Of all the cities that I’ve called home over the years, Colombo is the only one where “school traffic” causes almost as much angst as evening rush hour. Most schools let out roughly at lunch time, when the roads of this usually laidback city become gridlocked with honking cars, school vans blocking traffic, and anxious parents escorting their children home. As a newcomer to the city, I used to find all the hand-wringing over school timings amusing. But a year-and-a-half later, it attests to how much I’ve become a part of the city (and vice versa), that I feel a tiny bit victorious at having dodged those treacherous afternoon hours by arriving early at Lantheruma to buy my lunch packet.
Nothing spells lunch as clearly in Sri Lanka as a buth, or rice, packet, a neatly portioned and immaculately wrapped portion of rice laden with a few vegetables, meat or fish curries. Nutritious and affordable, it is the default lunch choice for busy office-goers, who can pick up a substantial meal for as little as LKR 100-200 (approximately ₹45-90). The city is dotted with vendors selling homemade buth packets, occasionally on rickety stands fashioned out of soft drink crates, but a few institutions have converted the quotidian business of feeding the masses into something of a fine art. Lantheruma, which means “lantern” in Sinhalese, is one of those.
With a simple signboard in Sinhalese painted on the outside and a thatched roof, Lantheruma exudes an earthy appeal, which also extends to the food displayed in a dozen clay pots. There’s barely any standing room, or time to dawdle over your lunch choices. Yet I let my eyes linger over the options. I choose a helping of coarse red rice, topped with parippu, the country’s staple lentil preparation made of tuvar dal, cooked thicker and drier than in India; starchy jackfruit seeds coated in a spicy masala; and a bland snake gourd sambol. Even though the fiery prawn curry looks inviting, and I’m told the pork is excellent, I choose the fish, rubbed with a crumbly, blackened marinade. For a small additional fee, I get a portion of sweet-and-sour, spicy, ripe mango curry, featuring large, fibrous chunks of the fruit. The mango is the highlight of the nourishing meal, large enough to feed two hungry people.
The variety of flavours contained in that paper parcel reminds me that “rice-and-curry” is such a reductive term to describe the nuances of Sri Lankan cuisine, which is perhaps the least appreciated aspect of the island country, otherwise beloved for its azure beaches, sunny climate and centuries-old culture. With several parallels to South Indian food, specifically that of Kerala—including the use of tropical flavours and a penchant for coconut in all its forms—Sri Lankan food is often perceived as indistinct. Yet, those who go beyond snap judgement find that the best Sri Lankan cuisine marries fresh, local produce with punchy, full-flavoured spices in complex dishes.
When Indian friends visit, I take them to Upali’s by Nawaloka, one of the pioneering restaurants in Colombo to present Sri Lankan food in a polished, contemporary avatar. The dishes are straightforward renditions of classics. One of my favourites is the game batumoju, or pickled eggplant, which features strips of deep-fried, caramelised eggplant, shallots and green chillies, seasoned with vinegar. Since a Sri Lankan meal is incomplete without some protein, the spread also usually includes elu mas kaluatauyala, a mutton curry coated in the country’s signature “black” paste starring goraka or Malabar tamarind, a tart fruit that is also known as kadampuli in Coorg and Kerala. The sour, spicy curry with soft pieces of mutton is best mopped up with spongy white bread, locally known as kadepaan.
Much of Sri Lankan cuisine is inspired by the country’s natural bounty. Surrounded by the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, the country’s coasts yield a particularly rich haul of seafood, which finds expression in dishes like the ambulthiyal, a fish dish typically made of tuna, cured with goraka for tartness. When I want to try a fancy version of this dish, served in a dramatic atmosphere, I head to Kaema Sutra (kaema means food in Sinhala), the newest addition to celebrity restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa’s stable of restaurants (he also co-owns Ministry of Crab, a shrine to the country’s obsession with this crustacean).
Munidasa founded Kaema Sutra, located in the upmarket Arcade mall, with actress Jacqueline Fernandes, and he brings his trademark attention to the quality of the ingredients. The ambulthiyal here is a little wetter than the usually dry and crumbly preparation, but the sashimi-grade tuna is top notch. Regulars rave about the spicy, roast chicken: a whole or half-bird basted in a special spice blend and slow-cooked in an oven. I mop it all up with a large, frisbee-sized hopper, the Sri Lankan equivalent of an appam. Kaema Sutra’s version of the dinner favourite, touted as the “world’s largest hopper”, is cooked to a uniform, golden crisp, and also served with two eggs set in the centre of the deep bowl. I usually end my meal with kiripani, a simple dessert of creamy curd drizzled with smoky-sweet, amber-coloured treacle.
The northern reaches of the island remained virtually isolated from tourism for the better part of the decades-long civil war, but the feisty, well-spiced cuisine of the Sri Lankan Tamil community has long enjoyed a loyal following in Colombo thanks to Palmyrah, a popular restaurant at the Renuka City Hotel. I have never been disappointed by a meal at Palmyrah, which offers regional specialities like ash plantain sambol, a tart, vinegar-drenched sambol made of golden, deep-fried slices of raw banana; kanavaipirettal or chewy rings of cuttlefish tossed in a dry and deeply spicy curry paste; and string hopper pilau or strands of noodle-like idiyappam seasoned with cinnamon and pepper.
After having tried it in Jaffna a few times, I also have a particular fondness for odiyalkool, a thick seafood soup that is synonymous with the Tamil community. Considered a Sunday staple, the hearty stew is generously loaded with prawns, crab, cuttlefish and other seafood, and thickened with odiyal or the starchy palmyrah root flour. When I long for kool, I make a pilgrimage to New Hotel Mayuri, a nondescript restaurant in the city’s crowded Wellawatte area with just a couple of tables and shabby, dimly lit interiors. The kool, portioned out into large plastic containers, belies the restaurant’s rundown appearance. A viscous, warming soup speckled with black pepper and laced with the gentle bitterness of murunga, or drumstick leaves, Mayuri’s kool is one of the city’s better-kept secrets. The Jaffna-style crab preparation is also astonishingly good value, and fiery enough to make you cry.
As the day winds down in Colombo, a particular rat-tat-tat sound of metal striking metal begins to resonate in snack stalls around the city. It is the noise made by metal spatulas repeatedly hitting a griddle, to chop maida roti and meat or vegetables into slivers for the beloved snack known as kotthu roti. Although there are newer restaurants that offer gourmet spins on the dish, it is considered something of a rite of passage in Colombo to try kotthu at Hotel De Pilawoos, a restaurant that has spawned several imposters eager to cash in on its popularity. Go to the original outlet on the arterial Galle Road, order a chicken-cheese kotthu and enjoy it with a classic Sri Lankan accompaniment: a glass of warm or iced Milo.
Nowhere do I enjoy the vintage, unhurried elegance of Colombo than at the city’s numerous clubs, which offer a genteel throwback to colonial times. I particularly like the Dutch Burgher Union, a club formed in 1908 to further the interests of the descendants of the Dutch colonialists who ruled Sri Lanka in the 17th century. I love to sit in the shady verandah and enjoy the Burgher-style at VOC Cafe, a restaurant on the premises. The pick of the menu is the lamprais, a combination of fragrant rice, a rich, mixed meat curry and several accompaniments, all heaped together and baked in a banana leaf. Paired with the cafe’s homemade ginger beer, which has a big smack of ginger, the lamprais is a Sri Lankan treat that you should try at least once.
Colombo is Sri Lanka’s capital and largest city. It is located on the south-west coast of the country.
Sri Lankan Airlines and Jet Airways offer direct connections from Delhi and Mumbai, and several flights a day from Chennai to Colombo (duration 3 hours from Delhi, 1.5 hours from Mumbai and approximately an hour from Chennai).
Indians can apply for a 30-day tourist visa to Sri Lanka online at www.eta.gov.lk. The visa takes a maximum of two days to process, and costs US$15. However, you can also apply for a visa on arrival at Colombo airport. The processing fee for a visa on arrival is US$20.
Colombo has tropical weather all year round, with a combination of sunny days and short spells of rain. Temperatures peak in April-May and August-September. December and January are the most pleasant months to visit, although the climate doesn’t veer much from the tropical standard.
The guidebooks may not wax eloquent about it, but Sri Lankan cuisine is rewarding for those who are willing to seek out its finer secrets. A few days in the capital is the perfect primer. Just make sure you avoid the school traffic.
It’s best to take away rice packets from this eatery, which often has a snaking queue of customers during lunch hours. A vegetarian rice and curry packet with includes five curries costs LKR130/₹60; meat, chicken or fish cost extra. (+94 71 5301582. De Fonseka Road, opposite Visaka Vidyalaya, near Vajira Junction, Colombo 5; breakfast 7a.m.-10a.m.; lunch 10a.m.-4p.m.)
Upali’s by Nawaloka
The lunch buffet at this popular restaurant costs LKR280 plus taxes (approximately ₹140), for rice (red or white), along with three vegetarian curries, coconut sambol and pappadum. An à la carte meal for two costs approximately LKR2,000/₹930. (+94 11 2695812. CWW Kannangara Mawatha (opposite Town Hall), Colombo 7. Weekdays 11a.m.-11p.m.; weekends 11a.m.-midnight.)
An à la carte meal for two costs approximately LKR6,000/₹2,800. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the dessert hoppers laden with fruit, treacle and curd. (+94 11 2670722. Arcade Independence Square, 30 Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo 7. Lunch noon-3p.m.; dinner 6p.m.-11p.m.)
A meal for two costs approximately LKR4,000/₹1,853. Try the spongy jaggery hoppers, drizzled with treacle in the centre. (+94 11 2573598. Renuka City Hotel, 328, Galle Road, Colombo 3. Breakfast 6.30a.m.-9.45p.m.; lunch noon-2.30p.m.; dinner 7p.m.-10.30p.m.)
New Hotel Mayuri
The odiyalkool is a Sunday special that often runs out by noon, so get there early. The kool costs LKR200/approximately ₹95 for a large portion, while the Jaffna-style crab costs LKR400/₹186 per crab. (+94 11 2502488. 451, Galle Road, Wellawatte, Colombo 3. 10a.m.-10p.m.)
Hotel De Pilawoos
The best time to visit is in the evenings, when the restaurant transforms into a buzzing hotspot, with people ordering takeaway to eat in the comfort of their cars. A chicken and cheese kotthu costs approximately LKR450/₹210. Galle Road also has half a dozen other Pilawoos outlets claiming to be the original, but our money’s on this one. (+94 77 7417417. 417, Galle Road, Colombo 3. Open 24 hours).
Don’t leave without trying the excellent homemade ginger beer. The lamprais costs LKR500/₹233, while the ginger beer is LKR150/₹70. (+94 11 2584511. 114, Reid Avenue, Bambalapitiya, Colombo 4. 11a.m.-10.30p.m.)
Vidya Balachander is a food and travel writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Having called Mumbai home for several years, she recently decided to go on a real-life adventure. Colombo is the first pit stop of many she hopes to make in the years to come.