Our Sri Lankan holiday was as much a culinary journey as a cultural one.
Growing up in Malaysia, I had many friends of Sri Lankan ancestry. Many Tamils and Sri Lankans fled war and poverty and sought refuge in Malaysia so the curries we ate were a fusion of Sri Lankan and Tamil varieties; lighter, more complex in fragrance than the ones in India and with a skilful balance coconut milk. It has been 7 years since I was last in Malaysia and I was really looking forward to checking out Sri Lankan food.
Landlocked in Delhi, we don’t get to eat much fresh seafood so I was on a mission to eat as much as this island nation had to offer. We started off with Christmas dinner at the Ministry of Crab in Colombo, a welcome break from tradition. Mud crab was a weekly ritual back in Malaysia, with my entire family piling into a roadside stall to eat “Marmite sauce” grilled mud crabs most weeks. At Ministry, sweet juicy mud crabs fished out of the nearby Indian Ocean are served up by size and cooked in your choice of sauce. We ordered two large ones, cooked in garlic chilli sauce and black pepper sauce. We nearly ordered a third but luckily good sense prevailed.
For breakfast most mornings, I ate string hoppers with egg curry every morning, and have recently declared it my favourite breakfast ever. Sri Lankan curries are different to Indian curries. They are both lighter and richer at the same time (is that possible?). The more liberal use of fragrant spices and coconut milk ups the aromatic quotient, resulting in a spicy yet sweet and mellow taste. It might be just too difficult to make the string hoppers at home as you need a special tool to do that. I have managed however to track down an egg curry recipe by Peter Kuruvita and it brings back delicious memories when I cook it.
Tropical fruit featured most days as afternoon snacks: jackfruit, starfruit, mangoes, passionfruit and our driver even managed to track down out-of-season rambutan (literal translation: hairy fruit). When I asked about durian, the infamous “stinky” fruit which most people with South East Asian roots have a liking for, Graeme hurriedly put his foot down so alas, when we saw several stalls by the road selling it, all I could do was watch wistfully as we drove by. Another popular dish is rice and curry. We had the best ones at local roadside restaurants that looked slightly dubious but served safe and freshly cooked food. Rice and curry sounds rather indeterminate but these usually consisted of rice, no less than ten varieties of vegetable dishes and a side of chicken or fish.
Our culinary journey reached its climax when we realised that our private villa in Hikkaduwa came with its own private chef! We put in a request for grilled local lobster one night and paired it with the bottle of Champagne we’d brought with us, a fitting gastronomic end to a wonderful holiday.