There’s a building on the corner next to the market. It’s the same colour as the sea just past a reef in the Maldives. A fresh, colour, both cool and deliciously warm at the same time. But it’s cracked in places, slabs of render have fallen off revealing the ruddy brick underneath. It’s like an incomplete puzzle. Black mould has sprouted in parts, particularly where turquoise meets russet. It follows the cracks in earnest, probably trying to dislodge another chunk. It’s the most prominent building in the market, and yet nobody’s fixed it.
They seem to enjoy its contrast, it’s ruin, like Miss Havisham did in Great Expectations.The market itself is also a contrast of colours, fresh versus ancient, wet and dry, pretty or pretty disturbing. Bananas are happy golden rainbows strung to the rafters. Game fish lie open and oozing their life juices onto boards criss-crossed with the machete marks of twenty years of fishmongery. Buddhist monks amble in irridescent orange, offering a smile and an opportunity for good karma. Houseboys jostle and shove, squeeze the best fruit and push in line ahead of tiny maids. Vendors jabber at customers and each other in a rolling rhythmic voice that is Sinhalese, battling with the volume of other conversations, braking trucks, tinging bells of bicicles and the incessent horns of rabid tuktuks swerving around the central roundabout.
In this, I was supposed to find Christmas dinner for 14. No turkeys or potatoes in sight – just a selection of unknown fish, obscure leaves and vegetables and the tiniest chickens I’ve ever seen, complete with their knobbly little yellow feet. I know I’d said that this holiday was going to be about escaping Christmas (bah humbug), but bumping into very old friends in the waves the previous day had changed all that. I suppose there is something in this whole theory of Christmas Spirit after all, because something took hold of my senses when at 11pm on Christmas eve I asked them and the two other families they were travelling with over for dinner the next day.
So – the biggest feast of the year, and I am presented with a supply place of such utter contrast and bafflement, I can’t even tell a fruit from a vegetable.I’ve given you plenty of options for dining out in my two previous posts (one and two), but what are you going to eat once you get there? I was fortunate enough to have a little research behind me – four years of living with Mary (our Sri Lankan maid and an excellent cook), previous trips to Lanka, and the wonderful Sonya, the cook who came with our villa, who was prepared to help me out with the shopping. But for anyone who doesn’t have these helpers, I’ve included a list of the food to watch out for – both on the street, and at restaurants.
- Considered the greatest of the Sri Lankan fish is Seer Fish, a spotted mammoth also known as Indo-Pacific King Mackerel. If you go game fishing, this is the one you want. The texture is somewhat similar to kingfish or gummy shark. It’s white fleshed, meaty, rich and if cooked incorrectly dries out horribly, much like tuna can. It will be served either in a fillet or a cutlet. The fishmonger will try and cut it in a cutlet, so make sure you specify. It’s expensive compared to other fish, even at the market. The flavour is quite rich, and so despite its ability to hold together nicely, you would be more likely to find it grilled or baked in restaurants rather than served in a curry sauce.
- If you prefer a milder fish, try snapper or para – white fleshed, sweet, small and mild. Stunning when grilled whole in spices.
- Dried fish is very common, and can’t be missed, although it does sometimes take a little getting used to. There are the local varieties like kattawa, which you may see drying on rushes by the sides of the roads further south. But the locals are all mad on Maldivian fish – a cured tuna you will find in many curries and sambals (my favourite, Katta Sambal) that has a taste less fishy, and more sea-like.
- Fish cutlets are not actually cutlets but fish cakes. If you see them on a menu, grab them. They will be spicy, salty, crumbed and crispy. Lovely with lime and extra chilli.
- Lobster is fairly widely available, delicious, but not cheap. Rock lobster (also known as spiny lobster) is a clawless variety though, meaning you get more tail meat for your rupees when buying it whole by the kilo. It is over-fished in the region, so double-think your purchase – celebrations only. You’ll usually find it served fairly plainly – it’s super when grilled with curry leaves and garlic. You will also see the odd lobster thermidor or curry.
- Prawns and shrimp are available all over. Usually tiger prawns, varying from giants to sweet blue banana prawns (or indian shrimp), and you’ll even find tiny dried shrimp flavouring many dishes. Most are farmed just north of Colombo or on the East coast at Batticaloa. Best way to eat them on the south coast is devilled – flash cooked in a sweet and spicy red sauce. Of course, it’s hard to go past curried prawns too.
- Squid and cuttlefish should also be looked for – again, you could try it curried or devilled, but there are also some great dry-fried spicy options, or slow-cooked stuffed squid.
- there’s not much red meat available in Sri Lanka apart from frozen beef burgers (probably horse) and breakfast sausages (probably quorn).
- You will find the occasional pork dish, which can be surprisingly good. It is only rarely found in rural areas due to lack of demand. The pork is locally farmed and is becoming a profitable industry in Lanka (albeit small). You are unlikely to find it at the market – try supermarkets (Keels is a decent option in Galle)
- Chicken is the same in Sri Lanka as anywhere – but don’t go looking for anything organic or free-range. A bird over the size of 1200g is also rare. The best thing about Sri Lankan chicken is of course the way they cook it. Go into any restaurant and order “Chicken curry”, and you are guaranteed the best dish available.
- Grean leafy Gotukola and Kankun are definitely worth a try. The former similar to parsley and usually served raw in a sambal with fresh coconut and lime (usually called Mallung, which translates as ‘mix-up’). The latter is usually stir-fried or curried, and is a little like spinach, but slightly firmer and without the chalky phenols.
- Strange looking greens like murunga (drumsticks) are worth a try – when cooked, inside the dry outer is a pulpy sweet flesh that you get at by sucking at the stick like a straw. Snake gourd also should be considered despite its prehistoric apperance. You might see it listed on menus as cucumber curry, and that’s what it tastes like when it’s cooked (but the “cucumber curry” may also be made from white cucumber – either way, you should try it). Also great stuffed and baked. There are some other kinds of gourd that might tickle your fancy – the bubbly bitter gourd (or its spiky brother the baby bitter gourd) or the ridge gourd, but they have a stronger taste, and may be a little too much for timid palates.
- Yams are a staple, and you’ll find plenty of crazy-looking dirty lumpy things in unlimited shapes and sizes. They vary in taste from a potato to a parsnip, and are lovely curried or fried and heavily salted.
- You’ll also find plenty of ‘normal’ fruit and veg. Eggplant and beetroot curries will make you love vegetables you’ve always hated before. Plenty of carrots, beans, cauliflower and cabbage also.
- Firstly, bananas. you get big ones, giant ones, little ones, red ones, green ones (plantains) and banana flowers. The flowers and the green ones are used for curries, the others eaten raw. Best roadside snack in the world.
- Of course there is an array of the standard tropical fruits – mangos (sweet ones are often served with chilli, lime and salt, and the sour green ones used in cooking), beautiful papaya and pineapples the highlights. Look out for rhubarb or pineapple curries on menus – they are savoury and a worthy surprise.
- Some weird and wonderful things you might find include the super juicy, tiny, yellowed indian limes, sugarcane sold by the stalk, mangosteen, breadfruit (which actually tastes like potato), rambutans (a hairy lychee), and wood apple (a super sour tamarind-like wooden skinned fruit that smells like death on the outside. It’s mainly used for cleaning, but when sweetened the flesh makes lovely drinks or ice cream)
- Oh, and coconuts. The yellow ones are for the milk. If you want it grated, get the brown hairy ones.
- Kottu, or Koththu Roti is probably the better known, and available all over Sri Lanka. Translated it becomes “chopped roti”, but there’s more to it than that. Funny thing is, it could be just about anything, and roti is only part of it. It’s a meal in itself – a stir-fry with bread, vegetables, fragrant curry leaves and usually egg. The cheapest dinner in Sri Lanka, and comes with its own show – knives swishing and clacking fast enough to shear a sheep.
- Pittu is the local bread – flat, roti bread, made with coconut. Usually gluten free, as it is made with rice flour. Fantastic with onion and dried fish sambal. Pol roti is similar, but experts may tell me I have that wrong.
- Isso wadey are the prawn cakes you will find along the roadsides – particularly on the Green in Colombo, but also down further south. Ulundu wadey (Ulundu Vadi) usually comes along on the same stall – a savoury, lenti batter, deep-fried donut. Eat them with the spicy salsa, lime juice and salt that the stall handler will probably pop on top withoug you asking.
- Cassava chips are Sri Lanka’s gourmet potato crisps. Never in a plastic packet, but bought from behind the glass of a street cart. Slightly sweeter, more caramelly than ordinary crisps. Yum.
- Hoppers, otherwise known as ‘appa’, come in three styles – plain, egg, or string. Plain hoppers are like a slightly crispy rice pancake (the batter is similar to dhosa mix) cooked in a concave pan so they end up shaped like a basket. Egg hoppers have an egg cracked in as they are cooking, which ends up perfectly soft-poached. String hoppers are a different breed altogether – a noodle cake made of red rice, and usually served with curry. a perfect accompanyment to either is pol sambola – a red-toned coconut sambol, both sweet and spicy, with far too much heat for breakfast (even though you will never get enough of it)
- Milk rice (kiri bath) is like rice pudding, but firmer, and less sweet. It’s tender and mild, in contrast to the spicy accompaniments. Usually cut into cakes, often diamond shaped.
- Watalappan is my personal favourite, when it’s done the way I like it. But the problem is that it’s always a little different. With or without sultanas (Sri Lankans call them plums), cashews, various spices, ranging in colour from creamy to taupe, and texture from creme caramel to baked cheesecake.
- Curd and treacle (Kiri Pani) is a constant that kids will adore. The curd is a yoghurt made from buffalo milk, and can be bought in stores in sweet little terracotta pots. The treacle is a mild, maple-like syrup tapped from the Kithul tree (Caryota urens), the same source for jaggery (the sugar used in watalappan) and a variety of alcoholic drinks including toddy, beer and arrak.
- Other things to look for include uranda (sweet, deep-fried coconut balls), aggala (kithul treacle sweetened, rice flour balls), wellawahum (pancakes stuffed with coconut and cardamom), Puhul dosi (candied white pumpkin), love cake (wheat cake with cashews and sometimes puhul dosi) and aluwa (a sweet rice flour slice sometimes made with cashews and spices)
- Tea – it’s a given, isn’t it? Most will drink Ceylon tea sweet and milky. If you ask for plain tea, it will be black, but also sugared. Richly spiced Masala tea (Indian tea) is also fairly widely available. Most of the tea comes from the hill country further north, but there are some tea factories not far from Galle, which produce a leaf a little broader and denser in flavour than the refined higher altitude product.
- Wine is generally imported. There are some grapes grown in the country for wine production but they are specific varietals suited to the tropical climate, but with inferior taste. There are wine stores in most large villages. Stick to recent vintages to avoid heat-tainted product.
- Local spirits are best avoided. Arrak and toddy are kithul tree concoctions that for the uninitiated may possibly cause blindness, and will definitely cause extreme hangovers.
- The local lagers are Anchor and Lion – it’s a matter of taste, but I find the Lion crisper and with a finer bubble, making it very well suited to the humidity.
And finally, a note on curry. You MUST understand curry to eat anywhere in Sri Lanka. The word refers to any dish with a spiced sauce, and so is as broad as the flavours the dishes can contain. The fundamental ingredients in nearly all curries from the region include curry leaves, rempe, salt and coconut milk, and to a lesser degree you will find mustard seeds. Most meat based dishes will also contain a curry powder and garam masala that will be a mix of many ingredients, the foremost being chilli and pepper. Basically, the richer the flavour of the principal ingredient, the stronger the curry will be, and so if you prefer milder flavours, stick with dhal and cucumber curries. Some would compare the flavours to those found in Kerala. There are definitely some similarities.
When ordering curry on the south coast or almost anywhere in Sri Lanka, remember that it will usually be a meal in itself, rather than a singular dish. Chicken curry for instance will usually include steamed rice, then at least four side dishes, the most common of which are eggplant curry, green beans or cucumber, yellow dhal and a fresh raw sambal. Some venues are starting to evolve to the tourist demands however, and you will often also find Rendang and Thai curries – these are more likely to be singular dishes. If you ever see Lampreis on a menu, grab it – this is the original deal, translating as lump rice, it actually includes a range of several curries with rice in the middle, then cooked in a huge banana leaf. Lovely.
So – enough to work on? Sorry about the epic post, but it’s a cuisine that really merits a little knowledge before launch (or should I say, lunch). There is simply too many great things you just might end up not eating. And, it you want to try cooking some yourself, take some hints from Mary here.