Moving away from the small town of Ella and onto Sri Lanka’s second largest city, we reached Kandy, the capital of culture. The city centers around a large lake and on the lake’s edges stands the impressive Temple of the Sacred Tooth temple, home to a molar from the mouth of the very Buddha himself.
Eager to get our own teeth into some of Kandy’s culinary offerings, we hunted down the central market. A mix of meat, spices and more teas than I had ever seen before, friendly stall owners invited us to smell and sample their goods, with many enticing Ayurvedic beauty products too. We stocked up on spices, buying sweet cinnamon bark in bulk and sniffing our way around the huge array of curry mixes on offer.
After spending what felt like hours in the whirlwind of smells and sights within the market, we moved onto a popular local spot for lunch. The Kandy Muslim Hotel is not a place offering accommodation and is not particularly Islamic either. No religion, or lodging, but instead, some of the best food in Kandy, eaten in a busy café right on the main road.
Serving buttery, pillowy roti breads with sweet and creamy cinnamon dahl, customers quenched their thirst slurping down avocado lassis and fresh lime juice while selecting from a pick and mix of savoury pasties and bread being brought round to each table. Famous for its kottu, a dish of day-old roti, finely chopped and cooked with vegetables and meat on a hot plate, we ordered three portions.
Three portions were enough to feed a family of six, and despite all the willing in the world, I was defeated. Not too quickly, though…I still made an impressive dent in this dish, which was a textural mix of soft and crispy roti strips, combined with golden roasted chicken and vegetables.
One of my favourite things about Sri Lankan food is their style of eating. I envision the ‘one pot dish’ to be a crime in their eyes, as each meal I ate came with at least three dishes, all made to be mixed and eaten together, shared amongst your other dining companions. This culture of mixing various plates comes to its absolute peak at the almighty curry buffet. In truth, with a tendency to cook large amounts and such a variety of dishes, almost every meal in Sri Lanka was like a buffet. It’s really just the difference between a Sri Lankan and a greedy Brit that earns these meals their ‘buffet’ title.
Being the aforementioned greedy Brit, I reached a true glutton’s paradise at the infamous Sharon Inn dinner buffet. Contradicting the age-old buffet mantra ‘quantity over quality’, every single dish on offer was delicious in its own way, a feast of flavours, textures and food types. Smooth, velvety chard with desiccated coconut sat next to a slow-cooked and richly spiced dish of jackfruit, a fruit that when cooked takes on an almost disconcertingly lamb-like appearance, soaking up the intense curry flavours of turmeric, chilli, cinnamon and cumin flavours like a greedy, fruity sponge.
Aubergine came cut into fine julienne strips, cooked in a sweet and sour style sauce which was sticky and dark, contrasting with a bright yellow mango curry which was light and tangy. Radish and banana leaves featured in curry dishes too, as well as green beans and yellow peppers. Fresh naan and hoppers were brought out throughout the meal, and I made a sterling effort to squeeze them in alongside the other twelve dishes on offer.
Vegetable curries completely stole the show, leaving little need for the one token meat (chicken) dish on offer. This is a point that bears repeating; Sri Lankan cuisine is a dream for vegetarians. With such inventive use of all fruits and vegetables, Sri Lankan food is bursting with options for a meat-free diet.
Yet despite an abundance of meat-free meals throughout the trip, we ended our holiday with a seafood feast. Back in Colombo for our final night before the flight home, we paid a visit to The Ministry of Crab. Highly regarded as one of the best restaurants in Colombo, there’ll be no prize given for guessing their speciality.
Crab is, of course, their dish of the day, with customers choosing the desired size of their crustacean for consumption. You are then a given the option of which sauce you’d like it cooked in. Having eaten a fair amount of spice over our trip, we veered towards a garlic sauce without chilli. Garlicky enough to keep vampires at bay but not a touch too much, the garlic flavour melted in with mounds of extra virgin olive oil and together this mix of flavours sat perfectly on top of the crab.
With an enormous crab to share, naturally, we felt the need to order yet another dish. The prawn curry came with impressive, almost lobster-like king prawns, cooked in a coconut curry sauce and served with freshly baked slices of bread. The prawns had a perfect, firm texture, yet for my very last meal on this earth, I may well just request a load of bread and the sauce these prawns were cooked in. A mix of coconut, large amounts of oil, gentle curry spices combined with lots of garlic and soft onions made for an all-around blow-out of a dish.
All in all, I could not have asked for a better holiday. Two weeks was a wonderful amount of time to travel around, and while we by no means covered the whole country, we managed a relaxing and fascinating mix of city, culture, beach and nature. To anyone thinking of going to Sri Lanka, this is a country with so much to offer. So go travel, eat and cook, and try for yourself all the incredible tastes of Sri Lanka.