Sri Lankan Food

Hello everyone, I’m back from my trip and excited to be blogging again! Sri Lanka was quite a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the country has experienced some very unusual heavy rainfalls in the past month, resulting in massive flooding in large areas. Over a million people were displaced by the floods, and there is concern that the destruction of rice and other crops due to the flooding will lead to food shortages and severe price hikes. The trip was largely over shadowed by never ending torrential rainfalls during the last two weeks, but we did have fantastic weather the first week.

The natural beauty of Sri Lanka was spectacular and ranged from unspoiled sandy beaches lined with coconut palm trees to rugged mountains carpeted with row after row of bright green tea plantations. Otherwise, the island seemed strangely empty and devoid of any captivating cultural sights. While the landscape was dotted with numerous Buddhist and Hindu temples, and the ruins of ancient civilizations (which enjoy UNESCO World Heritage status), it lacked the splendor and magic of similar sights in other Asian countries. The daily attempts by locals to scam us out of our money, which were often elaborate and involved entire groups of people did not help either. Anyone who was not interested in our money though could not have been friendlier and more helpful, always offering a warm smile.

And yet, something seemed off. Even though the civil war ended last May, the military and police presence was overwhelming. Soldiers and cops were everywhere, manning checkpoints and parading around with giant machine guns at the ready. It was eerie and seemed mainly like a display of power by a president who is the next dictator in the making rather than a sign of lurking danger. The island is also home to an enormous population of huge black crows and stray dogs in various stages of malnutrition. In fact, I have never seen so many stray dogs in such bad shape. All of them were more or less skeletons, a lot of them were injured, and some had lost all their fur. It was pitiful and horrendous, especially since there were government run veterinary clinics all over the island . And it also landed me in the hospital.

Towards the end of our trip we came across two dogs at the side of the road who were nothing but bones, so I decided to feed them the pack of cookies I had just bought as a snack. I will never forget the eyes of the skinnier one. She was so hungry, she snatched a cookie out of my hand and in the process lightly scratched the skin on my thumb. It was a very minor injury, more like a paper cut, but I got really paranoid about the possibility of having contracted rabies, which is fatal if untreated. So we decided to play it safe and went to the ER at a private hospital in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. I was told rabies is extremely common there, and that it can be contracted via even the smallest laceration, particularly on the hands. Despite the terrifying look of the ER (the sheets on the beds were blood stained, the floor had clearly never been cleaned, the waste basket was over flowing with trash, and the walls were covered in dark stains), the doctors were very competent and friendly. I was given 5 shots, one of them in my thumb right next to the scratch, which did not exactly feel like I was on vacation, and told I was definitely going to live, but needed to come back for more shots. Which I did, and which I still have to do now that I am home. So I have vowed to never ever feed stray dogs again, even if it is going to break my heart.

Aside from the natural beauty, the one thing Sri Lanka had definitely going for itself was the food. It was incredible and incredibly spicy! It took a while to get used to the hair raising level of spiciness, especially since there was never any respite. Every meal and every dish was a wild spicy ride, but it was all so delicious. My favorites were the fish and vegetable curries with rice. The vegetables ranged from potatoes, eggplant, pumpkin, red beets, carrots, leeks,and green beans to exotic jack fruit, plantains, and cashew nuts. Curries were served with a variety of condiments, such as different sambols and chutneys, as well as samba rice (a very small grain white or red rice), and papadums or naan bread. Locals eat with their hands, and they swear it tastes better that way. I tried it once, but I felt like a messy 3-year old waiting to get scolded for spilling food all over the table.

Curry was not just reserved for lunch or dinner, it was also eaten for breakfast. String hoppers with curry, or milk rice with curry were popular breakfast dishes. And of course, it all came with a hefty dose of chilies to start the day off on the right note. When the spiciness got out of hand, there were always wonderfully sweet and juicy fruit, such as papaya, mango, and pineapple. For lunch, we usually opted for snacks such as rotis filled with vegetables or meat, or samosas. These and other “short eats” as the locals call them, are served up by bakeries, which also prepare very sticky sweets, including cashew milk toffee. The most popular desert though was undoubtedly curd and honey, which is a complete misnomer, because it features neither curd nor honey. The curd is really yogurt made from buffalo milk, which had a lovely rich and creamy texture and an interesting flavor with a slight tang to it. The honey that is poured over the curd is actually treacle, or syrup made from the kitul palm. In its solid form it is called jaggery and used like sugar.

I managed to get a gorgeous Sri Lankan cookbook in Colombo, and I can’t wait to try out some of the dishes in it. My husband has already put in requests for spicy curries, so stay tuned for some recipes coming up soon!

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