I can’t tell you how fantastic it is to have a holiday to somewhere hot in January. Christmas is over, the weather is depressingly cold (and wet and windy in the UK at the moment), and there is no time off work to look forward to until the Easter bank holiday.
However, this year, when all my friends and colleagues were batting down the hatches against the bad weather, we were packing up our summer clothes as we headed off to visit friends Niasha and Jigi in Sri Lanka – travelling with our other friends Jo (from Alphabet Adventures) and Billy. We started off in Colombo and travelled around the beautiful country, meeting friendly people and eating fantastic food.
Now, I could happily wax lyrical about what an awesome holiday I had, but as this is a food blog I will restrict my blogging to focus solely on the food experiences (maybe the odd boast about our exciting adventures will squeeze through).
Sri Lanka’s national dish is in fact “rice and curry” – it’s eaten every day, often for lunch and dinner. I must say that I have returned from my holidays curried out, but whilst I was there I did enjoy experiencing the vast range of different dishes available to the greedy visitor.
When we arrived in Colombo, our friend Niasha – a fabulous and accomplished cook – made us the well known dish Kothu, which I was unfamiliar with. It is basically a combination of roti (Sri Lankan flatbreads) which have been chopped into pieces and stirfried with vegetables, meat and spices. It was delicious – not too spicy, not too heavy, and very tasty. Niasha served it with a beef curry called smore, which is a whole joint of beef cooked in spiced coconut milk with potatoes. We also had more roti with the meal to mop up the juices.
As if that wasn’t enough food, Niasha had bought a selection of Indian sweets for our dessert – bolofiadho, muscat, kalu dodol, jelebi and jaggery toffee – plus buffalo curd with kitul, a treacle made from jaggery. I especially loved the jaggery toffee and the baclava like sweet which I don’t know the name of. The sweets were not quite as tooth-achingly sweet as Indian style ones, but they had enough sugar in them for an abrupt wake up call which cut through our jetlag like a knife!
The next night, Niasha’s parents kindly invited us to their beautiful house for a selection of curries that we had been lucky enough to try before at Niasha’s house when she lived in England: cashew nut curry and pineapple curry, which Niasha’s mum served with egg hoppers (more about these later), tamarind fried beef, malay pickle, chicken curry and rice. So a second night of eating like kings, followed by a more western key lime pie made by Niasha for pudding.
The following day we left Colombo to start our tour of the cultural triangle, which involved playing with orphaned elephants, wandering around ancient temples, visiting buddhas and dodging bats (don’t ask!). Food on the road and in hotels tended to be a mixture of hotel breakfasts and buffets with the odd snack thrown in. As much as possible I tried to make one meal per day a traditional Sri Lankan one, and during the travelling became quite addicted to egg hoppers.
Egg hoppers are traditionally served at breakfast – they are made from fermented batter which is fried in a special pan like a crepe, and an egg is broken into the centre and cooked until the white is done and the yolk is still runny. They are supposed to be served with curry, but I started the trend amongst us to have them with fried bacon at breakfast – a delicious and complimentary combination, even if I do say so myself. I treated myself to a hopper pan before leaving Sri Lanka, and I fully intend to make egg hoppers and bacon a regular weekend breakfast in our house. That’s assuming I can make them – the hopper cooks did seem to have a real knack to it which I will probably not have!
Other types of hoppers include plain ones (without the egg), milk hoppers (with coconut milk cooked in the bottom), and string hoppers, which are either made with white or red flour and shaped into a vermicelli noodle bundle and steamed. All of them are usually served with curry at breakfast. I only managed a curry breakfast once during the holiday, along with hoppers and kiribath or milk rice – I’m afraid that my constitution wasn’t up to tolerating such spicy food first thing in the morning, so I generally stuck to my egg hopper and bacon combo!
Ending the holiday back in Colombo, Niasha once again treated us to a traditional Sri Lankan meal of short eats to start: fish balls, mutton rolls and beef patties; followed by lamprais: a banana leaf package containing rice and a selection of curries. My favourite curry within the lamprais was an aubergine one, which was sticky and sweet and full of flavour. For pudding we had more delicious curd and kitul.
In Sri Lanka I also loved eating deep fried cassava chips (not dissimilar from potato crisps but dredged in chilli and slightly thicker and crispier), devilled cashew nuts (once again, fried in chilli) and milk biscuits (a bit like shortbread biscuits, but even nicer, and perfect for giving us all a little sugar hit during our long car journeys around the country).
In the end we had to buy an extra case to bring back all of the goodies we purchased: devilled nuts and cassava chips and milk biscuits, but also various types of tea, coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, hot chocolate, pappadoms, curry powders, jaggery and kitul. We also bought back some little souvenirs of our holiday: a coconut monkey which I christened Chaminder (after our nice but utterly useless guide), a hand carved elephant, and a Sri Lankan devil mask.
As well as all of the wonderful food experiences, I rode my first elephant; saw my first blue whale, dolphins and sea turtles in the wild; I did my first safari (and came close to a wild elephant, who engaged in a staring competition with us which in retrospect was quite dangerous but at the time was magical); I ate a durian (smells like old and slimy binbags, tastes like gas); picked tea; chewed betel nut (disgusting!); bathed with wild monkeys watching me; and spent a lot of time in fear of my surroundings (bats, snakes, jumping spiders, rickety boats, the lawless roads of Sri Lanka with mad drivers). It was an amazing holiday and one I will never forget – thanks to Jo and Billy, Niasha and Jigi, and of course Andrew for making it special.
If you ever get the chance to visit Sri Lanka, do!