My first encounter with Sri Lankan cuisine was interesting, to say the least.
My partner and I had just arrived at a heritage bungalow, high in Sri Lanka’s up country, for a couple of nights of R&R before embarking on a Real Food Adventure with Intrepid Travel.
We were welcomed by the manager, who immediately offered us afternoon tea. As someone who is constantly hungry (I plan most of my daily activities around what time I’m likely to get peckish), I most certainly accepted his offer. After enjoying many a Sri Lankan meal with a friend’s family back home, my mouth was watering at the prospect of sitting down to the real deal.
I squinted as he approached, carrying a three-tiered silver tray and a pot of tea across the lawn; what was that white fluffy-looking delicacy on the bottom layer of the tray? Were they ‘short eats’, Sri Lanka’s version of finger food that I’d heard so much about? I hoped so. Hang on. Was that… a pile of chocolate chip cookies on the top?
As the tray was set on the table and the tea poured, the contents of our afternoon snack suddenly became clear. I was right about the cookies. But the buns? They were mini hamburger rolls, stuffed with raw spring onion, a slice of tomato and generously drizzled with ketchup. This was not the Sri Lankan cuisine I was anticipating.
Dinner was a similar affair. Mac and cheese, with undertones of mayonnaise; an odd baked vegetable dish, cooked in the same cheesey, eggy sauce; and a loaf of white supermarket bread. Hmm.
Our plates were cleared and our host asked what we’d like to eat the following day. Pasta? Burgers? Nachos? If we’d been characters in a cartoon, steam would have shot out of my ears and my eyes would have turned into spinning black spirals of crazy.
“We’d actually really like to eat what you eat,” I said, swatting an animated bluebird away from my face.
“Curry?” he replied, as though this was the most ridiculous request he’d ever received. “Dhal? And roti??”
I nodded vigorously.
“Well, what about breakfast? Bacon and eggs… or hoppers?” It was almost a test.
“Hoppers! Yes!!” we both exclaimed, with glee.
Early the next morning, out it all came. Two egg hoppers – crisp, bowl-shaped pancakes with an egg cradled in the bottom – and a tray of small dishes filled with curries, sauces and chutneys; fish curry, chicken curry, a fragrant dhal; a sticky dark eggplant pickle, flavoured with vinegar, cloves and chilli; coconut sambal, and more. Sipping freshly brewed tea and spooning more and more of the flavoursome treats atop the egg, we smiled at each other like Lady and the Tramp over a plate of spaghetti. This was more like it.
After a bumpy start, we finally joined up with our Intrepid Travel food tour and became, well, hooked. In the van on the road to Dambulla we snacked on savoury pan rolls, a thin pancake rolled around minced vegetables, fish and spices, then deep fried – Sri Lanka’s answer to a Chinese egg roll – as the busy streets of Negombo gave way to fragrant cinnamon groves, swaying palms, and emerald green fields.
In Kandy, we worked up a serious appetite wandering around the Temple of the Tooth – where Buddha’s sacred molar is housed in a gold case – exploring a local spice garden, and visiting a family for a cooking class, where we learned the delicious art of making string hoppers, chicken curry, the perfect yellow dhal and kokis, a crispy sweet biscuit made from rice flour and coconut milk. That night our group enjoyed a dinner of pumpkin and fenugreek curry, served alongside rice and fresh-cooked coconut roti.
In Mirissa, our guide took us to the beach, where we watched fishermen perched on stilts in the ocean, ready to haul in their catch of the day. Afterwards, at another hands-on cooking demonstration, we cracked the claws of enormous mud crabs, which had been simmering in fennel seeds, fresh chilli, turmeric, tamarind and coconut milk. Lip-smackingly good!
Breakfast each day was a relative palate cleanser of sweet tropical fruits and coconut water, but only when we could resist the allure of the aforementioned egg hopper, which was rare. And, of course, tea – served with every meal.
Sri Lankan food is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it for the picky eater. Fiery curries laden with chilli will put hairs on the chests of all who go back for seconds; deep-fried fritters (called vadai) seasoned with fragrant spices must be consumed with an icy Kingfisher beer (preferably on a beach under a palm tree outside Galle fort). Kotthu roti, a chopped concoction of fried roti bread, vegetables, meat and egg, is best enjoyed while ambling through Colombo’s busy streets (it’s not known as Sri Lanka’s favourite street food for nothing). Lovers of spice, seafood and coconut will adore this diverse, and delicious, island nation. And if anyone tries to offer you nachos, just ask for short eats instead.
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