Saturday, January 20, 2018

Adventures in Eating, Sri Lanka Style

20 January 2018

We've been having an interesting time in Colombo.  And yes, we're still here in the capital.  Because when you travel, well, life still happens.

My intrepid partner in travel, Richard, he of the strength of Samson, official schlepper of luggage, hurt his back.  And it hasn't gotten better with rest, or gentle exercise, or any of the normal things like aspirin.  So we finally found a good hospital here, and went in for a visit.  The ER doctor referred us to another doctor who sent for blood work and a series of MRIs - and all this occurred over several days.  The upshot is that yes, he has some back issues and we're working on finding proper care and all.

But the funniest part was when a nurse gave us directions to the lab for the blood draw.  "Go back to the atrium, and you will see a big Buddha.  The blood lab is right next to the Buddha."  

Yeah, when was the last time you saw a golden Buddha in your hospital?  And with the bloodwork lab right next to it?

Just struck me as funny.  (No, this Buddha statue isn't the one in the hospital.  It's along the coast road near our hotel.)

So we haven't been venturing too far, trying to let Richard's back heal on its own.

I heard drumming one morning, and looked out our window.  (We're on the 7th floor.)  Up the street there was a procession of people, in colorful robes, saris, and sarongs, with a person on a sedan chair, a chair with poles so other people are carrying them around.  And a blue umbrella.  It was bright and colorful and interesting.  I thought about running out, but I knew they'd be farther up the street by the time I took the elevator and went out, so I stayed at the window and tried to get some decent photos.

According to our hotel reception desk people, that day was Thai Poya, a festival celebrating the harvest, or possibly the first harvest of the season.  (This was one of those language problems we have sometimes.)  There are festivals for every full moon, and each one has a different name for the name of the month.

One person continued drumming, and the group moved rather slowly up the street.  Sometimes there would be people on the sidewalk, holding items that someone from the procession would go and accept from them.  Possibly offerings for the temple?  I don't really know.  But it was one of those interesting and colorful events that we often encounter on the road.

We found a great seafood restaurant at the end of Ramakrishna Road, complete with a random elephant statue in the sand.  There isn't a beach right here, just a rocky coastline.  But it was still nice to sit by the water and have spicy deviled shrimp.

Sri Lankan food is interesting.  Much of it is similar to south Indian food, which makes sense, we're just a few miles or kilometers away across the water.  Spicy and peppery, with a lot of rice and various flat breads or fried breads.

Our hotel includes a buffet breakfast, as well as more western food items like omelettes, scrambled eggs, baked beans (for the British Empire people), and a whole host of bakery items.  But I'm intrigued by the various Sri Lankan breakfast items, and I've been trying something new every day.  Easy to do, since the kitchen has a schedule so that they make different Sri Lanken food every morning of the week.

I'll admit that I'm a bit like Goldilocks - this one is too salty, that one is too sour, ah, this one is just right.  My rule is that I have one bite and decide.  If I really don't like it, I don't.  If I like it, I eat it.  If I really like it, I can have more.  Simple.

So, a couple of items were fermented dough items that I really didn't like: idly, which is a steamed bun, and dosa, which is more of a flat pancake or tortilla like thing.  The fermented dough is quite sour, stronger than sourdough bread.  And a few items were greasy, like the poori (also spelled puri), possibly from sitting a while before I ate it.

String hoppers are little pancakes made of rice flour vermicelli.  Meh, kind of boring.  I think they are usually eaten with the curry of the morning, but I haven't convinced my stomach to eat curry that early.

There are also different things made with rice, often rice cooked with coconut milk.  There's milk rice, which is cut in squares or bars.  And pittu, when the cooked rice is rolled into cylindrical shapes.  Both have a mild coconut taste, but I though they both were a bit too salty.  (One woman today spooned extra coconut milk on her pittu.  I didn't know to do that, she said she prefers it this way.)

Other items have been wonderful.  Aloo bonda is a little spicy potato fritter thing - potatoes are peeled and boiled, drained, then spices and some chili peppers are added, then partly mashed, rolled into balls, dipped into a batter, and deep fried.  Yummy!

Dhal vadai was also tasty - dhal is the lentil curry, so this was lentil patties that were seasoned and friend.  They tasted very similar to falafel, but with slightly different spices, or more chili peppers.  Really good little things!

Oh, and gnanakatha (pronounced sort of like nya-nah-KAH-tha) are amazing butter cookies.  Wonderful and rich, soft in the middle.  They're shaped sort of in mounds, and I think that's why they stay soft instead of getting crunchy.  One of my favorites, and almost always available.

Yesterday I tried upma, sometimes spelled upama.  This is a thick and spicy porridge made of semolina flour, but the way it is cooked it turns out more like the texture of couscous.  Seasoned with herbs and spices and, of course, chili peppers.  Also very tasty.  But many of these savoury items seemed like they'd be better later in the day, possibly for brunch, or lunch, or dinner.  My stomach wakes up slowly, and hot spicy foods for breakfast don't always sit well.  But I'm still happy to try these when I can.

Today's adventures in eating: at breakfast, I tried potato bhaji roti.  This is two thin whole wheat crusts with seasoned and spiced mashed potatoes in the middle.   And cut into wedges.  Think quesadilla with only this spicy mashed potato filling.  Very tasty.  Similar to a potato knish, if you've ever tried that.  (We both grew up eating knishes.)  But more spicy.

At lunch, I went back to our neighborhood veggie place and had the thali plate.  Thali is a (usually vegetarian) platter with small portions of a variety of curries, and rice and/or some of the southern Indian breads.  My platter (covered with banana leaf) had 10 small dishes, each with something different, and a few of the crispy bread-ish things in the center.  Then the waiter gave me some rice.  And every time I finished one of the little dishes, he wanted to bring me a refill!  It was all tasty, and some things I recognized - the yellow-beige thick things are dhal, which is spicy curried lentils - and there were two slightly different kinds.  There was a tomatoey thing.   And something spicy with eggplant.  The very green dish is spinach pureed with other stuff.  The very white is "curd" which is similar to yogurt.  And the other white thing was the dessert, called either payasam or seviyan kheer - basically, kind of like a runny rice pudding but with rice vermilli, and a few raisins, and maybe some orange peel.  Oh, the little red thing is the pickle - smelled wonderful, like spicy pickled orange maybe - but I dipped my fork in the liquid and it tasted like pure salt, so I skipped that.  (Each metal bowl is about a half cup, so some of the items were barely a quarter of a cup of whatever the food item was.)

The people at the next table were laughing, because I was obviously confused.  I told them I was experimenting.  So they came over and told me what was what, and which items go with the bread and what items go with the rice.   Apparently you don't get those mixed up!

It was great fun - and I could not eat it all!!!   Oh, and I was maybe the only person in the restaurant eating with a fork and spoon.  The proper way to eat it all is with your right hand.  I'm not good with rice, though.  

Richard and I also really like Gobi 65 - this is cauliflower florets dipped into a liquidy mixture full of spices and chili pepper, and then deep fried.  SO good, absolutely the best way ever to eat cauliflower!

Okay, enough about the wonderful food here.   Our hotel also has interesting paperwork that is framed and hung on the walls in the stairways and lobby.  I've been analyzing these, and at first I thought they were intricate papercuts.  But they really look more like strips of paper or some kind of material like paper that is laid out in the pattern, most likely while wet.  Almost all seem to be in two layers, so I'd guess maybe one layer is made on glass, then a second almost matching layer is made, and the two are put together to give this interesting composition more depth and greater shadows.  I don't know, and I'm trying to get more information about this art form.  I'd like to know if this is a traditional art, how it is done, all of that.

We've made arrangements for a trip to the interior, with a visit to a national park to see the animals, some time in the hills in the tea plantation region, and then a third town for a big religious festival.  It should be fun and exciting, we'll have three to four days in each location, and then we'll come back to Colombo.  We'll be on the road for ten days, but should have wifi to blog with stories about our adventures, maps, and of course lots of photos.

So stay tuned!

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