A delicately seasoned dish suddenly turns savoury and a totally spiceless one becomes a festive essential in Sri Lankan cuisine.
I’d heard that Sri Lankan food was a cross between that of our South, and of South East Asia; that ingredients, processes and spices (pepper, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric) were like ours. But that a twist of freshness came from a slightly different store of aromatics like lemon grass and pandanus. So choosing it as a holiday destination was easy, especially given the grey grimness that is Delhi in January.
It’s unfair on a cuisine to have to confine comment to 900 words, so for now I’ll focus on highlights of meals — curries, vegetables, rice and hoppers. I ate in Colombo, Bentota and Galle, with a few pit stops, but still just the southwest coast. I’m told that the north has a slightly different cooking style, as does Kandy in the centre. Where we went, though, the cuisine was a celebration of rice, seafood, coconuts and other fruit.
The first sign that the food was going to be a delight was at the Galle Face hotel in Colombo. Its beautiful location apart, the breakfast buffet was worth the stay. There were the expected — Continental and English breakfasts — but there were the local: hoppers (from appam… appa), string hoppers; and puttu (or pittu), the steamed cylinder of ground rice and coconut eaten with curries or palm sugar and sambol, a chutney-like accompaniment. Appams in India are round pancakes, thick and spongy in the centre and delicately lacy at the edges, with a golden rice-white inner side and a golden-edging-on-brown underside. In Sri Lanka they were less aerated, so less porous, and crisper and thinner. The hopper cook at the Club Bentota said that, unlike in Kerala, they didn’t use toddy or yeast to leaven the batter; it was rice, coconut water, coconut cream and what she called “hopper soda”. So that first breakfast at the Galle Face I had first some of a plain hopper, then some with prawn curry and finally an egg hopper. The egg yolk was orange, nestling prettily in the base of the hopper, and after a couple of mouthfuls I ladled some prawn curry on to the smashed yolk and that was paradise. The prawn curry was a pale golden orange, with flecks of red chilli and sweet with coconut milk, fresh pink succulent prawns and some green stuff. The spices were delicate and not totally familiar: pandan leaves, what in Sri Lanka they call rampe (it amazes me that the flower of pandanus, screwpine, gives us the completely different smelling kewra).
The next good meal was at the universally recommended Raja Bhojun, an all-you-can-eat restaurant nearby. Most memorable was the crab, in a hot, generously peppered curry flavoured with curry leaves. There were about 20 other dishes, thick dal, vegetables and “devilled chicken”, which we then went on to eat again at Bentota. Pork, beef, chicken are all “devilled” and very popular. To me they were like a cheap Chinese “chilli chicken sweet-and-sour”, fried bites of meat with crunchy onions, tomatoes and capsicum, coated with tomato ketchup. Forgettable. The interesting dishes, which Chef Priyal cooked, were mallum, a sautéed mix of finely chopped vegetables cooked with grated coconut; curries of prawn and pineapple. There are broadly two spice powders which are made — or bought — and stored: one for vegetarian, and the other for meat dishes.
One completely spiceless dish I loved was a festive essential, kiri bath, milk rice. The milk isn’t dairy, it’s coconut. Soft, almost mashed white rice, barely salted, is cooked with coconut milk and set into soft squares. Chef Priyal suggested I eat it with lunu miris, a spicy sambol, which I did, but in the end I ate it with marmalade. It’s so delicately seasoned that you can barely tell it’s savoury, but with honey or marmalade, the salt and sugar sharpen and define each other.
On our last evening in Sri Lanka we made a discovery, inadvertently, of something we were not in quest of, good Sri Lankan curry. I’ve been trying my best to avoid cliché and not use the word s*r*nd*p*ty. So, although we all know of the three princes of S*r*nd*p, the old name for Sri Lanka, I won’t. By then we were done with curries, but since we were leaving the next day….
In the charming little township that is Fort Galle, there are several cafés and bistros serving Western food. And several who make Sinhalese curries and “Indian buriyani”. This one, Fort Dew, faced the ramparts of the fort, and had a fresh breeze coming in from the water beyond. We ordered two dishes: rice and curry and chicken and rice and curry and prawns. Curry meant many, many vegetable add-ons, so rice, chicken (or prawn) curry, dal, four veggies, papad. The chicken curry was fragrant with garam masala, in shiny orange gravy. Tender green beans were cut long, about two inches, in a mild pale creamy sauce. Carrots, cut into small diamonds, were yellow and coconutty. Potatoes in white gravy which smelt of fenugreek seeds, dry potatoes with browned caramelised onions and curry leaf. Prawns in spicy reddish chopped onion gravy. Chana dal fragrant with cinnamon, garlic and ginger, tempered with dry red chillies. Crisp brown papads. Freshly cut green lime and long green chillies on the side. Each thing we ate tasted different from the other and was Best in Class. When we’d placed our order, we were told that it would take 40 minutes. Obviously everything was cooked fresh. We left wishing we had happened on this place sooner.