My gastronomical journey in Sri Lanka was a great mix, of fine dines and street food and everything in between. The goal was to eat every new thing which came my way.
My first pit stop was of course the Ministry of Crab, in the Old Dutch Hospital complex of Colombo. The reservation for this place needs to be made weeks in advance, and I had to find out if it was worth the hype. As is common knowledge, the place is owned by the two cricketers Kumara Sangakkara and Mahela Jayavardene, along with their friend Dharshan Munidasa. What is not common knowledge is that it bars women in tank tops from having a meal there (no clue why!) The menu is concise and the servers are extremely good at their jobs. The menu mentions the size of the crab ranging from half a kilo to over two kilos. They do not serve crabs below 500 grams as a matter of ethics, to ensure no baby crabs are killed and the population of crabs remain unharmed. My friend and I ordered for a round of vodka soaked oysters to start the meal. This was the first time we both were tasting oysters. While he wasn’t sure of what to expect, for me it tasted exactly the way I had imagined it to😀
For mains we got an XL butter garlic crab, and a portion of sticky rice to polish it off with. And also a couple of cocktails to wash it all down. Armed with pincers and what looked like nut-crackers, and a pair of well-trained teeth, we attacked the beast in front of us, as soon as it hit the table (well, after taking a couple of instagrammy pictures, of course!). The meat was sweet and lucious, and the claws particularly were plump pockets of goodness. The aroma of the slightly burnt butter, accentuated by the not-too-overpowering garlic, went perfectly with the crab. What had begun with a classy clink of cocktail glasses, ended with four dirty hands, two grossly stained aprons, a plate of demolished crustacean shells and two people with really happy tummies. Aaah what a meal it was! The bill amount was around LKR 13,000/-, which is about 6000 INR. So yes, it was expensive for me, but totally worth every penny!
I did try crabs at half a dozen other places during my stay, and I have to admit that none of them came close to the ones at the Ministry of Crab.
A staple Sri Lankan meal is very similar to a Bangali meal. It consists of rice, moosoor daal, 2-3 vegetarian curries and a fish curry (often substituted by a beef/chicken curry). It is accompanied by papad and one or more sambols, and a mango relish. The differences however lie in the cooking. The rice is generally a local red rice, the grains being shorter and thicker. The moosoor daal is very thick, and is of the consistency of our ‘daal fry’. The vegetarian curries/ torkaris made of uchchhe (bitter gourd), shojne danta (drumsticks) etc. are invariably sprinkled with a heavy hand of coconut shavings and curry leaves, which is something I rather enjoy, so not complaining about this. The protein, be it fish or beef, is way over-cooked than how it is made in regular Bangali households and three notches saltier too. The mango relish however, is almost identical to the aamer chaatni.
Now coming to the street food, Sri Lanka will give you a lot of options. The Galle Sea Face, Colombo is the most popular place for street food in the country. And justifiably so. The first thing which I sampled there was the Isso Wade, which is a moosoor daal patty, with some unshelled prawns stuck on it, served deep-fried with local ketchup and chopped onion. Priced at 40 LKR apiece, this did set the benchmark for my street food hunt. Next there was a stall with fresh seafood, ready to be deep fried and served. I quickly pointed to a gigantic jumbo prawn, and handed over 600 LKR to seal the deal. I sat down with my plate, and devoured the plate of perfectly cooked happiness, while the sea breeze brushed across my face.
Then came the Cassava chips. There were two options in this, of sticks and thinly sliced chips. I got a parcel of the sticks, which tasted very similar to potato chips, albeit a tad bit tougher and sweeter. I couldn’t finish the whole bunch and hence slid it in my bag as soon as the next interesting stall came by. Well, the chips stayed there till next day and as I was about to throw it out thinking it had gotten all mellow, I discovered that these slender little things were as crispy as the they were the night before! I skipped the pickle stalls, which were basically selling different diced fruits, smothered in lime juice and spices. This was the only vegetarian option apart from the Cassava Chips in the entire line BTW. My last stop at Galle Sea Face was one of the bigger stalls, which serves beef/ chicken/ fish/ prawn/ calamari/ octopus with a choice of staple of rice or pasta. The protein itself can be stir fried or made into a garlic butter gravy or a chilli gravy with varying degrees of heat. I had a plate of stir fried calamari, which was greasy, spicy, a little rubbery, and delicious all at once. Maybe that’s the beauty of street food, it’s never one dimensional.
Sri Lanka also has a number of small eating houses called Pilawoos. They serve fresh fruit juices, extremely sweet milk tea, string and regular hoppers, rice and curry, samosas and other friend snacks and of course, the famous kottu. Kottu is a sort of mish-mash, and doesn’t look very appealing. But as they say, looks can be very deceptive. It is basically paratha (a fried flat bread) cut up into things strips and stir fried with onions, tomatoes, chilies and some meat/egg. Cheese is the new twist in the mix, and is a pretty popular option. I will save the rather interesting story of how the kottu came into being for another day though!
Hoppers often don’t get the attention that they deserve, but being the carb lover that I am, I loved all sorts of hoppers. The plain ones are almost identical to the South Indian appam. Add an egg in the middle and serve it with a heady, punchy sambal, and you get the Egg Hopper! String hoppers are basically rice flour noodles, identical to the idiyappam, and come in two varieties – white and red. They go brilliantly with most curries, including a Palandi. Oh, yes the Palandi is another thing that I totally loved! It is a thick curry, most popularly of chicken, with loads of dry spices. But in spite of the addition of a bunch of spices, I found it to be very soothing, due to the addition of yogurt and coconut milk, to smoothen it off. Eggs added directly to the curry, thicken the liquids and bring about the signature texture. The Palandi is best had with rice, but can be paired up with hoppers too. In fact a chicken Palandi kottu is a great mix too!
My last meal in the beautiful island country of Sri Lanka was at Upali’s. For anyone looking to sample authentic Lankan cuisine, sitting at one place, Upali’s is a great option. I had their Tasting Platter for Two. At LKR 2100, this is a steal and consisted of –
– Mullingatawny Soup,
– An array of hoppers – plain ones, red and white string ones and egg hoppers as well
– Kottu with chicken
– White Fish Curry (my favourite)
– Black Chicken Curry
Served with rice or roast paan. And before you furrow your brows, roast paan is a toasted, crusty bed and certainly not the betel rolls which we refer to as paan!
And to spice things up a tad bit more, there was a Mango Chutney and three variants of sambols – seeni(onion) sambol, coconut sambol and gotukola (a type of herb) sambol. Sambols are relishes accompanying a meal, and I brought back a chilli-prawn one to spruce up by bhaat-daal back home😀.
Well, needless to say, it was an ethereally satisfying meal that I had at Upali’s.
While on the topic, it will be a sin not to mention the Watalappan. A close cousin of the caramel custard, this is a coconut milk and jaggery custard, spiced with cinnamon and other spices. This super smooth, syrupy dessert is all one needs to bring in the required contrast to the fiery curries in the island.
Phew! Now that was a long post! Hope it helped😀!
I will soon be writing about What to Drink in Sri Lanka, so stay tuned 😊!
Meanwhile here is a durian for you, enjoy!