The author on how she grew to love Sri Lankan cuisine.
Standing at the junction in Pettah, I let my nose guide me forward. Past the hot fragrance of dried red chillies heaped in their gunny sacks, past the subtler, earthy scent from the stores where rice merchants weigh their produce and the shops of the spice sellers where the aroma of cinnamon, clove and pepper mingle. I keep going until I turn into a street where a cloud of fishy smells envelops me.
Liberally salted and dried in the sun, the Sri Lankan speciality is sold here in one tiny shop after the other. There are delicate golden whorls of dried prawns, the deep purple of dehydrated squid, the dull silver of slender sprats. Here in the heart of old Colombo, they are bought and sold in huge quantities, for Sri Lankans love their dried fish. However, for a visitor it can be, let us be frank, something of an acquired taste.
It certainly was for me, when I came to live in Sri Lanka years ago. At the time, each meal felt like a betrayal. I would look at the rice and curry in front of me and expect to taste the familiar flavours of India. The dal was thick and pasty, the dark curries with liberal amounts of red chilli powder burned in my mouth and some vegetables tasted inexplicably fishy — which I discovered came from invisible slivers of cured tuna.
Over time, though, I have become addicted to it all. I can scarf down kiribath with ambul thiyal first thing in the morning — the combination of creamy chunks of milk rice perfectly in harmony with dark, sour tamarind-infused fish. I like to taste the pungent umbalakada in my coconut sambol when I eat it with parippu and springy slices of paan (local bakery bread). At my favourite kade, the fish curry is made in a chattie or clay pot and tastes all the better for it.
Any Sri Lankan gourmand worth her salt knows her kades and today I’m in Pettah hunting for a particularly well-known one that serves a local favourite — Jaffna crab curry. In the company of Mark Forbes (whose Colombo City Walks follow this route), we walk into the Jeyashiri Café on Shri Kathireshan Street. As he dishes out a hearty serving of crab onto a banana leaf, Jaffna native Sivenasan tells us it’s a good thing we’re here early because by 1.00 p.m. the place will be packed. He runs the store with a team of cooks from the north of the island and shops in the local Pettah market. His spicy, delicious crab costs Rs.250 LKR a plate.
Little eateries like this open for three meals a day — going from kiribath to rice and curry and on to hoppers and string hoppers for dinner. They’re also heavily influenced by regional specialities. They cater to the tastes of Sri Lanka’s different communities with Tamil, Sinhalese or Muslim cooks. (Till date, a little hole in the wall named Yarl Hotel draws foodies, intent on tasting the dish Rick Stein dubbed the best crab he’s ever eaten.)
Kumar Sangakkara, the Sri Lankan cricket team’s former captain and new restaurateur, seems to agree. Talking about how the best of Sri Lankan cooking showcases instead of overwhelms its ingredients, he says he loves the diversity this little island boasts: “Cooking from region to region differs from the South to the North, and you can eat the same kind of seafood prepared in different ways with a lot of ingredients in common but combined so that it has subtle differences in taste.”
Kumar is behind one of Colombo’s hottest new restaurants, which he runs in a three-way partnership with culinary celebrity Darshan Munidasa and his dear friend and fellow teammate Mahela Jayawardene. When it first opened for business, the Ministry of Crab did so with a bang. The media’s questions of whether a non-government institution could call itself a ministry were eclipsed by the sheer size of the lagoon crabs served here (the largest weigh in at over 2 kg) and the promise that you might look up from your plate to find two cricketing legends beside your table.
In different ways, both Jeyashiri Café and Ministry of Crab offer uniquely Sri Lankan seafood experiences, but one of my favourites is another 10 minutes away at Galle Face where the ocean draws hundreds every day. Little food carts here sell isso wades — flat spheres topped with whole prawns and tiny crabs. They’re deep-fried, stored in questionable conditions, topped with dubious mounds of onions and require that you be comfortable eating eyeballs — but they’re also delicious. Eating one piping hot, looking out to sea, is its own kind of bliss.