Shellfish delights: Kunal Vijayakar eats his way through Colombo
Maska Maarke: Seafood and chillies are everywhere, and curries mean something else entirely in fiery Sri Lanka.Updated: Nov 02, 2018 22:32 IST
So finally, there is a Sri Lankan restaurant in Mumbai. I haven’t been there yet, but since I don’t really review restaurants, I’m guessing it’s all right to mention it as something that really excites me. The truth is that I’ve just returned from a quick three-day trip to Colombo, and those three days were an exercise in gluttony and hedonism. We’d wake up every morning to a view of the waves of the Laccadive Sea gently spooning the shores of Galle Face Road, and end the day with polychromous, kaleidoscopic sunsets in the Colombo sky. All this with one prayer on my lips - breakfast, lunch and dinner.
My introduction to Sri Lankan food was actually, the ferocious Kutthu Parotta on the streets of Chennai, many many years ago. We can sit and debate the origins of the Kutthu (Koththu), whether rotti or parrotta, but the Koththu Rotti is sort of Sri Lanka’s national street food.
It is a blissfully greasy overdose of carbs, eggs, meat and curry all in one. It’s shredded Godamba Roti, flat crispy bread similar to the Roti Canai in Malaysia or Murtabak in Singapore. The shredded Godamba Roti is chucked onto a large griddle and fried up with eggs, finely chopped onions, vegetables and spices. To this is added either a prawn, chicken or beef curry. After that it’s a frenzy of chopping and clatter. Much like the pav-bhaji wala, a riot of chaos and sound ensues as the Rotti and the brawny, aromatic ingredients sear themselves crisp.
There is no heaven quite like a plateful of spicy, steaming, soft and crisp Koththu Rotti with prawn or beef. With the zeal of a convert, I have sought out Koththu Rotti ever since I first tasted the Chennai version, the Kutthu Parotta.
But rice is the luminary of Sri Lankan cuisine. The cuisine itself is a festivity of fiery curries made with an unapologetic amount of spices and judicious amounts of coconut. These blazing curries are tamed only by rice. Hence ‘Curry Rice’ in Sri Lanka means much more than the words suggest. Even rice with Parippu, which is masoor daal cooked with onion, tomato and green chilies, tempered with mustard seeds, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, and curry leaves, is called Dhaal Curry Rice.
But real Sri Lankan curries are made with chicken, fish, pork and beef and come in a variety of colours… red, black, brown, yellow. My favourite is the Black Pork Curry. I gorged on a plateful of this with a bowl of Lankan Suwandel rice on the sea-kissed verandah at the colonial Galle Face hotel. It’s a dark curry; black because the spices are roasted till they ebonise into an inky spice mix, stopping just before the masala begins to burn. To the pork is also added black pepper and golaka, a sticky, sour, dried fruit somewhat like tamarind. The Curry Rice must be eaten with Pol Sambol, a fresh coconut relish, like dry chutney, with a blend of red onions, dried whole chilies, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish (an intensely flavoured, sun-dried tuna). Black pork curry, rice and sambol is plain euphoric.
Since Sri Lanka is an island, seafood plays a huge role in the cuisine. There is an abundance of shark, pomfret, clams, prawn, lobster and crab. When you speak of crab, everybody steers you towards the legendary Ministry of Crab. There’s crab in all sizes here, done in a choice of sauces — pepper, chilli, curry and butter. I liked the Clay Pot Prawn Curry best, a thin garlicky gravy with red chilli and spices. Notably, the prawns here were cooked and served with the heads intact, exactly as I like them. You must attack the prawns with your fingers and suck the head to extract all those salty savoury flavours. The curry is served with traditional wood-fired Kade Bread.
The most un-Lankan of all Lankan foods are the Devilled Prawns also called Isso Baduma, which are sweet, hot, spicy and tangy. Tossed in a wok with ginger, garlic, spring onion and peppers, the prawns are stir fried with soya sauce and tomato ketchup. The end result is a Lankan dish that tastes nearly Chinese.
But the heart of a true Sri Lankan meal lies in the Hoppers and String Hoppers (Appams and Idiappams). These marvels are made with a fermented batter of rice flour, coconut milk, often coconut water and a touch of sugar — either kept runny to make a Hooper in an iron pan or a bit firm to be choked out of a string hopper maker and steamed. I recently learnt that a restaurant called Hoppumm has just opened in Mumbai, with a menu that includes Hoppers, Curries and Koththu Rotti, I’ll be heading there soon to gorge. I’ll end by saying I wish I had the ten heads of Ravan to eat up all the Sri Lankan food I could lay my hands on.
First Published: Nov 02, 2018 22:32 IST