Given the proximity of India and Sri Lanka at their most southern and northern points respectively, it’s not surprising that Sri Lankan food and the cuisines of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in India’s south are similar.
Since I wanted my palate to be pleasantly surprised, I decided not dig too deeply into Sri Lankan cuisine before I got there.
My introduction to local fare was at our schmick hotel in Colombia, Cinnamon Red, where the food was dreadful. The crab dish we had at a nearby restaurant on our second evening in the Sri Lankan capital was also appalling. The only good meal we had in Colombo was at the Mango Tree in Mawatha. The food, alas, was north Indian not Sri Lankan. I’m sure some good restaurants exist in the island capital, but we didn’t know where they were; none of the locals we asked knew either. Colombo left a bad taste in my mouth.
Next day Kuldip and I hired a car and left for Galle on Sri Lanka’s south west coast. On the way, we stopped at a 200-year-old five-star heritage hotel that I wanted to see. Located outside Colombo in its namesake town, on its namesake beach, the Mount Lavinia Hotel is drop dead gorgeous, which is more than I can say for the morning tea we had in the Terrace Lounge. My double espresso that dribbled down the outside of my cup, and Kuldip’s pot of tea were passable, at a push. The service wasn’t up to five-star standard either. Neither was my strawberries and cream that comprised an enormous mound of spray-can mock cream, which I detest, and skewered strawberries that were rock-hard. I was lucky not to break a tooth! The hotel’s only saving grace was Kuldip’s individual ice-cream cake that was a chocoholic’s dream, come true. Before going there, we considered staying at the Mount Lavinia Hotel for a night or two on our return to Colombo, but based on our disappointing experience, we decided not to.
As we approached our final destination, a family-run bed and breakfast in the historic Galle Fort area was, simultaneously, rolling out the red carpet for the first arrival in celebration of its anniversary. It was our lucky day; it was the 28th of October; it was four years to the day since Pedlar 62 opened for business and Kuldip, and I were the first guests to check in. It was one of the few times in my life that I was in the right place at the right time. The family’s gift to us was a bottle of French red and a home-cooked dinner.
That balmy night we sipped Baron Philippe de Rothschild Mouton Cadet 2010 on the first-floor balcony while savouring every mouthful of a traditional Sri Lankan meal. The feast comprised six curries plus rice, pappadams, and an incredible selection of condiments all prepared by the mum and wife of our host, Ravi.
It was the first time I had sampled curries made from banana blossom, winged bean and dry green leaves. The fish and aubergine curries and silky dhal, however, were different from the ones I had had in India. Each and every dish was incredibly tasty, but I was pleasantly surprised, in particular, by the fish curry. I don’t usually like seafood curries because the spices often overpower the fish or crustacean flavour leaving nothing but the texture of the fish to savour.
The fish, however, in Pedlar 62’s spicy Sri Lankan curry was so fresh I could taste the sea. When asked what type of fish it was, Ravi told me it was what the locals call One Day Fish. It’s the catch of the day by Galle’s fishermen who leave shore each afternoon at around five o’clock and return ten or so hours later.
Now that I’ve tried Ravi’s family recipe for One Day Fish curry, I want one every day!
Ravi admitted he contributed nothing to our magnificent meal except carry it upstairs to the first floor. Breakfast, apparently, is always on him, and he prepared one of the best we had in Sri Lanka. Each morning Ravi would rustle up a colourful platter of fresh fruits, heaps of toast and jam and eggs however one likes them. When given a choice, I always go for an egg-white omelette. It’s something most people, including some chefs, manage to screw up. To my delight, however, Ravi isn’t one of them.
The wine we had on Pedlar 62’s anniversary was outstanding, and the meal extraordinary. I know it was, because we ordered something similar the following evening at an eatery nearby. While Mama’s restaurant has a good reputation for dishing up traditional Sri Lankan fare, it paled when compared to what came from ‘mamma’s’ kitchen at Pedlar 62.
From Galle, we travelled north to begin my research into Sri Lanka’s gemstone industry. Ratnapura is a mining town and therefore no jewel in Sri Lanka’s crown when it comes to food. Moving right along after a one-night stay in the City of Gems, we arrived at what I consider the prettiest place we went to in Sri Lanka.
Culturally rich Kandy should be on everyone’s hit list. Unlike most places I visit around the world, I didn’t go to this regal city in search of Sri Lankan cuisine. Based on what I ate there though, I doubt if the food in most of the cafes, hotels and restaurants in Kandy is as sweet as the city itself.
Some of the best food finds are sometimes in places least expected. Our ‘off the beaten track’ in Sri Lanka led us to a little place in Negombo on the south west coast. Roy, the owner/operator of the Beach Lodge, is, without a shadow of a doubt, a host with the most. Meanwhile, the chef and his trainee churned out some of the best meals we had during our two-week travels around the island.
A perfect penne introduced us to the talents of these two young men. The fresh prawn and chilli pasta we had for lunch there, on our first day in Negombo, was so good we went back that evening to sample the Seafood Platter. The assortment included a whole fish plus crab, calamari and prawns with french fries and a refreshing pineapple salad on the side. It was tastiest seafood we’d eaten in a long time. Kuldip and I were so impressed with the food at the Beach Lodge, the next day we checked out of where we were staying and went to Roy’s to be closer to his al fresco dining room!
Since the Beach Lodge guesthouse and restaurant is located on the shore of the Indian Ocean, being beachside was another big bonus for moving in. We were there for four days and three nights during which time we couldn’t resist having another superb seafood platter. I could wax lyrical too about the unforgettable fresh lobster and Sri Lankan dishes we enjoyed at the Beach Lodge. The crab curry was exceptionally yummy.
For breakfast the morning we left, the chef made us Biththara Appa or Egg Hopper, which Roy wanted us to try. A Hopper is the Sri Lankan equivalent of a crispy south Indian rice flour and lentil pancake called a Dosa. Dosa, which is also popular in other parts of India, is usually presented cone-shaped, rolled or folded in half. A crispy Sri Lankan Egg Hopper, on the other hand, is made from rice flour and coconut milk; is bowl-shaped and comes with an egg in the centre. The homemade Hopper was just delicious served with fresh banana, coconut sambal, chilli sauce and freshly tapped palm-tree sap the Sri Lankans call honey.
The distinction between a Hopper and a Dosa is a good example of the subtle differences between Sri Lankan and south Indian food. Many diverse cooking techniques, however, further separate Sri Lankan cuisine from Indian food north of the southern regions. For example, Indians tend to use raw spices whereas the Sri Lankans prefer to roast them. Since coconut palms grow in abundance in Sri Lanka, cooks there substitute coconut milk for ghee or clarified butter used in most parts of India. Unlike Indian food per se, a sweet and sour flavour also features in Sri Lankan food.
The behaviour of some people can erode one’s faith in humanity while others restore it. Food, to me, is much the same. For example, my hope of getting a good Sri Lankan meal was dashed until I tasted the extraordinary home-cooked curries we had at the Pedlar 62 guesthouse in Galle Fort. The sensational meals that came out of Roy’s kitchen at the Beach Lodge in Negombo went on to prove the skill of some Sri Lankan chefs and emphasise the fresh and remarkable ingredients all the local cooks have at their disposal.