Eating Sri Lanka (2)

Sri Lankan cuisine became one of my favourite foods ever since first visiting in 2007; I ate very well this time round too.

First I should mention the marvellous creation known as egg appa or hopper – hopper being the lazy English approximation of appa by a lazy Englishman many years ago – which was cooked before my eyes for breakfast, with plenty of black pepper and cheese.  Moving the hopper to get a better photo I broke off part of the rim, which should give you some idea of how delicate and crispy these things are out on the edges, although they are wonderfully spongy and delicate at the bottom, mixed with the egg:

I gather the traditional condiment for these is seeni sambol, a spiced caramelised onion relish (at bottom of the photo) and I helped the hopper along with a banana and some steamed sweet thing.  The whole was washed down with fresh juice – always a great variety on offer, sometimes pineapple or woodapple, or mango – and of course a great pot of delicious Sri Lankan tea, which seemed to go down well no matter how hot the weather.  For me the antithesis of breakfast is the sordid thing served up on the Continent: horrid little cold breads and contemptible little cold meats and cheeses, with nary an egg or sausage in sight, yet thankfully in Sri Lanka there is no danger of such a hideous affront, with a wide variety of most excellent things on offer to the serious breakfaster.  If one tires of the egg hopper there is always its cousin string hoppers, white or red, which seemed to come with traditional thin fish curry, dal and a variety of relishes; it is the kind of breakfast I should like to eat before being executed:


Clockwise, from top: thin rotti flatbread, pol sambol (coconut and chilli relish), katta sambol (chilli and dried Maldives fish relish), coconut and green chilli chutney, sambaru, chicken curry, fish ditto, and string hoppers.  A cool salted lassi will take the edge off the fish curry and the chilli chutneys; even for a chilli fiend like me they came with a sting in the tail.  For those of a less adventurous palate the great numbers of European tourists, especially British and German, to Sri Lanka over the years has meant local cooks will make you a perfect omelette or eggs and bacon without thinking about it, although I would recommend any first-time visitor to try the egg hopper at least, if you have bothered to make the trip as far as Sri Lanka from ones native heath.  If you stay in a hotel in Negombo chances are your dining room will open out onto the sandy beach and Laccadive Sea beyond, a wonderful sight to digest your breakfast over.

As Obelix says, breakfast is the most important meal of the day followed closely by lunch then supper.  The traditional Sri Lankan lunch dish appears to be “rice and curry”, a somewhat uninspiring name but a whole meal in itself and what seems to me to be a national dish.  I ate some fine examples in Kandy in 2007 but this time, in Dambulla, I ate even better.  I asked for simply “Rice and curry, beef” and the waiter gave me a knowing look; after sending down a few EGB ginger beers whilst we waited, the rice and curry arrived: indeed, a great platter of rice and no fewer than nine bowls of food appeared, seven of curry and one each of deep-fried papad and mango chutney.

Dambulla rice and curry, clockwise from top: beetroot curry, green salad, pumpkin curry, dal, beef curry, okra curry, green bean and coconut curry.  Like south India, rice rather than wheat is the staple, and if you order rice in Sri Lanka you will get it, in abundance.  This was a portion for two people complete with a giant scoop, and the waiter offered to bring more when we finally finished it:

Honourable mention should be given to the dish called kiribath, which is rice cooked in coconut milk.  It forms almost a kind of cake and can be either sweet or savoury.  In the latter form it was surprisingly good with a chicken curry and dal.  Anyway, a great way to complement lunch is with the juice drawn from a thambli cocoa-nut – the Elvis of the Arecaceae as it were, as it is described in English menus as “King Coconut” – and despite not being refrigerated nor spectacular in appearance, goes down surprisingly well and is a great pick-me-up in the heat of the Sri Lankan day.  Another way to refresh oneself is with lime juice & soda water, touched up with kala namak and a little jaggery; I believe I have prated before on my blog about South Asian limes but I can never do them enough justice.  This trip was no exception, and it was with great pleasure to drink off a cold nimbu pani, like meeting an old friend again.

The procession of Europeans: Portuguese, turned out of Sri Lanka by the Dutch, who were in turn kicked out by the British in 1796, has left a culture of baking Western-style breads and you will not want for sliced white or wholemeal bread, European sweet things or even indeed croissants or brioche.  Sri Lanka is also a major tuna fishery and one day I had the fortune of eating a “tuna sandwich” – seasoned with just salt and pepper and a local chilli relish, it was amazing.  Ate in an airy courtyard away from the noise of the street, and washed down with a cool lime juice, it made one of the best lunches I ate in Colombo:

With the sun past the yard there is a great variety of alcoholic drinks on offer.  There seemed to be two main local brews of beer: Lion and Three Coins.  There is also Carlsberg which may be imported or brewed under license.  Three Coins proudly states on the can it is brewed by a 100% Sri Lankan-owned company.  Like certain states in India, outside a restaurant/hotel setting booze is sold only in special government-licensed shops, which in Sri Lanka seem to always have metal-barred windows like a gaol and a few bleary-eyed, sarong-clad old men in various states of prostration, outside.

If you happen to be in Sri Lanka during a full moon, you will struggle to find alcohol on sale anywhere – it is a monthly Buddhist holiday called poya and many other businesses are closed too.  On a poya day you will not be able to splice the mainbrace, tap the Admiral, nor wet one’s whistle, although the law makes an exception for tourists who discreetly drink in their hotel room from the mini-bar or room service.  However, on a short ride through town on a three-wheeler on poya day you can generally spot a number of local men who have managed to circumvent the local laws and customs, and appear to be particularly well-refreshed by the roadside.  Fortunately there was international cricket on the television and supplies of manioc crisps and fresh fruit to go with my beer, drunk furtively indoors.

Thirsty visitors to Sri Lanka will also no doubt become acquainted with the infamous arrack, a local spirit distilled from coconut toddy that packs a hefty punch.  In the Age of Sail, Royal Navy ships on the East Indies station would serve their ration of grog made with arrack instead of rum, a quarter-pint of the stuff mixed with water and lime juice at twice a day; after drinking arrack myself I wonder how on earth those ships ever had enough hands sober enough to win their anchors to leave the Hooghly, let alone make the passage to the Cape or Port Jackson, or blast the French out of the Mascarenes.  Clearly men had stronger heads for drink in those days.  Today in Sri Lanka usually arrack is served with ginger beer or cola drink, with or without ice, and is a passable if somewhat sweet drink and it gets you there pretty quickly, but I would not recommend consuming a great deal of it if you have matters to attend to the following day.

Anyway, in summary, I ate very well in Sri Lanka and although I didn’t get to sample the whole spectrum of Sri Lankan food, I did not tire of what I did eat.  With its varied history and mixture of different religions Sri Lankan food has a great variety of meat, fish and seafood and vegetarian dishes and (excepting poya days) alcohol is available in its various forms for the thirsty.  The whole is made so much more enjoyable by the hospitality and friendliness of the Sri Lankan people – something remarked on even by Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta – and most travellers will leave with a sense of wanting to return in the future; I certainly do.


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