The national dish of Sri Lanka, by which I mean you can literally have it for every meal, is rice and curry. It’s basically a pile of rice and then a spread of different kinds of curries, all prepared separately, for you to create your own masterpiece. Chicken curry, dhal curry, aubergine (eggplant) curry, bananaflower curry, pumpkin curry (my favorite), fish curry… those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. We ate a LOT of rice and curry, but because of the variety of curries available at every table, it took a while for us to tire of it. This remarkable little place was a roadside stop with fantastic rice and curry lunch, where we had heaps of food for maybe two or three dollars.
Ajith also took us for a walk through a commercial fruit and vegetable market, which was awesome. They all knew him and were tolerant of us ooohing and ahhing over their giant piles of food, while Ajith picked up examples of all kinds of produce and told us what it was.
Before leaving Negombo the first day, we rose early to visit a commercial fish market. Like most island countries, Sri Lanka has a huge fishing industry and the cuisine near the coast revolves around seafood. The first boats start unloading their months’ worth of catches at 3 a.m., but thankfully we only rose early enough to catch the very end. There were piles of huge fish in varying states of being cleaned, and even a few that hadn’t finished fighting for their lives, as one guy experienced when he stuck his finger in a fish’s mouth while mugging for tourist cameras. He yelped and then tossed the suddenly wriggling fish onto another table and exacted his revenge with a large curved knife.
We saw yellowfin tuna (identifiable by their distinctive, um, yellow fins), a few sharks that had been mostly dismantled, a pile of manta ray heads the size of footballs, and bins full of smaller fish and shellfish. The previous few days’ weather had been quite severe in SL, so we weren’t sure if there would be boats at all, but even the “small” selection we saw was amazing. The hygiene, however, was less so. The fishermen slung fish bodies and guts around on the concrete, and stray dogs and crows skulked around stealing bits right off the bodies when they could. The ground was thick with fish…. juice? and small bits of bones and other discarded waste. I regretted not ordering fish curry the night before, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to order it now. The market was closing as the sun came up, which made for a beautiful introduction to the seaside town of Negombo.
We also had one evening where we had a cooking lesson by a local family with a little kitchen purpose-built (with help from Intrepid) for teaching. It was fantastic, but also illustrated how time-consuming the “each curry cooks separately” and “everything from scratch” methods are. Luckily, we just had to follow directions, and then eat!
And a couple more random bits and pieces, including the street-ish food we tried. One of the best things about having Ajith to guide us is that he knew where to take us to get good authentic food (well, mostly authentic, as the cooks generally take the spice level down quite a bit for foreigners) that was prepared in a hygienic manner. And the cooks were cool when we wanted to watch them work, too. There were also tuk tuks that all drove around blaring Für Elise, like very erudite ice cream trucks, except they sold bread and pastries.