The urge to binge

Coasting down Sri Lanka on a mission to feast on fish, Ashis Dutta discovers how the flavours of the land are a varied blend of the Indian, Dutch and English influences.

Kottu roti

The Galle Face in Colombo is a good place to start with. To make things easy, to gorge I mean, the broad ocean-front rampart has the Indian Ocean on one side and lines of food carts and shack stalls on the other. The setting sun puts the ocean to flame. And even if that doesn’t pep up the appetite, the alluringly tropical sea breeze and the sight and roar of the breaking waves make it impossible to tame the urge to binge.

The fare at the ocean front is partial to fish, and you can’t blame them for that, can you? Fried fish, prawn, crab, squid. Though you do get an odd stand grilling chicken and an assortment of kebabs, they are few and far between.

I went straight for what looked alluring and yet somewhat questionable — the isso vadai. Though isso vadai would translate to prawn vada, it is literally prawn-on-vada. A classic street-food snack of the emerald island, it has small prawns, three or four of them, straightened in a row over a patty-dough of masala lentil, like sleeping on a circular bed, then deep-fried together. Served as it is, or with chopped onion and a dash of lemon, the first bite will wipe all your inhibitions away. Especially if you are a prawn aficionado, like I am.

There is never any dearth of fish preparations in the island. Whether street-food and snacks, like isso vadai, or lunch and dinner-time fares, like fish ambul thiyal (sour fish curry). Here, a big-sized fish, like tuna or a cat-fish variety, is diced in cubes and cooked with, among other ingredients, dried goraka, a small fruit which imparts the sour flavour, till the curry is reduced to the minimum and the spices coat a loving layer on the cubes.

Bboiled or steamed rice served with a curry of fish, mutton or chicken, along with other curries made of  vegetables, lentils or fruits
Boiled or steamed rice served with a curry of fish, mutton or chicken, along with other curries made of 
vegetables, lentils or fruits.

 

 

Crossover

History has left its mark on this petite island country in more ways than one. For centuries, nations from near and far, have dropped anchor off its golden shores, lured by the rich green foliage fringed by swaying coconut groves. Indians and the English, Dutch and Portuguese. And the Lankans have taken them all, and assimilated their divergent aroma in their own heady assortment of cuisines.

Lamprais is one such, a Dutch legacy, which gives serious challenge to our biryani. An amalgam of two Dutch words, it means and pronounces the same as in English, lump-rice. It is a lunch-time favourite, though I have seen it being gorged in other hours too. Rice is cooked in meat stock, and then lumped together with meat — beef, pork, lamb or chicken — spice, sambol chilli and vegetables in a banana-leaf wrap and then steamed. It arrived at my table like a neatly delivered courier-packet of banana leaf wrapper, as if purchased online, but right from the steaming chamber. And much like a courier packet, I unwrapped the leaf and first drank the flavour of the emanating steam before digging into the rice concoction. Heavenly.

Lankans seem to have a flair for lumping seemingly innocuous ingredients together and making a marvel out of it. Kottu roti is another such. But unlike lamprais where the meat and the vegetables stand out to be counted, when it comes to kottu roti, they all get finely chopped. Even the roti is not spared as it gets shredded. It is one of those dishes where the constituents are essentially leftover food or vegetables from yesterday. Now, every civilisation around the world has its own variant of it — making good of leftovers. Bubble and squeak in England, auflauf in Germany, and, well, my grandmother had a dozen such of her own which she could bring into form any time, with a twinkle in her eyes. Not surprisingly, being a delicacy from leftovers, and that too in Sri Lanka, kottu roti is sufficiently spiced up. I had their popular variant which had eggs — beaten and mixed into the concoction, not boiled — instead of meat or fish.

Egg hoppers
Egg hoppers

 

Exotic spread

If you have had appam, Kerala- style, then egg hoppers will not surprise you. But quite possibly, it will delight you. It’s appam in all sense, complete with its bowl-shape, except that at the centre of the crater, where you would expect the soft lump, you’ll find the shining, about-to-burst yolk of the egg radiating its golden smile at you. It is certainly a dinner-time favourite, as I had to wait for quite some time for my order to arrive. It doesn’t require more than an onion-sambol to have your egg hoppers. Nevertheless, you are spoilt with choice of meat, chicken and fish dishes to go with.

The string hopper is to a hopper what idiyappam is to an appam. And much like in the southern states of India, a wad of it is dipped into a curry and gobbled. I chose the kukul mas curry — a chicken curry sobered with coconut milk to a rich base of gravy. Pol sambol, a coconut relish, is a dear everything to everybody — I mean to every dish. And I wasn’t surprised to accost this ubiquitous composition morning, evening and night. How can coconut be far from you in Sri Lanka? It is a side dish, made of grated coconut blended mainly with onion, chilli, lime juice and salt, and of course, each eatery has its own little secret additives. And you have it with rice, roti, paratha or hoppers. Lankans prefer to relish their food with time on their side. Every dish is a magic blend of the exotic and temperance. And deserves every bite of attention from the diner.

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The urge to binge

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