Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 1: Eating

Of course I would start here! Welcome to my four-part attempt to sum up our month in Sri Lanka, providing information and anecdotes across four themes: food, buses, trains, and a general tips and tricks conclusion. It’s my attempt to put out there, into the internet ether, some practical – hopefully entertaining – information for people who may be considering a visit (and you really, really should).

For those who know me, or follow my Instagram, it’ll be no surprise that food would be topic numero uno. Eating and food is not a prime motivation of travel, it is the prime motivation! Maybe that is overstating it just a bit, but, for me, one of the biggest attractions of starting in Sri Lanka and working our way back across to Singapore/Hong Kong was the knowledge of how many glorious cuisines that path would cover.

Additionally, the ‘things to see’ – the monuments, landscapes, historical features, and so on – are all written down in guides, explained in detail; sniffing out that most basic of human needs – sustenance – is one of the great unknown joys (mostly joys) of every day on the road. For me, anyway.

In saying this, I’ve mulled over this post for quite a while. I’m a Sri Lankan cuisine convert for sure, and definitely not someone who sees it as some island offshoot of the complex motherland. Of course there are similarities to India, but a cuisine is also about how food is enacted, how it functions and the role it plays in daily patterns and social life. And here, Sri Lankan cuisine had me sold.

I could rhapsodise on and on, but, I feel, I would only be rhapsodising endlessly about what are variations on common themes. So, instead of some kind of blow-by-blow account – I’ll leave that to moments of personal remembering (there’ll be many) – I offer instead reflections on what I consider the key culinary components I picked up from this most wondrous adventure.

Eating in vs. eating out

Lonely Planet makes the observation that, completely at-odds to other Asian nations, there is not (yet) a great culture of eating out in Sri Lanka. Therefore, eating in at your guesthouse is often your best bet.

I don’t know that this observation holds as true as it implies. It is true that we found more limited options right across the country, but we never had any trouble finding local eateries serving locals eating. True, they did seem to close early – one stark difference between Sri Lanka and India is the calm quiet of most places post-about-9pm – but we’re not Argentinians or fancy Europeans who eat at 10pm. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

However, in saying this, I’m all for eating in, especially when this means being served ‘mother’s cooking’, and mother’s cooking is always best (we all know that). Some of our best meals were unquestionably in-house.

Breakfast

Ahh, the most important meal of the day!

We swung between self-catering oats with milk and bananas (sometimes you need a kind of reassuring familiarity and routine), and eating local breakfasts in-house.

Sri Lankan breakfasts, with similarities to their South Indian counterparts, are culinary marvels. Our sugar-ladden cereal fixation needs a serious overhaul! Simple, yet endlessly varied (each cook has their own recipes, remember), it consists of dal, coconut (pol) sambal, and some kind of rice and/or coconut-based bread to mop it all up (roti, dosa, idly, etc.).

Served with tea, sometimes coffee, and often fruit (pineapple, banana and watermelon being most common), it’s a delicious set up, and always saw us through to lunch. Even better was when it came with pani pol, a pancake stuffed with coconut and jaggery (a darkly delicious unrefined sugar). My heart always slightly sank when we were served an omelette and toast-based Western breakfast, however nice it may have been.

The one great unique component is the hopper, a rice & coconut-based pancake but cooked in hopper pans to make them like little cups of heaven. They come in egg version, with a joyous golden egg at its centre, and also the string hopper, less cup like, but a round mound of squidgy noodles. However they come, they’re a perfect addition.

Drinks

Tea is phenomenal, of course. Drink it white, drink it black, sweetened and not; drink pots and pots of it. I’ve been a tea + milk drinker my whole life, but I came to really enjoy black tea.

Coffee was a bit of a different story. We didn’t find a single worthy café-style coffee anywhere in the country although, admittedly, I barely bothered looking and just adapted to local options, to avoid inevitable disappointment.

I almost gave up on Ceylon coffee too, after my own aborted attempt at making a cuppa in Sigiriya. However, our last two places served us pots of the stuff, and it was magic; lusciously dark, with a deep flavour all of its own, and made just that bit more wonderful with milk and sugar.

We didn’t drink a lot of alcohol, but the local Lion beer really hit the spot when served chilled in a chilled glass. The local spirit arrak, with notes of whisky smokiness, is also worth trying and rather cheap from alcohol stores (about NZD16 bucks a bottle).

Soda water was available everywhere and became our go to over sugary or chemically-enhanced soda. In saying that, the local Elephant House ginger beer, so much more gingery than our stuff (same goes for the gingernuts; get into them), was enjoyed quite a few times.

Woodapple, fresh and juiced.

Otherwise juices and lassis are the way to go. Mango, pineapple, watermelon, lime, even carrot and lime, were all wonderfully alive. The pick of the bunch for me was definitely woodapple. I described it elsewhere as apple with a tart, tamarind edge. A second, fresh, glass, had me thinking it was almost sherry/port-like. How fancy. The fresh experience I described here.

Bakeries and ‘short eats’

These are the heart of Sri Lankan snacking. These people know how to snack.

We didn’t consume a lot of baked goods, partly because same-same-but-different, but also, I have to confess, partly because of snobbery about the quality of baking from countries without a rich bounty of a available dairy. In fairness to me, this is also based on a lot of disappointment on previous travels (and see my point above about coffee).

However bakeries are everywhere and doing a roaring trade. What we tried was carbrageously yummy. There’s evidently a strong baking tradition on the island. Colonial period? I did particularly enjoy a couple of lump cakes. I couldn’t find anything about them online, but I suspect they came from a drop cake-like recipe flavoured with jaggery, given the vaguely coconut-sweet flavour (and the colour!)

Lump cake!

But short eats is where it’s at for me. A delicious, delectable range of small fried snacks, often centred around vege curry contained in some kind of moorish wrapping. From egg and potato curry samosas, with a heavenly crumbed coating, to vege curry roti parcels, savoury doughnuts and fried lentil discs (vadai), these glorious morsels are available literally everywhere. We mostly ate these in and around our transport journeys and at some historical sites, and they were uniformly delicious and comforting, even cold and clearly the end-of-day stragglers.

Short eats 4EVAH

One thing though: if you are served a plate of short eats, don’t panic, and don’t assume it’s a challenge. You’ll pay for only what you consume. Apparently it’s common practice in some parts/places. It happened to us once, and we overate; not that we regretted it, not one little bit! But don’t feel obliged to be so greedily grateful.

The many faces of Kottu…

Kottu and Lamprais: the indigenous masterpieces

Kottu I’d seen on TV; lamprais I read about just before we came. Kottu is ubiquitous; lamprais is sadly far less common.

Kottu is genius. Roti or string-hopper, chopped and turned into ribbons of carblisciousness, cooked on the hotplate with your choice(s) of meat/vege/egg/cheese, and served with a curry gravy for you to do the dousing. It’s street food mixed with comfort food mixed with a use-everything imperative.

It’s utterly delicious, and I rarely failed to inhale the entire plateful, even when I thought I couldn’t possibly indulge the pile put before me. That familiar clack-clack-clack sound, of knife on hotplate, which followed us across the land, has now entered the banks of sounds that makes me feel instantly hungry.

If I were to try and hazard an intelligent guess, I would say that the rice and curry ‘packets’, served up across the land as takeaway lunch on-the-go for busy types, may well have their origin in a dish like lamprais.

Foolishly (colonially, even) thinking that it was simply a reverse Anglicisation of its English name, lump rice, lamprais actually evolved during the Dutch colonial period and takes its name from lomprijst (“packet of food”). In its original form, it featured a three-meat curry, ash plantain curry, eggplant curry, a frikkadel (meatball), fish paste, maybe a fried whole-boiled egg, and specially prepared rice, baked and served encased in banana leaf. Sublime.

Evidently, at least the three times we tried it, lamprais has undergone some evolution, although there is evidently still some kudos to be gained from maintaining some allegiance to the original. I was happy, more than happy, to have it any way it was coming to me. I just wish I could have had it more often. There are some similarities, in its evolved form, to the truly ubiquitous rice and curry, but nothing beats an all-in-one meal cooked in banana leaf. The gentle flavour imparted by the encasing is utterly unique, as any tropical islanders or cultures with similar dishes would attest.

Lamprais, arrack cocktail, and fruit; heaven.

Curry and rice/rice and curry

And that brings us to the truly national dish, the bland-sounding but infinitely surprising rice and curry. I was a little bit skeptical at first, if I’m honest, but I was quickly won over. Now I could be said to be evangelical!

The genius of rice and curry is that you just order it. There is no thinking and barely any decisions required. It would either arrive, a collection of whatever the day’s curries were, or, if a so-called buffet, you needed to choose which rice, meat (if you were having), and then vege curries you wanted; a bit like those awful Chinese fill-your-own takeaways of yesteryear, which is an awful comparison, but you get the idea.

And what you get is always a surprise and anything other than generic. Firstly, of course, every cook has their own recipes, their own masalas and spice mixtures. No two chicken curries, or bean curries, or even dals for that matter, were ever the same.

Most of all, it felt that, with each curry & rice I ate, I added more new tastes, more new vegetables and dishes to my palate; curries that I probably wouldn’t have ordered on their own. I’m talking about vegetables like loofah, banana flower, jackfruit, leek/spring onion, amberella, cabbage, winged bean, bitter gourd, plantain banana, and baby aubergine, as well as ones more familiar, like cassava, potato, pumpkin and beans.

I was never any less that completely satisfied with rice and curry. It provided endless variety and tastes and, to me, builds in an inspired flexibility that responds to, well, whatever there is to hand, whatever is in season; and that is the real essence of an ingenious cook.

Just finally, there are a few things I picked up that I would describe as key differences between Sri Lanka and India (although, rightfully, India’s cuisine is really cuisines). Firstly, the curries are singular and ubiquitous, similar to curries in Fiji. We did come across dishes like Jaffna-style, and I’m sure there are regional differences, but it was essentially chicken curry, or pork curry, or fish curry, etc. There weren’t kormas and vindaloos and so on.

A lot of coconuts are used throughout the cuisine, similar to what we saw in South India, but seemingly more so. Coconut in dal is a dream. We also found a lot of dishes had a pronounced use of pepper, which was a lovely surprise, and unexpected.

Completely unsurprisingly, there is a lot of seafood here. What was more surprising was the use of dried fish. It appeared as a background (or more pronounced) note in curries, and is a key ingredient in the utterly addictive lunu miris, a chilli condiment with a base of roasted chilli, dried fish, fried onion, salt and lime juice pounded into the most gorgeous dry paste.

I’m sure there’s much more to Sri Lankan food and cuisine, but this hopefully gives you enough of an idea to realise Sri Lankan cuisine can certainly be considered distinct and unique. I look forward to learning, cooking and eating more when we return home.

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