Friday, November 04, 2011

We're in Sri Lanka... Let's Eat!

'Why Sri Lanka?' You might be wondering. It sure isn't a place on the radar of many North American travelers. Well, it all started many months ago on a hot, crowded bus in Northern Lao. There were so many people crammed onto that bus that they had brought folding chairs (if you were lucky) and minisule plastic stools (if you weren't) onboard to fill the aisles and every available space with seating. When they ran out of 'seats', they started doubling up- by using laps as extra seats. There were four foreigners on the bus. Us, the cute German with coke bottle glasses sitting beside us (whose lap was currently occupied by a young local kid) and a red-haired American sitting in front of us (whose lap was somehow still available). This was more than enough common ground for us to form an instant bond and then continue to do our best to pass the bus time with random traveler chit chat. It came up that the German, Tobias, spent his summers being a shepherd high up in the Swiss Alps, caring for prize cows and making cheese. J and I fell a little bit in love with him then and wistfully started dreaming of our mountain rendezvous. But he has nothing to do with Sri Lanka, really, I just wanted to reminisce. It was Randall, the Californian expat living in Bangkok, who planted the Sri Lankan seed. 'The food is even better than Indian food!' he claimed. We gasped in disbelief. Could it be true? Could anything really be better than Indian food? How could such a food exist and we had never even tasted so much as a morsel? That just wasn't right. We decided right there and then that this was a statement we were going to have to investigate ourselves. It was quite a serious thing to say... better than Indian... scoff. And so, seven months later, here we are in Sri Lanka, eating our little hearts out... for research's sake.

Sri Lanka has turned out to be so much more than just delicious food... but let's start there, because let's be honest, food is always on the forefront of our minds. 'Criminally under-rated' is what our guidebook has to say about the cuisine here. Its probably one of the only things written in the guide that we agree with. Rice and curry is the national dish. A boring name for something that is such an explosion of flavour. The rice is just rice, but the 'curry' means at least two different varieties of whatever the chef has concocted that day, with lentils or veggies or fruit or coconut or meat, and a super spicy coconut sambal on the side. Mix it all together, or savour the flavour individually, either way- it is a delight. Then there is the khottu rotti, which is rotti (like a thin naan bread) cooked on a flat grill/pan chopped up into a size that more resembles noodles and then flash fried with any variety of veggies (for us) and a generous handful of chilli. Its something completely different than anywhere else in Asia and super delicious. Where are all the Sri Lankan restaurants, I'd like to know. I read in the newspaper here that Canada, Toronto specifically, is home to the largest Sri Lankan community outside the island...I guess if we were going to find Sri Lankan food anywhere the Tdot would be a good place to start our search.

We've been in Lanka almost a week now and we were beginning to think we had this new menu under control. So many people speak English here, and are so friendly that we have been able to grill (haha) our wait staff with (probably stupid) questions. What do you mean by 'khottu rotti' and how is it different than regular 'rotti?' It is probably akin to asking 'What is this 'toast' and how is it different than 'bread.' Anyways, now we know. We arrived in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lankan's highest town, looking forward to more rice, curry and khottu. We had been on the train all day (we had travelled about 75km, after all) and were starving. We were surprised to find that Sri Lanaka's third largest city only seemed to have about three restaurants and they all seemed pretty touristy. We settled on a slightly over priced Indian restaurant that served tourist-friendly mild, spice-less food. How boring when we know what we could be eating. The next day when it wasn't dark and we weren't blinded by hunger (am I allowed to say that in a third-world country?) we discovered a few interesting tidbits. First, that in Sri Lanka, restaurants are called 'hotels.' You can't stay there. They have no rooms. But for some reason they are still hotels. 'The Queens Hotel,' 'The Royal Hotel'- yup, they are restaurants. Second, the 'hotels' all looked like convenience stores from the sidewalk. A big counter on each side of the store, manned by a cashier and stocked with biscuits, chocolate bars and all the other random things that are sold at such stores across Asia. Behind all this, hidden in the shadows at the back of the 'store' we discovered when we popped into one to buy a bottle of water, is a huge, lively, bright and cheerful local eatery! Even more surprising was that once inside, the eatery was quite bright and welcoming and not at all the dark, dungeon-y looking cell it appeared to be from the sidewalk. The food, as we expected (although we only had the chance to try a snack at first) was authentically spicy and flavourful and less than half the price than it was across the road. Problem solved. Our local eating spot was chosen. So we thought.

We were so excited that we had 'discovered' these local eateries that we waited around all day, working up an appetite so that we could eat as much rice and curry as our stomachs would allow. It was four in the afternoon by the time we felt suitably hungry for our feast. We went to the first hotel. 'Sorry, rice and curry is all finished.' They said. Darn. Good thing it turned out that the whole street was lined with hotels cum convenience stores cum eateries. We'll just go next door. 'Sorry, all gone.' They said again looking around as if they could scrounge up some scraps for us. Ok. Fine. Next place. 'No, sorry....' He didn't even finish. 'Well when can we get some rice and curry? I asked impatiently. 'Oh, we only serve rice and curry for lunch, between 12:00-2:30.' ERRR. SO this is the thing about local restaurants. Its not like at home where there is a menu and you can order whatever you want off it whenever you please. No. They have only whatever it is specifically that the locals eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner and only the specific times when it is meant to be eaten. This is all fine, of course, if you know what and when all of this takes place. We're just stupid hungry tourists. So, finally, after two days, we had figured out where the food was and when what was available. We would get it down the next day, for sure. We really had it all figured out now, I was sure of it. Its now day three in town. We ate an early breakfast and plan our whole day around being at the 'Queen Hotel' at 12:30pm, on the dot, for a delicious rice and curry lunch. We show up right on time and find what? The restaurant is closed. Along with all the other ones along the street. I throw my arms up in the air in disbelief. What?! We stand on the street corner completely discombobulated. 'Tuk tuk! Tuk tuk! Tuk tuk!' a guy is shouting at us from across the street. We are ignoring him. Blatantly. He thinks we can't hear him and that we must be standing on the street corner staring at the restaurants in disbelief because we can't find a tuk tuk. He comes across the street to rescue us. 'You need tuk tuk? he asks. 'WHY are all the restaurants CLOSED?!' I explode at him in response. 'Oh, they are all at the mosque. They will open again in a couple hours,' he answers congenially. AHHHHH! I sigh with visible frustration. 'There are restaurants open over there,' he says, quietly, pointing across the street to the touristy restaurants we had eaten at previously. He is genuinely nice and is trying to be helpful. He is definitely wishing he hadn't crossed the street. I huff and he takes the opportunity to slink away.

I follow J and stomp across the street to the open and waiting tourist restaurant. We eat the rice and curry specially created just for the prototypical tourist palate (read: near flavourless slop that will never be buoyed in anyway with any sides spicier than a dry piece of toast). Nonetheless, it filled the void just in time for us to see the local hotels opening up for business once again. Seriously, just as we shoveled in our last mouthfuls of rice overwhelmingly delicious smells started wafting out of the hotels across the way. Sigh. Thankfully we still have another couple weeks here in Sri Lanka to eat our little hearts out. Obvious Lesson: if flavour excites you as a traveller in anyway (even in a country as gastronomically enlightened as Lanka) don't eat where you don't see locals eating.

1 comment:

Parentals said...

your advice about 'not eating where you don't see locals' could also hold true in Niagara Falls.

I don't know about Sri Lanken food but we have a new Vietnamese noodle place here in Niagara that I heard is good.