A Love Letter to Eating in Sri Lanka

What to do when you land in Colombo? Head straight for the curries, rotis, pickles, and more.

A noodle maker at work

Inside one of the small restaurants near Pettah Market

Photo by Ryan Wijayaratne

Having grown up by the sea in Mumbai, there is nothing that says I’m home quite like warm, salty air hitting my face as I exit the airplane door. Sri Lanka is technically not home for me, but strangely, over the past decade it has felt more home than any other country I’ve lived in. Our three Hoppers restaurants in London serve Sri Lankan dishes, and I joke that the restaurants were simply an excuse to legitimize my endless visits to the island.

Cooking outdoors with coconut milk; farm in early morning

From left: Using coconut milk to prepare dishes at a local farm; early morning at the farm

Photos by Ryan Wijayaratne

This time around, when we land in Colombo, our first stop is a local coconut plantation in Chilaw. Owned by our friends at Rockland Distilleries, this is where they collect sap from the coconut flowers, which first ferments naturally to make toddy before being distilled into the ubiquitous arrack—the spirit of Sri Lanka. Coconut plantations with toddy shacks are a common feature in South India and Sri Lanka; they are often family-run establishments where the men harvest toddy while the women prepare delicacies to accompany the milky nectar. Thirsty patrons queue outside long before these shacks open their doors and only leave once the last pitchers of toddy have been drained. The food served here is like nowhere else—fried sprats, fish head curries, offal, tapioca, sambals, to name a few—and the atmosphere as raucous as the flavors on the plate. I first visited a toddy shack in Kerala, India, years ago, and it proved to be one of the most memorable meals I have eaten. Ever since, I find every excuse to visit similar outfits when traveling in India or Sri Lanka.

Following a quick pit stop at Jetwing’s Colombo Seven Hotel, we are off to dinner in Pettah Market. Colombo’s largest market and a cultural melting pot, it brings together tradesmen, worshippers, hawkers, restaurateurs, vendors, and shoppers from all regions and walks of life. Every street is famed for a different product, be it plastic ware, metals, catering equipment, dried fish, faloodas, or sweets. It’s not difficult to lose yourself and a good chunk of your day wandering the labyrinth and soaking it all in.

From left: A kothu vendor; a mixed plate from Pettah Market

From left: A kothu vendor; a mixed plate from Pettah Market

Photos by Ryan Wijayaratne

We source some of our dry produce, hopper pans, and service ware for the restaurants directly from Pettah. Hardware needs aside, I visit Pettah for its food. You only need to look around and follow your nose and eyes to discover the best spots. I find the longest queue and order by sight: “One of whatever he or she is eating, please.”

Muslim and Malay specialities like biryanis, rotis, and quail curries are abundant at eateries around the red Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque situated at the heart of Pettah, while fried snacks, fresh fruits (served with salt and chile), and local pickles are available at practically every street corner. We feast on much of this, before hailing a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. But we don’t get far before the familiar sound of clanking paddles chopping up roti doused in meat curry, egg, and shredded vegetables on a hot plate get the better of me. I ask the driver to pull over for one last dish—a mutton kothu.

The story behind this dish (and the one I’d like to believe) is that after a late night out, a hungry drunk pulled out some leftovers from his fridge—stale roti and leftover curry—and tossed them together in a pan, chopping everything up and uplifting the dish with some egg and fresh vegetables, inadvertently creating one of the greatest one-pan meals of all time. Today, you can find kothus served all across the island, cooked by enthusiastic chefs who can be easily tracked down by the distinctive chopping sound. The final bite of the day is arguably the most memorable, and we decide to walk back to the hotel to burn off some of the day’s indulgences. Later, as I drift off, there’s a reprise of clanking kothu paddles in my head, and I smile, thinking of all the food we have lined up the next day.

Buy now: Hoppers: The Cookbook: Recipes, and Stories from Sri Lanka and Beyond, bookshop.org

Karan Gokani is a restaurant owner and the author of the cookbook, Hoppers: The Cookbook: Recipes, and Stories from Sri Lanka and Beyond.
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