Ashleigh Hays takes fresh food menu to new heights

Four days ago Omar M of Dubai wrote a review on Trip Advisor about a trendy little place in Hikkaduwa on the south coast of Sri Lanka.

“While staying in Hikkaduwa, I ended up eating at Salty Swami's 4 times in 5 days,” Omar wrote. “The quality of food, atmosphere, and service is head and shoulders above everywhere else we ate on our trip. 

“The Sri Lankan twist that the restaurant adds to the Western food on its menu (burgers, tacos, etc) is really interesting, and even more delicious. The coffee (especially the spiced cold brew) is really special. 

“The staff are all very friendly, helpful, and the sign at the front that says "Open for Good Vibes' cannot be more true. Everyone in Salty Swami's seems to be having a good time, the people eating there, and the staff too. If you are in Hikkaduwa and you are looking for some great fresh food and some really good vibes, then this is the place to be.”

Naturally, that’s where you’ll find Ashleigh Hays in the kitchen. She’s a young cook who always has part of her soul in Newcastle where she learned the trade at some of the city’s hippest eateries, like Sprocket, One Penny Black and Scotties.

As followers of her instagram tag #formysenses will know, Hays was working on the North Coast of NSW last year (The Branches Coffee Roasters in Mullumbimby, Three Blue Ducks at The Farm in Ewingsdale) before embarking on a holiday to Sri Lanka that turned into a job opportunity.

 “I went on a month trip with some friends to Sri Lanka,” she says. “While I was here I spent quite a bit of time on the east coast at Hideaway Blue in Arugam Bay and met the owners, brothers Yanik and Yhevin. We eventually got chatting about food and the fact that they were looking for a chef for the second season of their new venture Salty Swamis in Hikkaduwa on the South Coast. Without anything pressing to keep me in Australia I was very keen to take the position. So back to Australia for two months to tie up some loose ends, sell my car and pack away my catering equipment I went!

“I came back to Sri Lanka with little expectations so that I wouldn’t be surprised by anything that might get thrown my way. I decided to redo the menu from the last season as I wanted to focus on using local produce. The cafe is attached to their surf shop and so for me the vibe was very similar to Byron. So with inspiration from Byron and the east coast of Australia mixed with the local produce and cuisine here in Sri Lanka, I came up with a menu that seems to be hitting the spot!

“We’ve been averaging 220 covers a day for our all day breakfast and lunch, we get return visits from most customers and have a lot of great regulars.” 

Hays has always made the most of what she has to work with, being it chickens on a property she rented in Darwin, or baking bread in a Bolivian jungle or picking wild thyme and oregano beside a river in Italy to use for a meal. For her, Sri Lanka was a new paradise for her food senses.

“An example of a fusion dish on the menu I took the good old avo on toast that everyone loves in Australia and served it with a local accompaniment called seeni sambol, a spicy onion chutney that goes really well with the creamy avo, poached eggs, whipped feta, basil and fresh tomato,” she says. 

I came back to Sri Lanka with little expectations so that I wouldn’t be surprised by anything that might get thrown my way.

Ash Hays

“The seafood here is awesome so I’ve really gotten into experimenting with raw or just cooked fish dishes like sashimi, tataki, ceviche, etc. and they all go so perfectly with the fresh produce here, a lot of which we can find in our garden, such as papayas, biling, peppercorns, jackfruit, bananas (of which I can use the fruit, leaves and blossoms), and, of course, coconuts.”

Pressed on the nature and source of seafood, Hays added more explanation: “I mainly buy yellowfin tuna for our Malu Bowl, where it is served raw with a miso and sesame dressing, on top of warm red rice and accompanied by fresh pineapple, avocado, cucumber, radish, green beans, crispy nori, gotukola slaw (gotukola is a local green similar to spinach), wasabi aioli and pickled ginger. (We do all our pickles and sauces in house too.)

“We use a local fish called Seer fish (also known as Spanish mackerel) for our tacos (Soft tortillas with the panko-crumbed seer fish, gotukola slaw, pickled onion, guacamole, radish, coriander, aioli and chilli flakes) and prawns for the Isso bowl (miso dressed mung bean noodles, pickled carrot, cucumber, gotukola slaw, radish, crispy nori, pickled ginger, wasabi aioli, roasted sesame seeds and the crispy chilli prawns, so yummy).”

Of course, it’s not perfect.

“It’s not all beautiful and lovely all the time,” she says. “I’ve had to grow a very good patience back bone in realising that nothing goes the way you want or need it to. It just becomes a part of life here. No water, no electricity, no gas, no avocados!!! These things happen regularly.”

The wife of one of the kitchen hands makes dosa for the restaurant, which Hays serves with poached eggs, smoked salmon, pickled beetroot, herbed buffalo curd cheese and radish.

But one thing remains constant for Hays: more adventure. She is leaving Salty Swami’s for a new post as the chef at Aloita Resort, a surfing lodge in the Mentawais in Indonesia.