Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sri Lankan Food

Whoo, here we go. This is gonna be a long one!!!  :)

Coconut is HUGE here. They do everything with it. For us westerners, eating locally and foraging for food has been a reactionary movement but for many Sri Lankans, eating locally and foraging is essential to their survival. They make the most of what they have. My introduction to Sri Lankan coconuts occurred about an hour after I landed. I mentioned to my driver that I was hungry and he stopped off at a roadside eatery for breakfast. We got the typical, average-Joe meal. In Sri Lanka, the average meal is starch & curry. The starch is often rice but could just as easily be hoppers, string hoppers, coconut rice, some variety of flat bread, pittu (rice flour and shredded coconut placed into a log-shaped mold and steamed) etc. Breakfast on my first day was string hoppers, two fish curries (a mild, coconut based curry and a fiery, sour curry) and coconut sambol. Not a clear picture of them, but string hoppers are a kind of lacey, thin-noodle-y rice flour based pancake looking thing. Hope that helps. :P  Eagle-eyed readers might notice that string hoppers come in white and brown. Some are made from white rice flour, others from red rice flour. Both are delicious.

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My second coconut experience happened about an hour later. We were in the van on the way to the sacred city of Kandy. It was hot and I was thirsty so I asked the driver if we could stop off at one of the many King coconut vendors lining the road. They basically consist of a guy, a bike and some coconuts he cut down earlier in the day after shimmying up the tree. For about 40 cents, he’ll give you a coconut with a hole cut into the top. After you’ve drunk the coconut water, give the coconut back to the vendor. He’ll fashion a small scoop from the coconut husk, cut the coconut in half and you can enjoy the delicious, jelly-like young coconut flesh. I tell you, AMAZING on a hot, humid day.
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And this is the inside of the coconut. The left half has already been cleaned of most of the meat:
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Let me tell you more about rice and curry because it’s such a huge part of what you’ll find here. First of all, the rice isn’t the sticky short-grain stuff I am used to eating here in Taiwan nor is it the longer, fluffier stuff like Indian basmati rice. The everyday rice here is a local variety called “Samba” and is almost round/ovular in shape. It has a bit of a chew to it and doesn’t really stick to itself. It’s a lot of fun to eat, especially if you decide to go local and eat with your hands. Most rice and curry meals are centered around the rice (or other starch) and include 3-5 other items. Often you simply choose your main protein (beef, chicken, fish were most popular) or vegetarian if that’s how you roll and the rest of the curry plate is up to the restaurant. We ate FANTASTICALLY well at nearly every rice and curry joint. They do a really good job of balancing the rice and curry plates. For instance, you won’t get two coconut milk based dishes nor will you see repetition in the vegetables. From what we ate, it seemed like they generally offered one coconut milk based dish, a chili/sour dish, a dry curry, some sort of dhal and mallung. Mallung is a vegetable dish consisting of a leafy green with some shredded coconut mixed in. Think of it as a cooked salad. Here's an example...Beef curry, mallung, dal, carrots, curried cabbage and a crispy papadum:
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And another, dal, daikon radish curry, sour fish curry and something I don't remember. This was at a small, seaside shack where we asked our tuk-tuk driver for a lunch recommendation:
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Yet another, this from up in the hill country. Again, we asked our driver where he might head to eat and this is where he took us. Note no rice but roti. At this meal, a fantastic sour fish curry made not with fresh fish (we were inland) but with little dried fish, coconut sambol, dal and the best potato curry I have ever had:
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One more so you can see how our bed and breakfast treated us. These guys at the Kandy Cottage in Kandy made some of the most incredible spreads we saw on our trip. Yah, the flavors were turned down a notch from what you got at local restaurants but they were really good about listening and delivering. We told them we wanted to try as many different things as possible so, for 4 nights, they served us completely different meals. At this one, fish curry, papadums, potato curry, green beans, beet curry an onion sambol:
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Here's a crab curry combo served on a banana leaf. This was at a restaurant in the capital city of Colombo specializing in the cuisine of the northern region of Jaffna. Jaffna food is hot, hot, hot but very delicious. We learned about this restaurant from Brit celebrity chef Rick Stein who claims that this restaurant serves the best crab curry he's ever had. Small sample size but I'm inclined to agree:

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As far as the flavors go, it seems like nothing got cooked in Sri Lanka without either cinnamon, curry leaves or Maldive fish. Sri Lanka is famous for its cinnamon and it’s fantastic stuff, very aromatic, soft and sweet. As you might imagine, most spices here are stunningly good. The green cardamom, in particular, is very, very nice...bright, floral and lemony. Curry leaves are huge not only in Sri Lanka but also in southern India. If you’re not familiar with them, there’s not much I can say to describe the aroma. It’s unique. Maldive fish is named after the nearby Maldives. It’s, from what I was told, generally bonito, sun dried. It’s flaked and used as a flavoring agent in curries, sambols etc. The flavor has some of that smokiness you find in katsuobushi. Sri Lankan food is, for the most part, very delicious but after 8 rice and curry meals, you do start looking for something else.

This brings me to...short eats!!! Short eats are sorta the snack food of Sri Lanka but calling them a snack doesn’t do them justice. They’re usually about 3-4 bites per piece and vary in shape and size. The ones we saw were usually fried or baked. They range in complexity from spiced, fried lentil patties to squares of fresh roti stuffed with curried, shredded cabbage and slices of hard boiled egg. You can buy them nearly everywhere from street vendors to sit-down restaurants to itinerant merchants peddling their wares on trains. Most restaurants churn out fresh items twice per day. Just look for the large, enthusiastic crowd of locals at the store’s entrance. They’re a fun, cheap and mostly delicious way to eat. Also interesting is that most roadside short eats vendors used recycled homework as bags. Here's an isso vadai vendor:
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and here's what I bought from him:
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And a few items from a restaurant serving short eats:
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Most Sri Lankans lack access to grocery stores and do most of their shopping at roadside vendors, wet markets etc. These places are super fun to explore. Sri Lankans are, in general, very curious, friendly and proud of their local produce (for good reason) so don’t be surprised if they try to shove slices of fruit into your hand. I tried some crazy delicious stuff just by wandering around and asking questions about what was available. On the coast, the fish markets are AMAZING. I hear that wild fish is on the decline but you’d never know it here in Sri Lanka. I watched a few fishing boats unload their catch and the variety is breathtaking. Restaurants seem to favor serving the big, meatier fish (swordfish, tuna) but I saw all sorts of other fish which I never got to try. If you decide to visit Galle (and you should, it’s a really cool enclosed city/fort) check out the fish market outside of the city’s walls. Really spectacular.

Also found outside if the city’s walls was this guy, a palm sugar merchant. Palm sugar, if you’ve never had it, is great stuff. It’s sweet, yah, but with so much character. Palm trees (in Sri Lanka it’s mostly the Kittul palm used for sugar production) are tapped. The sap is boiled down and, depending on how far it’s boiled you get different products. Boil it a little bit and you get palm syrup (locals call it “treacle”). Boil it further and you get palm sugar. Palm syrup can be purchased in grocery stores but villagers also bottle their own and I’d recommend the jankier, bootleg stuff. It’s smokier and more delicious. The syrup is also an integral part of one of my favorite Sri Lankan dishes...curd and syrup. The curd is made from water buffalo milk. Think thick, Greek yogurt but with some funk to it. Please notice the recycled arrack bottle and beautifully wrapped sugar:
Attached Image: palm syrup sugar guy.jpg

To wrap this up, Sri Lanka is amazing. It’s not just the great food or the beautiful, exotic locale. It’s the PEOPLE. They’re some of the most generous, warm and friendly people I’ve ever met. Mass transit, the great democratizer, provided some of the clearest examples. There was the boy scout troop master on the train who spotted me checking out his banana leaf meal and immediately offered me a taste....and then ordered his scouts to let me also try their meals! There was the mother with the blind child on the intra-city van who turned around and pushed a few fruits into my hand and then turned back around before I could even thank her. I’ve always found it amazing that my travels have led me to people who have so little to give and, yet, they’re always the kindest and most charitable people. Anyhow, I’ll stop proselytizing but if you ever have the opportunity to visit, please do.

Please ask if you have any questions about visiting the country. I'll field anything from travel itinerary, cost, how we got around, bathrooms & toilet paper, etc.

Btw, the proper beverage pairing for a rice and curry meal is orange Fanta or ginger beer. Trust me on the orange Fanta. And the coffee universally sucked everywhere we went.