells of exotic spices—cumin, cardamom, chilies, and loads of black pepper tickling the nose. But the scent is neutral, the kitchen is quiet, and de Mel is nowhere to be found. And then the dishes suddenly appear.

That’s because she’s been cooking outside, not far from her jungle of a garden. Many Sri Lankan families have two kitchens: the “rough” kitchen outside, and the pantry, or show kitchen, inside. While the indoor kitchen can be equipped with all of today’s latest appliances, the real cooking happens in a place that can get messy enough to hose down. Here, the culinary magic is made with ancient tools, rarely modified over the centuries. I got a chance to experience this when visiting her and many of her siblings who live in traditional homes that have this double kitchen, too.

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