Feeding the soul in Sri Lanka
The word “serendipity” comes from Serendib, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka, but for Bama and I our first few days on the island were quite the opposite. On arrival, I was sleep-deprived and recovering from illness; Bama was also tired from a series of long journeys, not to mention the stress of looking after a sick companion. Our first stop was the beach town of Hikkaduwa on the southwest coast, where an introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine came in a plate of devilled chicken – spicy, glazed with a sweet and sour marinade, and especially delicious when paired with fried rice.
But the ubiquitous coconut sambol was far less satisfying; it struck me as being even saltier than the sea. That overpowering saltiness characterised much of the food we tasted in Hikkaduwa, and I began to wonder if this would be a common problem throughout the next two weeks. “Is this how Sri Lankan food is supposed to taste?” I asked Bama. He’d come on a week-long trip several years before, and raved about a delicious curry he’d eaten in Kandy. “No,” he replied, “what I tried was much, much better.”
It wasn’t just the food in Hikkaduwa that left a bad taste in our mouths. At the urging of my father (which I will forever regret agreeing to), we stayed with his eccentric old friend who had retired there and built a beachfront house. While I remain grateful for his generosity in providing food and lodgings, I abhorred the low-grade, snide remarks he repeatedly levelled at Bama, his angry tirades against using the air conditioner (which meant three nights of fitful sleep and waking in a pool of our own sweat), and the toxic atmosphere that, at one point, even threatened to halt our six-month Spice Odyssey.
Serendipity only found us once we ventured into Sri Lanka’s central heartland by train. The bulk of that time was spent just outside Kandy, at an intimate rooftop homestay run by Mahesh and Achini, two local P.E. teachers.
While Mahesh went out of his way to guide us around the ancient sites of the Cultural Triangle, multi-tasking Achini introduced us to a variety of Sri Lankan delights from their small but efficient kitchen. We fell in love with her homemade breakfasts of pol roti (coconut flatbread) and onion sambol – the latter infused with turmeric, curry leaves, tamarind, chilli flakes and the savoury richness of umbalakada, cured bonito from the Maldives.
Dinners were an even more elaborate affair, with a generous spread of three or four different curries, salad and red or white rice. The rotating menu had jackfruit, potato and gotukola sambol – a salad of thinly sliced pennywort with red onion and grated coconut. Alongside onion sambol, my favourite was the maroon-tinted beetroot curry, stewed in coconut milk and a delicate spice blend that complemented the vegetable’s natural sweetness. Like all the other curries Achini made, the ingredients were cooked in a walanda, the traditional Sri Lankan earthenware pot.
For dessert, chilled buffalo curd was appetising enough on its own, but it proved even better drizzled with the treacle-like sap of the kithul palm. While resting at the homestay, we revelled in some of its simple pleasures – not least a cup of Sri Lanka’s very own Dilmah tea. Achini expertly brewed hers with whole milk, adding the perfect amount of sugar for a balanced, silky smooth concoction. And how could I forget the unusual fruit juices we tried? Squeezing the stringy, bright orange pulp of a mature palmyra palm fruit (taal) yielded a sweet nectar that was suggestive of jackfruit. Wood apple, known to the Sinhalese as duvul, produced a refreshing juice with notes of tamarind.
Unfortunately, I did not remember to take photos of the string hoppers we enjoyed for breakfast one morning, or the freshly caught lake fish and curried ambarella that Mahesh’s mother cooked us after a long day hot-footing around the temples of Anuradhapura. One of the most memorable episodes took place in a roadside greasy spoon near Dambulla, where Mahesh took us to sample the famous Sri Lankan egg hoppers we’d seen on several food-related travel shows. The batter was paper-thin and brittle at the edges but thick and moist in the centre; with a spoonful of fresh chilli sambol, it made for a perfect pre-dinner snack.
I’d imagined that Bama and I would eventually get around to trying an egg hopper, but Achini’s fabulous home cooking and the overarching kindness of Mahesh were entirely unexpected. After a rough start in Hikkaduwa, their hospitality restored us and breathed the life back into our trip. ◊