Sri Lanka: platter up on the spice island

Dried red chilies are a signature ingredient of
Sri Lankan food.
 Photo: Kevin Clogstou

  

Not for the faint-hearted or the waistline obsessed, Sri
Lankan food is chili and spice-laden taste sensation and there is always
enough to feed a small army. Belinda Jackson goes to the front line to
taste the best of the best.

After a lifetime of putting (almost) everything in my mouth – dog,
toad, rotten fish and cheese so old it qualifies for the pension – Sri
Lanka, the game is on.

 Let’s not muck around, let’s go straight
to the source: Sri-Lankan born chef Peter Kuruvita is Australia’s go-to
man fzor everything edible on the Tasmania-sized island.

Kuruvita’s 
top suggestion is also possibly Sri Lanka’s top restaurant, the
officious-sounding Ministry of Crab (Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo).

It
was always going to be a hit with the locals: in cricket-mad Lanka, the
restaurant is owned by test cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar
Sangakkara, along with chef Dharshan Munidasa, Sri Lanka’s answer to Our
Tetsuya. The half-Sri Lankan, half-Japanese celebrity chef is also
owner of the polished benchmark of Japanese cuisine, Nihonbashi (1 Galle
Face Tce, Colombo).

A lone stilt fisherman, Sri lanka.
A lone stilt fisherman, Sri lanka.
 
Photo: Eye Ubiquitous

Ministry is set in the Old Dutch Hospital complex, which
should be the first stop on the first-time tourist’s list for its
excellent cafe and shopping scene, a hit with locals and out-of-towners
alike.
Thank goodness Kuruvita  advises  me to book ahead.
Midweek, and Ministry is pumping on the signature cocktail, Small Island
iced tea, made with Sri Lankan tea and Old Arrack, a traditional spirit
made from the sap of coconut palm flowers. The signature dish, chilli
crab, comes out in a flurry of waiter’s whites and torturous cutlery
while the open kitchen rattles and howls, with the occasional spurt of
naked flame.

Driving around the island, fruit stands offer an unashamed abundance including Sri Lanka’s 18 types of banana.

“I went to Singapore and I ate their chilli crab,” chef Dharshan
tells me. “But Singapore has no crab, no chilli and no pepper. It’s all
from Sri Lanka. So why do they think they own it?”

He’s a man on a mission to prove Sri Lanka has its own
cuisine. “We’re not sitting in a rice paddy, smashing spices with
rocks,” he says. “We’re as sophisticated as anyone else.”

Regardless,
if you asked any traveller for their take on the local food, the first
thing that comes to mind is also its most humble.

It’s the hopper.
A hand-sized crepe made with rice flour and coconut milk and cooked in a
cupped pan, we’re not talking haute cuisine here. String hoppers are
made with rice noodles that, despite all the gaps, are ideal for soaking
up curry sauces. Early in the morning, hopper stands line the roadsides
and laneways: little carts that fuel a nation for the day ahead.

“Ask for an egg hopper and seeni sambal,” Kuruvita has recommended.

The
first place I taste hoppers probably isn’t where Kuruvita had in mind.
Forget street sellers, I’m in Galle’s top digs, the Amangalla hotel.
Specifically, I’m in the pool and breakfast is being delivered to my
poolside ambalamba (cabana) early one fine morning. Three hoppers are
beautifully presented on  china, an egg baked into the well of the fine
crepe.

Red, yellow and green bananas hanging for sale at a market, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Red, yellow and green bananas hanging for
sale at a market, Kandy, Sri Lanka. 
Photo: iStock

There’s a pot of bright Sri Lankan tea and an array of
condiments including seeni sambal – a sweet onion and chilli relish –
and pol sambal, which Ministry chef Dharshan names his quintessential
Sri Lankan dish.

“Pol sambal’s not the most expensive, it’s not the most interesting, but it’s the most important on the table,” he says.

Pol
sambal is a dish of fresh grated coconut (pol means coconut in
Sinhalese) spiced with lime, red onion, cured tuna flakes and a
blistering amount of fresh chilli. The locals ladle chilli onto hoppers
for a morning eye-opener, at lunch as a pick-me-up then at dinner, as a
tasty side to round out their chilli intake for the day.

In
between, Sri Lankans are incorrigible snackers. If you find yourself in
someone’s house at 3.30pm, chances are you’re in time for tea and butter
cake, a super-simple Madeira-style cake that kicks the country over the
afternoon slump.

Otherwise, they’re queuing at their favourite short-eats
stand. Short eats are not for the weight conscious: savoury little
calorie bombs such as deep-fried fish rolls, sausage pastries, creamy
chicken pastries or spicy vege samosa. There’s fierce competition as to
the best short-eats shop on this island, the epi-centre appearing to be
in the Colombo 3 district, home to old-timer The Fab (474 Galle Rd),
upmarket contender Sponge (347 Galle Rd) and the undying institution
that is Green Cabin (453 Galle Rd).

If you’re leery of eating on
the street, follow the trail of foreigners to one of the many, many
branches of the 100-year-old Perera & Sons, who’ve lifted the game
with sparkling shops and, let’s be practical, nice loos (pereraandsons.com).
Trucking kids with you? While you’re in there, make like a local and
grab a pack of rulang cookies, crunchy semolina and coconut biscuits
spiced with cumin seeds as a good travel snack.

In this
neighbourhood, travelling and eating are indistinguishable: at the
Hatton train station, up in the tea-growing district, men lift baskets
of steaming wadi, fried savoury snacks with chilli chutney, up to my
window, hot, deep fried lentil patties wrapped in the leaves of a
child’s old schoolbook, soaking up the tasty oils.

Market vendors selling produce in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

Market vendors selling produce in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photo: PhuongPhoto

On the drive
from Galle to Yala National Park, we stop to photograph the famed stilt
fishermen of Tangalle Lake, where a retired fisherman sells us king
coconuts. He slices the top off with a machete and we sit beneath a
shade of woven leaves, drinking fresh coconut water while his sons
teeter on poles, one eye on the fish, one eye on our coin.

In
Tangalle, at the insanely luxurious Amanwella hotel, I dine on seafood
caught by local fishermen that morning. Move over, deep-fried seafood
basket, this is the real deal: prawns, mahi mahi, red mullet, seer fish
(Spanish mackerel) and calamari are served with steamed rice, mango and
papaya salad and gotukola salad.

“Gotukola makes you look younger
and helps you lose weight,” the waiter tells me helpfully. Bring me two,
please. So great are its claims, gotukola is known for its miracle
properties in the West and is also in Ayurvedic medicine, so I joyfully
wolf down the salad, which looks like chopped spinach, dressed with the
omnipresent chilli, coconut and fresh lime juice.
Amangalla breakfast with hoppers.

Amangalla breakfast with hoppers. Photo: Belinda Jackson

Driving around
the island, fruit stands offer an unashamed abundance including Sri
Lanka’s 18 types of banana, and tiny villages on the highways sell just
one food, be it Kadjugama (literally ‘cashew village’) on the
Colombo-Kandy road, Thihariya for mandarins the colour of a Buddhist
monk’s robes or buffalo curd (meekiri), served roadside in Andalla, deep
in the Southern Province, drizzled with kitul syrup, or palm-sugar
treacle. An ancient lady in a white chola, held together Liz-Hurley
style with three gigantic safety pins, carefully packs a traveller’s
picnic of curd, which is traditionally set in rough hand-thrown clay
pots that you smash back into the earth once finished. It’s a probiotic,
it’s a passive-aggression outlet.

Back in Colombo, it’s time to
try the famed black pork curry of the Gallery Cafe, contender to
Ministry of Crab for best restaurant (2 Alfred House Rd, Kollupitiya).
Cruising the menu, I’ve gone past the seer fish served with coconut
risotto, past the fish-head soup and even said no to the baked crab.

The
black pork dish is owner and entrepreneur Shanth Fernando’s baby. “I
taste it every morning,” he says, sipping espresso in his chic hotel,
Tintagel. “That’s why I’m the size I am.” He leans in to spill its
secrets: belly pork with fenugreek, curry leaves, bitter gourd, sweet
spices and the signature (chilli-free) black-roasted curry powder, which
adventurous traveller-cooks can buy at any supermarket. The curry is
served with another classic, brinjal pahl (eggplant relish), cucumber
raita and more gotukola sambal, presumably its anti-obesity properties
balancing the extravagance of the belly pork. It is divine, but also
calls for a nice lie-down afterwards.  Or maybe a tart, cleansing
cocktail. Either way, the Gallery Cafe will oblige.

Gallery Cafe.

Gallery Cafe. Photo: Belinda Jackson

Some of the
best food of this journey is served in the most unexpected location. In
the leopard-rich Yala National Park, the under-canvas kitchen of my
luxury Leopard Safari camp, fuelled only by solar energy, turns out
spectacular plantain curry and bitter gourd curry, tuned down to sate
the western palette, but not so much that it offends us: and
vegetarianism is easy in this isle.

Pre-dinner snacks are hot,
deep-fried leaves called elephant ears, tossed in salt and chilli
powder, and the all-male kitchen serves the  toddler on my hip gentle
baby potato curries, as well as two classic street foods, coconut roti
and her favourite, egg roti, the sweet coconut and egg cooked into rich,
buttery fried flatbread.

At the Kandy Muslim Hotel,
fierce-looking old men in white robes serenely serve us the staple meal
of kottu roti – chopped roti fried with strips of egg, cabbage, carrot
and whatever else comes to hand (70 Dalada Vidiya, Kandy) –  and I taste
the classic Dutch Burgher dish, lamprais, in a Colombo home kitchen,
from the generous hands of my Burgher friend Andrea.

The samba
rice and mixed meat curry are baked in a banana leaf with a prawn paste,
fried cutlet and eggplant in the mix. If you don’t have a Burgher chef
to hand, trust Colombo city guide yamu.com
and head to the colonial mansion that is the Dutch Burgher Union
(that’s DBU for those in the know) (114, Reid Avenue, Colombo 4).

“Everything
is called a curry, but not everything is pungent,” explains Andrea.
“And everything that floats in a gravy is curry.” She also notes that
Sri Lankan curries are quite dry, compared with their Indian
counterparts. “It preserves the fresh tastes, instead of drowning them,”
she adds, with a sly dig at her gargantuan neighbour.

I make the
rookie mistake of ordering ‘just a curry’ at boutique hotel The Wallawwa
and end up with a 10-plate extravaganza by the time all the
accompanying curries, sambals, salads, rice and deep-fried fillers are
laden on the table. Delicious, though slightly unfair to any dining
companions wishing to sit near me.

Asking around for the best meal
turns up some unlikely answers: “I’ve found chicken parts curry,”
confides a local artist. “It’s so good, I’ve had it twice in the past
two weeks.” I ask for the cafe’s address but he won’t tell me. “I’ve had
training,” he says delicately, then abandons all tact. “Pack the
Imodium! Hahahaha!”
 
It’s on the last day, just before we dash to
the airport, that my bubbly driver, the fabulously named Lucky
Lokubalasuriya, teaches me how to eat a classic lunch packet of curry
and rice – perhaps the Sri Lankan equivalent of a sandwich. I buy a
couple of packets from a man on the street and we sit in the back of our
van. Unwrapping the decorative newspaper reveals a train smash of rice,
chicken curry, dhal, deep-fried crisps and a few blackened chillis that
I don’t believe are just a garnish. There’s no cutlery, just a handful
of serviettes.

After a fortnight of fending off Western wannabe
cafes (what’s with the bruschetta obsession?) and toned-down cuisine,
this is the real deal. The packet packs a punch of big spices, hot oil,
curry leaves and a hellish amount of chilli. My nose runs, my ears roar
and I admit defeat. Respect for the spice island.

TRIP NOTES
MORE INFORMATION srilanka.travel
GETTING THERE There
are no direct flights between Australia and Sri Lanka. The best
connections are with Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Thai
Airways.
GETTING AROUND Banyan Tours runs five-night tours including private car, guide and accommodation, from $3500 for two people, banyanlanka.com.
STAYING THERE For luxe hotels, stay at Amangalla, Galle or Amanwella, Tangalle (from $585, amanresorts.com), opt for boutique hotels Maya Villa or The Wallawwa (from $205, mrandmrssmith.com)
or go budget at the Olde Empire Hotel, with an extra-early wake-up call
from the nearby Temple of Lord Buddha’s Tooth (from $20, oldeempirehotel.com).The sustainably-run Leopard Safari costs from $380 a night, all-inclusive, leopardsafaris.com.

The writer was a guest of Banyan Tours Lanka (banyanlanka.com), Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel) and Mr & Mrs Smith hotels (mrandmrssmith.com)

This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper’s Traveller section.

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