SPICED UP IN SRI LANKA

SRI LANKA IS SUR­PRIS­ING ON MANY LEV­ELS, BUT IT IS THE FOOD THAT MIGHT JUST BE THE BIG­GEST SUR­PRISE OF ALL.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY ALENEY DE WIN­TER

Sri Lanka is sur­pris­ing on many lev­els, but it is the food that might just be the big­gest sur­prise of all.

Is­mell it be­fore I see it: a car­pet of fish care­fully laid out to dry, glint­ing sil­ver in the early morn­ing sun­shine. Crowds of fish­er­men, sarongs tied high, are un­tan­gling their fish­ing nets on the beach as work­ers haul mas­sive bas­kets piled high with yel­lowfin tuna along the beach. Blood and guts fly through the air as fish are quickly gut­ted and stacked, a mur­der of crows wait­ing to swoop on the of­f­cuts.

It’s only a lit­tle past 7am, but Lel­lama, Ne­gombo’s Fish Mar­ket, is in full swing. Lit­tle stalls are set up sell­ing their day’s catch. There are piles of fresh yel­lowfin, squid, crabs and uniden­ti­fi­able sea crea­tures along with bags of fra­grant spices and piles of dried fish. It’s smelly, it’s kind of dirty and, it’s ex­actly where I want to be, among the lo­cals, ex­plor­ing the food cul­ture of Sri Lanka in the most authen­tic way I can.

Shaped by the lo­cal tra­di­tions of the coun­try’s eth­nic groups, for­eign traders, as well as in­flu­ences from In­dia, In­done­sia, Por­tu­gal, the Nether­lands and Eng­land, all spliced to­gether and rein­vented, Sri Lankan cui­sine is as fa­mil­iar as it is ut­terly unique.

Given its is­land set­ting, seafood plays a huge part in the lo­cal cui­sine, but the fer­tile is­land is also blessed with an ar­se­nal of in­cred­i­ble veg­eta­bles, fruit and heady spices. Cur­ries, dahls and rice are sta­ples, and are gen­er­ally ac­com­pa­nied by roti-style breads. Spices are used with wan­ton aban­don and my chauf­feur guide, Be­yond Travel’s Di­lan Ban­dara, warns me early to order west­ern ver­sions of the lo­cal food. I, of course, ig­nore him and spend the next week or­der­ing ev­ery meal at max­i­mum heat, the lo­cal way. The food, fu­elled by chilli, curry leaves, cin­na­mon and black pep­per, is in­tensely hot but when this as­bestos-tongued foodie reaches for a fiery katta sam­bol of pounded chilli, Mal­di­vian dried fish and lime juice to spice things up fur­ther, Di­lan is suit­ably im­pressed.

RELICS, RU­INS, AND ROTI

While I’ve come for the cui­sine, this an­cient is­land King­dom also packs a hefty cul­tural punch, with eight UN­ESCO World Her­itage sites and a mul­ti­tude of mosques and tem­ple com­plexes dot­ted across the coun­try. Be­yond Travel prom­ise to im­merse me in the coun­try’s an­cient tra­di­tions and re­li­gions while ex­plor­ing some of its most iconic relics and ru­ins.

After the fishy foray at Ne­gombo, Di­lan be­gins my cul­tural ed­i­fi­ca­tion at the 1600-year-old Si­giriya Ci­tadel Rock, a 200-me­tre-high col­umn of rock that was once topped with a large ci­tadel and elab­o­rate city in­spired by the Bud­dhist Alaka­manda, the city of the gods built among clouds. Climb­ing past fres­coes of bare-breasted nymphs and pass­ing through gi­gan­tic lion-pawed gates, we climb the 1200 steps

to the palace ru­ins at its sum­mit. The view is ex­traor­di­nary. As is the lo­cal break­fast, which I dis­cover the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

While no two are ever the same, break­fast Sri Lankan-style may pos­si­bly be one of the great­est meals you will ever eat. There are al­ways mul­ti­ple cur­ries, soft and fluffy milk rice, dahls, a se­lec­tion of sam­bals and chut­neys, crispy roti as well as the undis­puted stars of this morn­ing show, hop­pers. Ap­pam are a crispy bowl-shaped va­ri­ety. The ubiq­ui­tous lit­tle pan­cakes are made from fer­mented rice flour and co­conut milk – some­times topped with a fried egg and a gen­er­ous dol­lop of spicy sam­bal – while lacy idiyap­pam (string hop­pers) are a steamed noo­dle pan­cake made from a hot-wa­ter dough of red or white rice meal. Both make it onto my plate ev­ery morn­ing.

Rocket pow­ered by a fiery break­fast, I ex­plore an­cient Polon­naruwa with all the zest and vigor of Lara Croft her­self. Well, at least a Lara Croft who’d just devoured sev­eral bowls of curry. The for­mer royal cap­i­tal is home to the four, enor­mous rock-cut Bud­dha stat­ues of Gal Vi­hara and the an­cient relic shrine of Hatadage. I find a cer­tain seren­ity in

The Sa­cred Quad­ran­gle, a sig­nif­i­cant col­lec­tion of mon­u­ments, stu­pas and shrines, the high­light of which is the cir­cu­lar Vatadage and its four large Bud­dha stat­ues, and swat up on

Sri Lankan his­tory in the ru­ins of a 10th-cen­tury Royal Palace.

BAN­QUETS TO BEASTS

Our daily dose of cul­ture ticked off, Di­lan drives down a dusty track with a wide grin on his face. I smell the source of his ex­cite­ment be­fore I see it. Priya­mali Gedara is an authen­tic ru­ral farm­house eatery and on en­ter­ing its rus­tic mud brick kitchens, the heady, spice-in­fused air is de­li­ciously over­whelm­ing.

The food at this fam­ily-owned restau­rant is painstak­ingly authen­tic, ev­ery­thing lov­ingly cooked over coal by a group of lo­cal home cooks from fam­ily recipes. Fresh co­conut is ground, spice pastes are pounded by hand, while more than a dozen cur­ries bub­ble away like pots of molten gold. The ladies are happy to show off their tech­nique as they flip co­conut ro­tis and fry the fresh­est river fish and chicken over a coal fire.

Hav­ing seen first-hand the love and pride that has gone into the mak­ing of the food, I taste my way through ev­ery last dish, stack­ing a lo­tus leaf plate high. From flavour-packed bowls of soft potato, egg­plant and pump­kin, sticky okra and crunchy lo­tus root to fra­grant cur­ried meats, crispy-fried chicken, and fish cut­lets (ad­dic­tive dried fish, potato and spices fried in bite-sized balls), ev­ery mouth­ful is mem­o­rable. I head back for sec­onds and thirds, leav­ing only just enough room to taste my way through the dessert buf­fet.

I need to kick my sec­ond stom­ach into gear to sam­ple a plate of tra­di­tional buf­falo milk curd and honey, sweet fried ke­vum (oil cakes) and co­conut kokis (a bat­tered sweet), washed down with sweet black tea to a back­drop of bay­ing wild pea­cocks and rice fields. Clearly in­spired by my postlunch girth, Di­lan rolls me out of the farm­house as he has an­other sur­prise in store for his suit­ably spice-stuffed charge.

At Min­ner­iya Na­tional Park, we head out in a sa­fari ve­hi­cle, ob­serv­ing mon­keys, spot­ted deer and flocks of rare birds un­til we hap­pen upon the be­witch­ing sight of six ado­les­cent male ele­phants, my post-lunch dop­pel­gangers, en­joy­ing their daily bath.

An eye emerges from the wa­ter just me­tres from our ve­hi­cle. It is soon fol­lowed by the pre­his­toric body of a crocodile who is clearly pon­der­ing my po­ten­tial as af­ter­noon tea. The ele­phants also stop to size us up but, de­cid­ing we’re no threat, get back to the busi­ness of frol­ick­ing and tus­sling in the wa­ter.

With­out an­other sa­fari ve­hi­cle in sight, it’s an in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence and I get a se­ri­ous case of the warm and fuzzies at the sight of these mag­nif­i­cent beasts do­ing what ele­phants are meant to do, free from re­straints and hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. By the end of our sa­fari we’ve spot­ted close to 100 of the perky pachy­derms, al­ways at an un­in­tru­sive dis­tance, in­clud­ing a new­born who al­most kills me with cute­ness.

TEM­PLES AND TEA PAR­TIES

Our days con­tinue in a haze of cul­tural en­light­en­ment and eat­ing. In Kandy, we wit­ness the pooja (of­fer­ings and prayers) at the Tem­ple of the Sa­cred Tooth Relic and ex­plore Dam­bulla

Cave Tem­ple com­plex, its ceil­ings alive with the colour­fully painted sto­ries of Bud­dhist le­gend. Be­tween ru­ins and relics, we stop for eye-wa­ter­ing cur­ries made fresh at “short eats”, mor­eish Sri Lankan snacks in­clud­ing golden samosas, crumbed and fried pan rolls filled with spicy beef and go­damba roti stuffed with fish and veg­eta­bles.

Be­tween each stop Di­lan and I in­dulge in calorie-packed con­ver­sa­tion, de­con­struct­ing the finer points of our ev­ery meal as we en­thu­si­as­ti­cally plan our next.

We drive through tea coun­try into the high­lands to Nuwara Eliya. With its red tele­phone boxes, colo­nial build­ings and rose gar­dens, there’s such a Bri­tish colo­nial vibe, the city is gen­er­ally re­ferred to as ‘Lit­tle Eng­land’.

The Grand Ho­tel Nuwara Eliya, a sump­tu­ous ho­tel that is a rem­nant of Bri­tish colo­nial rule, of­fers a com­plete change of culi­nary pace. Sur­rounded by teak­wood, crys­tal and fine china, el­e­gantly at­tired wait­ers de­liver us tow­ers of pretty sand­wiches, jam and cream-laden scones and dainty cakes, which I wash down with per­fectly brewed tea from a del­i­cate bone china cup.

SWEET AND SPICY

On the drive back to Colombo, Di­lan can­not re­sist mak­ing a spe­cial pit stop for his ever-hun­gry charge, pulling in to a road­side stall for a hefty slab of kalu dodol – a sweet, sticky, gelati­nous Sri Lankan sweet made of jag­gery (cane su­gar), rice flour and co­conut milk.

But it is my last sup­per at Colombo’s Min­istry of Crab, renowned as one of the best restau­rants in Asia, that proves to be one of the most mem­o­rable. I sali­vate over a menu of sweet, suc­cu­lent crabs and king prawns, caught lo­cally in fresh­wa­ter rivers and la­goons and whipped up in the open kitchen. I pol­ish off a kilo­gram of aro­matic gar­lic chilli crab, slurp­ing, suck­ing, and moan­ing hap­pily. Scrap­ing up the last drops of lus­cious sauce with soft, wood-fired kade bread a fab­u­lous fi­nale to my week of ex­treme eat­ing on this spici­est of is­lands. •

Open­ing im­age: Ele­phants tus­sling in Min­ner­iya Na­tional Park.Clock­wise from top: Tend­ing the cur­ries at Priya­mali Gedara; Tea pick­ers at Nuwara Eliya; Lo­tus blooms; Dried foods at the mar­kets; Hindu Tem­ple.

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