The food in Sri Lanka’s hillside towns and cities is much derided by its north and eastern neighbours. The east has an abundance of fresh seafood and curries are simple, but packed with fish. To the north, southern India creeps in, and the result is seen as much in the food as in the religion. Curries flavoured with coconut milk emphasise the curry rather than the rice. In the traditionally poorer hill towns, mounds of rice are the main feature of every meal, each dish served with a tiny spoonful or two of curry. The result is quick and easy filling food. Sri Lankan hillside curries are certainly not as flavour packed as those from it’s regional neighbours.
Sri Lankan street food more than makes up for the flavour deficit of the hillside curries.
Every station kiosk and pushcart sells a selection of Sri Lankan ‘smalls’ or snacks. Rotti are spicy meat or vegetables wrapped in a thin naan bread, in a triangle shaped pouch, and Vadai are vegetables, fish or meat deep fried in lentil flour. There are the usual samosas, crispy pouches of deep fried pastry encasing smooth potato and specs, a far cry from the pea stuffed variety with flabby skins we get in M&S and Tesco.
When buses stop here, hawkers push food up and down the bus in buckets. Most of it is fresh, some of it less so. But the taste when you bite into the rotti is a searing hotness, and an incredible pungency of sweet potatoes and tangy cumin seeds.
It’s the perfect fast-food to nibble on as you’re whisked through the blaring, hot rush hour on commuter buses and trains.
And when your tummy swells and you feel that one more vadai might push you over the edge, a swig of cooling iced ginger juice is the perfect way to aid digestion of all the spicy food.
Although this meal was Vegan and Gluten free, it was tragically poor.
The sound of a man in our adjacent bungalow throwing up does not sit well with the worlds worst dhosa we have just eaten. My stomach is roiling just recalling our “meal”.
The rotti house in Ella came across as a joint where you could pick up a few well cooked street snacks with table service for a small mount of money. We strode through the doors regardless, after seeing the “chef” hack his guts up in the open kitchen. Following a previous disappointing meal at the Ella village restaurant we found ourselves hungry for seconds: a dhosa would fit the bill nicely.
There seemed to be an inside joke between the clearly hungover “chef” and the other waiters. Perhaps the joke was the restaurant, or perhaps they found it funny that anybody would pay to eat the shit they where churning out. Whatever the punch line, the joke was always going to be on us.
We ordered a masala dhosa with vegetable curry. After a few more life wrenching hacks the meal appeared at our table, curiously flat, flabby and flaccid. Bizarrely it was also sweet. Not a sugar searing wallop of sickly syrup, like the stuff Sri-Lankans are usually so fond of. More of a “I just found this biscotti in the back of a cupboard ten years past it’s sell-by date, do you think it’ll go well with coffee?” kind of sweet.
Spooning dollops of “very very spicy madam be careful” (read bland and oily) curry sauce over our sweet pancake I realised that this must be the sort of gastronomy hell specialised in.
“is this supposed to be sweet?” I tentatively asked one of the giggling waiters. He nodded and shook his head at the same time in that curious Indian way which makes you unsure as to whether he was answering your question or just had a twitch. Whatever his answer three waiters encircled our table and watched Sam intently as he struggled to spoon the combination of savoury vegetables, stale sweet pancake and oil into his mouth.
After some awkward moments the chef and the waiter came up, withdrew the plate and told us that he was unhappy we didn’t like his food. We had never felt so awful, but we put this down to our churning stomachs and questioning palates, which were still asking our brains why it had asked them to eat dhosa and sugar in the same mouthful.
Why am I sharing this? Because its not all fun and games being on holiday. Sometimes, dinner can be quite traumatic.