26th December, 2020
A Restaurant Critic's Search for the Best Food in Sri Lanka
I’m standing on a road outside Galle Fort. It’s night-time and sticky haloes of light around oil lamps pick up the shine on glistening fish laid out on stall after stall fronting the sandy beach. Smaller species, some of them the tiniest of tiddlers, are carefully arranged in circular formation on wooden planks. The scene inspires the painters of the area and forms part of the common consciousness in this place once known by the ancient name of Serendip, whose root is related to serendipity – unplanned fortunate discoveries. Its bounty is also a reminder that there is no landmass between here and the South Pole and so, I am assured, there are plenty more fish in the sea.
Born during an Indian summer in the Himalayan hill station of Landour-Mussoorie to an English father who worked for the cable manufacturer BICC and a Scottish mother who lit up India in other ways, I try to visit the subcontinent at the start of each year. But this time, with the political climate of Hindu nationalism more febrile than ever, I decided to go to Sri Lanka with my sister Beth Coventry (born in Nainital, another hill station) and our good friend, the food writer Caroline Conran. It was our third journey together and another foodie odyssey. On the two previous trips we’d stayed in villas with excellent cooks, one of whom, the former chef of the American embassy, could turn his hand to almost anything but also make delicious home meals, the holy grail of gastronomic satisfaction.
"FOR THIS FOODIE ODYSSEY, I PICKED THE BRAINS OF THE CHARMING FOUNDER OF LONDON'S HOPPERS RESTAURANTS AND — PERHAPS NOT INCIDENTALLY — ONE OF THE BEST PRIVATE COOKS I KNOW"
Before we left, I picked the brains of Karan Gokani, the charming founder of London’s Hoppers restaurants and – perhaps not incidentally – one of the best private cooks I know. Along with insider addresses from Colombo-born-and-bred Hashan Cooray, part of the family who own Jetwing Hotels, and Reita Gadkari, co-owner of the Owl and the Pussycat Hotel, we set off on this feasting tour.
On the first morning, from my bedroom at Gadkari’s hotel in Talpe I watched a lone fisherman on a rock cradling a pole and line, patiently waiting for the tug on the hook in that meditative stance found across the world. From the look of contented tranquillity on his face, it seemed he had some success. It’s the same look one gets from the effect of a tot of toddy, a coconut-palm wine produced from sap. Here, one tree can provide a couple of pints of the liquid per day. Serendipity indeed.
Breakfast was a champion demonstration of the magnetism of Sri Lankan cooking, which also possesses a certain healthiness. Kola kanda, a smoothie-like soup made with gotukola, a plant resembling pennywort, was an enlightening beginning, not least because the leaves are said to improve memory and promote longevity. Jaggery – unrefined sugar made from cane or palm – gave it an edge. Alternatively, you could combine it with thick, creamy buffalo curd served with coconut treacle. Or both. This was all a prelude to hoppers, that crumpet-like delicacy made from fermented rice-flour batter either shaped into a crisp, lacy-edged bowl or squeezed through a press for the artful string version particular to Tamil cooking. A bowl hopper, with a well-seasoned fried egg inside, served with sambol relishes – seeni sambol, made with caramelised onions being my favourite – is a princely breakfast dish and equally holds its own at other times of day (except at lunch, when it’s time for curry and rice). Beetroot- and spinach-flavoured hoppers have become fashionable, too, but I like the coconut-milk purity of the original.
"THE PALM HOTEL CHEF REELED OFF VARIETIES OF HER FAVOURITE HERBS AND PLANTS, TO WHICH SHE BROUGHT A WESTERN SENSIBILITY AND A USEFUL FONDNESS FOR FERMENTATION AND PICKLING"
Then where to go for lunch and supper, the recurring travel quandary? Annoyingly, Sri Lanka fits snugly into that category of country where visitors are often told that the very best food is found in people’s homes. It accounts for a population, especially the young, keen to seek out restaurants for their novelty, as well as the ubiquity of pizza. And it’s an invitation to chefs from other countries to showcase their own flavours, so in the Galle area you can find Japanese Tokyo Ice, Lebanese Chambers, Italian Isle of Gelato and Love Gelato, Australian vegetarian The Kip and Israeli-run Citra restaurant. But Emily Dobbs, niece of Geoffrey, the instigator of the Galle Literary Festival and owner of some of the island’s most beautiful places to stay, was at the time of our visit cooking at Palm hotel in Ahangama, where the incredible range of local foods – vegetables and fruit in particular – are the starting points for her menus. She reeled off varieties of her favourite herbs such as kohila, mukunuwenna, nivithi and kura thampala, and plants – naminam, cashew apples, uguressa, soursop and tamarillo tree tomatoes – to which she brought a Western sensibility and a useful fondness for fermentation, pickling and hung curd. We had a dinner as groovy as this off-the-beaten-track hotel.
Emily urged us to try Welle Gedara Homestay & Cooking in Weligama, more or less opposite her uncle’s extraordinary home on Taprobane Island. After a long meditative wait with dreamcatchers collecting our thoughts – only some of them concerning the role of jackfruit in plant-based meals and the appeal of red rice – a vegan dinner prepared by Shan, the amiable owner, was served in the house of his great-grandfather. It was undeniably virtuous.
We stayed at Cape Weligama, a hotel the size of a village that’s spread out over the headland and run by the Fernando family, who also own the Dilmah Tea company. Some of the villas are named after writers who were connected to the island, and I was intrigued to learn that Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, had been a civil servant in the early 1900s in what was then Ceylon.
I immediately ordered a copy of his novel The Village in The Jungle, which he wrote based on his experiences here. Outside Galle Fort, the Tamarind Hill hotel, a conversion of a majestic admiral’s mansion, provided a notable black-pork-curry lunch with a strong punch of spice. We could have stayed on for a four-course dinner including ‘cream-of-tomato soup with heavy cream and a cheese stick’ but headed north instead.
The commercial capital Colombo perhaps no longer lives up to its former name of Garden City of the East but is nevertheless an exciting destination to explore at the start or end of a visit to the country. One local told me that the number and quality of restaurants have risen exponentially in the decade following the end of the civil war. Chef and entrepreneur Dharshan Munidasa, who must be credited with playing a large part in developing the country’s food scene, drew on his mixed Japanese and Sri Lankan heritage when he opened Nihonbashi (the name means Japan Bridge) on Galle Face Green in 1995.
The fish market in nearby Negombo is a splendid source for his sushi, sashimi and other piscine assemblies. Munidasa’s Ministry of Crab, launched in 2011 on the site of The Old Dutch Hospital, is better known perhaps because of the witty name and co-ownership with renowned cricketers Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Large crabs from the lagoon are the mainstay here but there are other, better places to find them, and to avoid the crustacean-themed merchandise. For what it’s worth, Ministry of Crab is currently ranked number 30 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. A few years ago, Munidasa also opened Kaema Sutra on the fourth floor of the Shangri-La Hotel in partnership with Sri Lankan actor Jacqueline Fernandez. Here street food and home-style cooking is lent restaurant glamour with sleek service and a view of the Indian Ocean.
Another big name is Udayshanth ‘Shanth’ Fernando, creator of Paradise Road boutique and its Gallery Café in Colombo. A favourite with locals and travellers since its arrival in 1998, the menu, strong on cakes and puddings, is no longer the most vibrant in town but the shop is a godsend one-stop source for presents to take home, some incorporating Shanth’s black-and-white-stripe aesthetic. It also sells roasted curry powders to bring the flavour back to your own kitchen.
And young gun Andrew Speldewinde is also making waves. Having worked at two-Michelin-star Ryu Gin in Hong Kong, and then in Melbourne, he came home to launch Contemporary Ceylon five years ago, starting with dishes cooked and served in his Colombo apartment, then moving on to large-scale pop-ups in venues such as Dutch Burgher Union. The lunch-time speciality lamprais, literally a packet of food, is excellent. The Villa by Contemporary Ceylon, an hour’s drive from Colombo, is the place to try his unique upscale take on the cooking of his native land, with hot buttered cuttlefish and his Australian influence evident in coconut-covered lamingtons for pudding.
"WE MADE ONE LAST STOP TO EAT MAJESTIC CRABS FROM THE LAGOON, WHICH WERE SERVED IN THE MOST DOWN-AND-DIRTY SPICY SAUCE - IT WAS A FITTING, FINGER-LICKING FINAL MEAL"
Other Colombo food hits included Barefoot Garden Café for its black-pork curry, Palmyrah for the Jaffna specialities, Pettah Market for street food, Upali’s by Nawaloka for traditional cooking and Baillie Street Merchants for speakeasy cocktails. Also worth a mention is new hotspot Kottulabs, which takes a staple – the kottu stir-fry of cut-up godamba roti (flatbread), vegetables, egg, cheese, and meat, seafood or poultry enlivened with spices – and gives it a jazzy fast-food spin. The noise of frenzied metal-on-metal chopping is one of the unmistakable soundtracks of the country.
Before we left, we made one last stop in the town of Negombo, its amazing collection of churches delineating the island’s history. We stayed at Jetwing Lagoon, a classic Geoffrey Bawa creation with the ocean and lagoon on either side. The Sri Lankan architect, who is recognised as the founder of the tropical modernism movement, is responsible for influencing if not the food then the enjoyment of eating it, sitting in his seamlessly blended indoor-outdoor space. From the lagoon came majestic crabs, which were served in the most down-and-dirty spicy sauce. It was a fitting, finger-licking final meal.
Back home, I begun to crave those vibrant zingy tastes again. Thankfully, these days Sri Lankan cooking is perceived as not just a tributary of Indian food but as an exciting separate entity, which is particularly apparent in London. Areas such as Harrow, Tooting and Wembley and, more unexpectedly, Victoria (at Dammika’s) have long flown the flag, but the arrival of Hoppers, first on Soho’s Frith Street, then in Marylebone and most recently and elaborately in King's' Cross, has been followed by Kolamba and Paradise, both in Soho.
Hoppers brings together the food of Tamil Nadu in southern India with Sri Lankan specialities, but not as a form of fusion, just obvious mutual attraction, while its interiors are influenced by the Coats of Arms Bar at The Jetwing Lighthouse hotel in Galle. Kolamba focuses on home-style cooking and Paradise could be compared in terms of design and impact to nearby Kiln, where Ben Chapman riffs on northern Thai food. Surroundings are spare, it’s noisy, and the mix of small plates such as mutton rolls like the ones sold in Sri Lankan bakeries and slow-simmered curries is authentic if somewhat pricey.
If a trip overseas is not on the cards at present, then a visit to one of these restaurants is a delicious quick fix. There’s a definite feeling of the Sri Lankan food tradition taking off on a flightpath of its own.
Written above is an article on KOTTULABS, penned by Fas Maschler from Condé Nast Traveler. To view the complete article on their site, click here.