My first encounter with Sri Lankan food took place several decades ago during a freezing winter in Prague, at a time when Czechoslovakia was under the iron fist of the Soviet Union and the only fresh foods to be had from October to March were bread, mouldy potatoes, sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and disgustingly fatty pork. One morning, I met a Sri Lankan lady at our neighbourhood grocery.
As we surveyed the empty shelves together, Mrs Irene Wanigaratne said briskly, “Now, dear, no use grumbling. You come along home with me. I’ll give you a bottle of my sambol, just sprinkle it over whatever you’re eating and it’ll be delicious.” Mrs Wanigaratne’ssambol, a fiery mix of dessicated coconut, chilly powder and dried fish, certainly livened up our stodgy potato-cabbage-pork meals right through that long and gloomy Prague winter.
Memories of the kindly Mrs Wanigaratne’s life-saving sambol came flooding back as I landed in Colombo. “Ah yes, sambol — that’s something introduced into our cuisine by the Malays, you know,” said a knowledgeable local whose advice I sought on planning our culinary exploration of his city. Ask any Colombofoodie about Sri Lankan cuisine and you’re likely to get a history lesson — about early immigrants from Bengal and Bihar; Tamil invaders during the Chola period; princesses from Kerala who came as brides for the Kandy royal family; Arab and Malay traders; Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisers, all of whom have left their lasting legacy in the incredibly varied cuisine of this small country.
You get an idea of that multi-layered complexity, and of the rich variety of Sri Lanka’s natural produce, at Colombo’s two big food markets. At six in the morning, we head to Manning Market, the wholesale bazaar next to Fort Railway Station in central Colombo. Even at that early hour, it’s a scene of frenzied activity, as trucks unload sacks of bananas, pineapples, avocados, shallots, pea-sized aubergines, and bunches of leafy greens and herbs that we can’t identify. Huge heaps of red, hairy-skinned rambutans are piled near the market gates; this delicious lychee-like fruit, was also brought to Sri Lanka by the Malays. In a few weeks, the rambutan vendor tells us, the even more ambrosial mangosteen (introduced by the Dutch from their colonies in Southeast Asia) will also be in season. In another corner are little green veralo — an olive variety introduced by the Portuguese, which Sri Lankans eat raw, sprinkled with salt and chilly. Then there are baskets of red banana flower and blocks of palm jaggery. My colleague thought there might be a Bengali influence here. The dried fish stalls are piled high with tiny shrimps, sprats and large chunks of tuna (locally known as Maldives fish), all of which go into flavouring sambols as well as curries.
Manning Market winds up by 8am, and we head next to the chaotic Pettah bazaar district, a Tamil and Muslim-dominated neighbourhood, where the main fish market and warehouses for Sri Lanka’s fabled spices — cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves — nestle in the shadow of the grand colonial-era Old Town Hall. Around us, food carts dispense curry puffs (that’s what samosas are called in Colombo), maas-pan (meat curry baked inside a bun), glasses of kanji (a hot, sweet, sago and milk drink) and the wonderfully refreshing thambili, the water of the giant orange king coconut. Pettah has plenty of pure-veg South Indian restaurants serving dosa, idli, vada, sambar — pretty much identical to what you’d get at a Madras Hotel or an Udipi anywhere in India. But JaffnaTamil cuisine, with many non-vegetarian dishes, is quite different, says writer Richard Simon whose knowledge of Sri Lankan food is encyclopaedic. “The best way to sample it, if you can swing it, is to get yourself invited to a meal with a family with roots in the Jaffna peninsula,” he advises.
Serendipity leads us to the Palmyrah Restaurant (www.renukahotel.com) on Galle Road in Colombo’s busy Kollupitiya district We arrive to find the wife and two daughters of the restaurant’s owner, Ravi Thambiayah, busy supervising preparations for lunch. “We’re a very hands-on family,” smiles Mrs NimmiThambiayah; “I’m just making sure the prawns are not those rubbery ones from prawn farms.” The Thambiayahs turn out to be a family with deep roots in Jaffna and take particular pride in the dishes of their home province. “What we serve here are our family recipes. Ravi’s father was the MP from Jaffna and he kept a famous table. He used to give grand sit-down dinners for 100 people,” reminisces the elegant Nimmi. And when they opened the restaurant in Colombo, she continues, they brought the family cooks, well trained by Ravi’s three aunts who ruled the kitchen in the family home in Jaffna’s Kayts Island. Murals of scenes from Jaffna life line the walls of the restaurant — images of pastoral serenity, before more than two decades of war ravaged the area.
With quiet efficiency, Nimmi, Shibani and ArnilaThambiayah conjure up a lavish JaffnaTamil spread for us, and make us feel like pampered family guests. With distinctive flavours, contrasting textures, and the fresh taste and light touch of home-cooked food, it adds up to a memorably delicious meal. We start with odiyalkool (SL Rs 350), a delicately spiced soup of fresh fish and mixed vegetables. It’s followed by succulent whole soft-shell crab curry (SL Rs 950); three kinds of hoppers (hoppers are like appams, but thinner and crisper than the Kerala ones, about SL Rs 50 each); a meltingly tender mutton poriyal bursting with flavour (SL Rs 800); issotheldala (stir-fried prawns, SL Rs 700); kana vaipirettal (calamari sautéed with shallots and chillies — SL Rs 550); and pittu, coarsely ground red rice and grated coconut steamed inside a hollowed-out bamboo stem, perfect for soaking up all the fragrant gravies (SL Rs 170). The sambols to accompany the main dishes are so ferociously hot, they give a new twist to my school geography book description of Sri Lanka as a “teardrop off the face of India”. We end with a soothing wattalapan (SL Rs 260) — a superior kind of caramel custard made of eggs, palm jaggery syrup, and coconut milk infused with cinnamon and cardamom. Like sambol, this too is a dish of Malay origin.
That evening, we head to Galle Face Green in the heart of Colombo, to take in the city’s street food scene. Now that the war with the LTTE is over, the security barricades that had cordoned off this magnificent ocean-front promenade for years are gone, and the crowds and food stalls are back. Colombo street food’s USP has to be the isso wade (SL Rs 20 per piece), a scrumptiously addictive daalvada topped with crunchy whole shrimp or a small crab, quickly fried and served topped with green chilly, onion and a dash of vinegar. Resist the temptation to make an entire meal of isso wade because a bit further down the beach, there are three food stalls bearing the name ‘Nana’, where whole marinated fish is being grilled, along with chunks of mutton and chicken. The one-legged Nana was a famous Colombo character (he died recently) and he was also famous for his kottu-rotty, a speciality of Colombo’s Muslim community. If you hear what seems to be a frenetic metallic percussion performance anywhere in Colombo, it’s a kottu-rotty being made — a giant paratha which is simultaneously chopped and fried with two huge cleavers on an iron tawa, along with bits of grilled meat or chicken and vegetables. (Another favourite kottu-rotty place in Colombo is Pilawoos (417, Galle Road).
The next day we check out The Gallery Café (www.paradiseroadsl.com) on Alfred House Road in the upmarket Bambalapitiya district, reputed to be Colombo’s most stylish eatery and where the city’s beautiful people hang out. Set around a lotus pool and a tree-shaded courtyard, it occupies what was once the office of famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. As Peter and I dither over the menu, a gentleman lunching at the next table with three glamorous women booms at us: “You want to try typically Sri Lankan food? Then allow me to order lunch for you.” He dismisses our protests (“This not Delhi or Gurgaon, in Colombo we know how to relax and enjoy our food”) and tells the waiter to bring us black pork curry with brinjalpahi (SL Rs 895), prawn curry with kankung (SL Rs 1,265), both accompanied by rice and a variety of sambols. For dessert, he orders jaggery crème brûlée and jaggery sundae (SL Rs 575 each). The pork is robustly flavoured with cinnamon, clove, cardamom and tamarind; the brinjal is deliciously caramelised; the prawns in a thin and fragrant coconut milk gravy are impeccably fresh; and the kankung is an unfamiliar but delicious stir-fried leafy green vegetable; it’s actually a weed that grows in paddy fields and is relished all over Southeast Asia. Both the desserts — silken-smooth and with the intensely fudgy flavour of kitul palm jaggery — are sheer ambrosia. Our benefactor now hands us his card. He is Mr Shanth Fernando, owner of the Gallery Café . He urges us to come back for the restaurant’s famous ‘Sri Lankan Sunday Lunch’, which features these and many more dishes (all for SL Rs 1,395).
Just round the corner from the Gallery Café is another Colombo institution, the Cricket Club Café (thecricketclubcafeceylon.com), in an elegant white colonial bungalow, its walls covered with cricket memorabilia and its menu featuring items like Sachin’s Sausages, Murali’s Mulligatawny, Bedi’s Brownies and Jayasuriya’s Triple Century. It must have been the scene of much hearty revelry when Murali got his 800th wicket. The food is said to be good, but we didn’t try it. Instead, we went for a cup of tea at the very grand Mount Lavinia Hotel (10km south of the city centre; www.mountlaviniahotel.com, www.mountlaviniahotel.com). The ocean-facing terrace of this former British governor’s palace, perched on a promontory jutting into the Indian Ocean, must be the most romantic place in Colombo for a meal (if you can afford it), with magical sunset views, the sea-spray on your face and waves crashing below your feet.
On our last day in Colombo, we go in search of lampreis, which translates literally (and unappetisingly) as ‘lump rice’, a speciality of Sri Lanka’s Dutch Burgher community, but now a universally popular lunch-time favourite, which sells out quickly. We finally track it down at Vilasa Kitchen in the Food Court of Majestic City Mall (Galle Road, Bambalapitiya), and very tasty it is too — rice cooked in stock, topped with a dollop of fish or chicken curry and a sambol on the side, the whole wrapped in a banana leaf and baked (SL Rs 250). Lampreis is a more refined version of the lunch packets of rice, curry, dal and sambol, packed in a cardboard mithai box and sold all over the city at lunchtime.
Our final destination is Beach Wadiya, the legendary seafood restaurant in a Tamil-dominated suburb (2, Station Avenue, Wellawatta). It’s an unpretentious place with plastic chairs and coconut frond-thatched roof. The small indoor dining room is covered with photographs of the great, the good and the famous who have eaten there and loved it — from Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Asha Bhosle to Princess Anne and Richard Branson. You don’t get a menu; you’re just shown a platter of the day’s best catch to choose from and asked whether you want it grilled, baked or curried. We sit at an outdoor table on the sands, 50 metres from the sea, and eat fresh-from-the-sea giant devilled prawns (SL Rs 52) and the best crab curry in the world (SL Rs 825), seasoned with the fragrant spiky rampe leaf and served with rice and kankung.
OlwynWeerasekera, who looks like a gentle, ascetic monk, opened Beach Wadiya 36 years ago. And every single day since then, Olwyn tells us, he has seen it as his Buddhist duty to ensure that each and every customer leaves happy. Olwyn looks on proudly as we leaf through the comments in his guest books: “The Gods showed us the way to Beach Wadiya,” writes one ecstatic diner. “Never have fish lived and died to greater effect,” writes another. A final comment catches our eye: “Beach Wadiya gives you the best of Sri Lanka: great seafood, great spices, majestic ocean, without unnecessary frills.” We’ll say Amen to that.