After about a week, I settled into our new routine in Colombo. After my first days of surviving on peanut butter and bread, I became more and more adventurous at lunch and dinner time and grew even to enjoy the string hoppers that I had only endured during my first dinner on the island.
Sri Lankan cuisine is based on rice and curry. With my parents history in India, I had been introduced to Northern Indian cooking, but Sri Lankan cuisine more closely resembles Southern Indian fare and of course has its own specialties and flair. When you refer to the meal one always says “rice and curry” and we found almost every meal had at its center a giant platter of one of the more than dozen varieties of rice grown on the island. In smaller side bowls were varieties of curries- Vegetable, meat or fish curries with a coconut base. My favorite quickly became white potato curry (Ala Kiri Hodi) a pale yellow mix of well softened potato chunks bathed in coconut milk and a mixture of spices. Other of my beloved curries like dhal curry (parippu), chicken curry (Kakul mas), sour fish curry (ambul thiyal) are generally served with sides of sambol. Sambols are like spicy pickled dishes that add spicy flavor when mixed with the dish. Sweet sambol (Seeni Sambol), made from onions, was one of my favorites, but the most common one I had with almost every meal was coconut (pol sambol). A mixture of coconut and chili and sometimes onions and other spices, pol sambol can range from a soft pink to a fire engine red depending on the amount of spicy chili added to the mixture. I began my stay at one end of the spectrum and worked my way up to more intense heat. There were times when I made the mistake of adding too much pol sambol – only mouthfuls of plain rice could take away the tingly burning of my tongue and lips.
Mornings were best when our hosts served a sweet milkly rice dish (Aluwa) mixture of rice and sugar syrup that tasted like a sweet rice pudding cake. The cook would serve it cut into traditional diamond shapes which she would arrange in the shape of a flower and serve with bananas. It is often served at auspicious times such as the first day of the month or weddings, but cook made it special for me when she saw how I learned to devour it.
The delicious meals were made all the more enjoyable because utensils are optional. Sir Lankans eat with their hands, and we quickly adopted the same routine when dining on local fare. Ones hands are the ideal and most convenient instruments with which to mix the right amount of rice with curry and sambol. Our hosts instructed us to use only our right hand and that an experienced eater would not mess their fingers past the second knuckle. I played a game with myself trying the keep my fingers as clean as I could using my thumb to push the perfectly mixed ball of flavors into my mouth.
The spread often included a heaping plate of pappadam – wafer thin, crispy discs of fried seasoned dough that I would crumble on top of the meal to add the perfect crunch to each bite.
And the fruit – oh the fruit! Each meal would end with a large plate of brightly colored fresh harvest arriving at the table. Sri Lanka boasts a cornucopia of tropical fruits. These include staples that I had known from the States like pineapple, banana and mango but with all the extra sweetness and color that come from being freshly picked. More than a dozen varieties of bananas will spoil you against your mundane Western supermarket bananas forever. There are super sweet tiny bananas, purple bananas, as long as your forearm bananas, cooking bananas, chewy bananas and grow right in your yard best in the world bananas. Widely cultivated across the country, bananas are found in pretty much every market and roadside stand. Banana leaves are often used as plates and even the stems and flowers are used in cooking. Mangos also appeared on almost every fruit plate and Janelle’s hands were perpetually sticky from enjoying their goodness.
We were also introduced to some of Sri Lanka’s more exotic offerings. There were Sapodillas which taste a bit like a slightly fermented or sweetened pear. Jackfuits with their spiky exteriors resemble giant hedgehogs and can grow to be up to eighty pounds – about what I weighed at the time! They are often used in curries or fried or roasted. The both sweet and sour rambutan is a prickly ball that looks like it should be found on a coral reef. The mangosteen is very popular when in season. The dark purple hard covering is removed to reveal a surprising white segmented fruit inside which when ripe are extremely juicy.
Durian was undoubtedly the most unusual fruit we encountered, and in our travels we found that Sri Lankans basically fell into two camps – durian lovers and those who despised the fruit. Often banned on buses and trains, durian has a very pungent, rotten, sulfur-like smell that cannot be mistaken once you have been exposed to it. Inside the formidable outer spiked husk is what is described as sweet buttery flesh. Our host mother thought the fruits were vile and would not allow them in the house, but her husband loved them and insisted that we try some. We sampled durian in the front yard with our host mother shaking her head in the doorway. I landed squarely with my mother in the anti-durian camp as I felt the flesh tasted like someone had made butter out of sneakers.
There are too many other fruits to mention. My mother so loved the creamy, fresh, readily available avocados that she decided that she would go on an avocado diet until she looked up the calorie and fat content in The Joy of Cooking. We also grew to love stopping at roadside stands to drink coconut water especially on long dusty drives to my father’s research sites. Men in sarongs squatted beside the road in the shade of their small thatched huts where orange bunches hung like oversized grapes. After several swift dexterous chops with his machete and the insertion of a straw, we would be presented with refreshing coconut water in a perfect travel container.