Travel, Food, and Slices of Life


That’s Some Spicy Meatball!

Guest Post by Graham Rankin

The title comes from an old Alka-Seltzer ad but could be applied to Sri Lankan cuisine. Since I returned from Sri Lanka I’ve been asked to write about the food, not only because I am a foodie but also because I posted a lot of pictures during the trip of what I was eating each day.

Sri Lanka cuisine is similar to Indian cuisine in that curries, dahl and rice dishes are common.  Someone told me that that Sri Lankans claim to have invented curry but that the Indians take issue with that.  I am not going to try to discover who invented it, I just enjoy them.  As an aside, “curry” means sauce so there are thousands of curry recipes found in a number of Southeast Asian countries.

Chicken curry (bowl of red in the center) with traditional accompaniments”  ( counter-clockwise from right: rice, dahl, some potato based dish I don’t remember the name, naan, chutney, and pickled onions)

Chicken curry (bowl of red in the center) with traditional accompaniments” ( counter-clockwise from right: rice, dahl, some potato based dish I don’t remember the name, naan, chutney, and pickled onions)

When you go to a typical Indian restaurant in America, you are often asked “mild, medium, hot or Indian hot”.  To that I could add Sri Lankan hot!  Actually it is not quite that bad if you stay away from the chili paste that often is an accompaniment to dishes.  The menus at some restaurants did include notice that some dishes were “very spicy”, “medium spicy” or “mild” as a guide for us westerners.

There are some dishes that seem to be uniquely Sri Lankan, two of which were often served on the breakfast buffet at my hotel.  The breakfast buffet included what we might call a “traditional English breakfast”: sausages, scrambled eggs, potatoes, grilled tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms.  It also included a curry, milk rice and egg hoppers.  The last two were new to me.  Milk rice (or rice and milk) I had growing up was a way of using up leftover rice served with milk and sugar.  In Sri Lanka, it is a firm, slightly salty dish, which reminded me of very firm grits or polenta.  The egg hopper is a very thin crepe like bowl made of rice flour batter with an egg cooked sunny side up in the bottom.  A special pan with steeply sloping sides is heated over a burner, the batter added and swirled around to coat the sides.  When it is set, an egg is dropped in the middle and cooking completed.  These were being made fresh at a cook station so I watched the process.  They had a spicy grilled onion mixture or chili sauce as accompaniment.

Egg hopper along with grilled chicken, yellow rice, curry, chutney and other goodies (dinner at Raja Bojun)

Egg hopper along with grilled chicken, yellow rice, curry, chutney and other goodies (dinner at Raja Bojun)

Breakfast also included an assortment of baked goods, fresh fruit and juice.  The waiter convinced me to forego the orange juice I usually ordered to be “Sri Lankan” and get the fresh pineapple or mango juice.  It was delicious.

During the week, my lunch was provided by the lab from a local takeout around the corner.  It was referred to as a “packet”, for the flat box it came in.  It was usually rice with some protein and vegetables and a thin egg omelet.  Noodles were the alternative starch component.  The servings were large, almost large enough for 2 and cost under $3.  Fruit yogurt, ice cream or fresh fruit for dessert.

Prawn curry with noodles, vegetables, tofu, and egg omelet.  The dark red dab in the upper right corner is chili paste which I was told by my Sri Lankan liaison to avoid as it was too hot for him!  I took his advice seriously. Prawns are what we would call shrimp here.

Prawn curry with noodles, vegetables, tofu, and egg omelet. The dark red dab in the upper right corner is chili paste which I was told by my Sri Lankan liaison to avoid as it was too hot for him! I took his advice seriously. Prawns are what we would call shrimp here.

As Sri Lanka is an island, seafood is frequently included on menus.  My first day, I had cuttlefish with rice for lunch.  Cuttlefish is a relative of squid and octopus and tastes similar but definitely chewier.chicken lampras

One day, Lucky (my liaison) suggested I try something different and he ordered Chicken Lamprasi which is grilled chicken, rice, a hard-boiled egg and a “cutlet” wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.  Unlike our ‘cutlet’ over here, it was a thickly breaded chopped meat filled item that reminded me of a tamale but seasoned differently.lunch

As an aside, Sri Lankans generally eat with their fingers (right hand only!) but provided me with a fork.

RajaAlthough I ate most of my dinners at the hotel because the construction on the main street made walking somewhat treacherous,  I did venture a couple of blocks down the street to Raja Bojun.  It had been recommended as having a buffet featuring dishes from all the regions of Sri Lanka.  I really needed a guide and an extra stomach to work my way through all the choices.Raja buffet

One half of the buffet (21 choices) were Sri Lankan dishes.  In addition, there was a station where chicken thighs were being grilled and another  making egg hoppers.

Raja dessertAbout one third of the choices for desserts including fresh fruit, cheese, cakes, puddings, ice cream and yogurts.

fish soupThe restaurant at the hotel featured mostly western dishes with some Sri Lankan touches.  A Sri Lankan fish soup and grilled watermelon and prawns salad were two interesting offerings.grilled watermelon and prawns

Three desserts at the hotel were particularly notable:  dessert shooteedrs“Watalappian  Jaggery coconut pudding with Karthakalabu mango and ginger shooter”, dessert shooteedrs2“trio of Kirulaga and coconut surprise, steamed coconut cake and upcountry nut roll” and “banana fritters with vanilla cinnamon ice cream and honey”.  I think I have spelled everything correctly as I am trying to read a bad photograph of the menu.dessert shooteedrs3

Wine and most distilled spirits are imported and relatively expensive.  However, a glass of Australian wine at the hotel cost about $7 which is in line with hotel prices for wine by the glass here.  I tried three different local beers and Lion Lager won out.  Good flavor and body; the others tasted like Coors Light.  Beers can be ordered in 1 liter bottles – one will do.  Lion also helped counteract the heat of the curries!

I did eat the first Friday night at the Bavarian restaurant across the street from the hotel sitting at the bar (no tables of one on Friday nights) when someone ordered the monster pictured below (not me!).  It holds 3 liters and was to be delivered to a table of 3 according to the bartender.beer

There is one local distilled spirit, Arrack, which is distilled from coconut flower sap, sugar cane and/or red rice.  It is aged in barrels and tastes like a cross between dark rum and bourbon.  I had it over ice, but was told that most Sri Lankans prefer it with soda and no ice (something they must have acquired from the British).  I was told there was a local rum and gin, but did not try those.arak

The full moon occurred Sunday, March 16th.  Each full moon Buddhists in Sri Lanka celebrates the Pula festival.  No alcohol is sold on this day; bars and liquor stores are closed.  The Bavarian was closed as most of its business was due to the bar and less from the food.  At the hotel, one could order alcohol ONLY through room service and there was a minibar in each room.  I abstained and drank only bottled water with dinner.  I had fish curry and wished for my Lion to cut the heat!

One final note,  I never had any GI problems.  I had taken Hepatitis A and B, typhoid and tetanus shots before leaving as recommended by the CDC travel website.  I generally drank bottled water rather than tap water. The hotel and lab provided bottled water in abundance. There was an article in the local newspaper that the tap water in Colombo was declared safe.  As for fresh fruits I ate only peeled fruit outside of the hotel as recommended by the USAID instructions sent to me prior to my trip.




Controlled Chaos

Guest post by Graham Rankin

My two weeks in Sri Lanka kept me in the capital, Colombo, most of the time.  I traveled across town each day between my hotel to the building where I held my training class.  It always seemed to be rush hour both ways so I had an opportunity to observe the usual heavy traffic of a major city combined with some more unusual sights of a Southeast Asian country.  tuktukI  enjoyed being driven everywhere; in the mornings by a driver and car from the hotel and in the evenings taking a cab.  Automobiles are expensive and with gasoline equivalent to $4.86/gallon, it is too much for most workers.  Salaries are low compared to the US, so most Colombo citizens take mass transit in the form of buses or by tuk-tuk (3 wheeled vehicles imported from India) or motorcycles.going to work

Being a former British colony, driving is on the left and must negotiate numerous “round-abouts” or traffic circles.  It seems that whoever honks the loudest has the right of way and the white line down the middle of the road is only an “indication” of where one drives, rather than a hard rule. 

There are some traffic lights at some major intersections or traffic cops direct traffic. The large white gloves they wear have red reflectors on the palms. Several major intersections have no traffic control whatsoever so you just have to sit back, stay calm, and let your driver honk his way through. traffic
Road construction made matters even worse along with pedestrians, handcarts and things OSHA would definitely object to. Amazingly in my two weeks there, I saw no accidents.pedestrian in road

Cabs are relative inexpensive by American standards.  It cost 900 Rs (about $8) to ride across town, about 30-40 minutes.  From the airport (well outside the city), the trip costs $28.  Cabs like other cars there, are mostly Japenese or Korean subcompacts with the occasional hybrid like a Toyota Prius.  I highly recommend taking one, but metered cabs must be arranged well in advance or you need to negotiate the fare before leaving.  Also, I had been  forewarned that even with the address written down, your driver may need to stop and ask directions.  Fortunately most know the location of the major hotels so getting back is easier than going some place.  It took a few days for the hotel drivers to learn the way to the Government Analysts Building located on a small side street off a major street so could be hard to find, and understandably, not someplace most people would need to know.  I did tip the driver of the hotel car 100 Rs (less than a dollar) as well as the cab drivers.  It may not seem much to us, but wages are low there.

A common question cabbies asked was is traffic as bad in the US as in Colombo.  I said yes in the big cities like Colombo, but at least we don’t have tuk-tuks.  Everybody hates tuk-tuk drivers there so this always got a big laugh.  Tuk-tuk drivers in Colombo make New York cabbies seem like someone’s granny.  traffica

I did brave taking a tuk-tuk from the city market.  You sit in the back and hang on tightly to whatever looks most connected.  I probably was overcharged at 250 Rs ($2) for what should have been 150 Rs.  Another gullible American, but he didn’t get a tip!  However, upon finding out that I was an American (I was often assumed to be from Australia), he asked my opinion about the US pushing for the UN to investigate possible war crimes by the Sri Lankan government.  You probably are unaware of the issue here, but it was front page news there.  My response was “I don’t always agree with what our government does, just like you probably don’t agree with yours”.  I figured that was a good neutral response and certainly satisfied my driver.

Reminder to self: next time I travel, to be a better world citizen, read up on current events.

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Pearl of the Ocean

Guest Post by Graham Rankin

I just returned from a two week trip to Sri Lanka conducting a workshop for some of the forensic chemists at their Government Analysts Bureau.  It is part of a international program funded by our USAID.  The point of this essay is not what I taught but about my observations about the Sri Lanka, its people and, because I am a foodie, its food.  This is the first of several blog posts.

srilankamapIndiaSri Lanka is an island just east of the southern tip of India in the Indian Ocean.  I was told that Sri Lanka means “Pearl of the Ocean”. When it was a British colony it became known as Ceylon and was most famous for its tea, spices and sapphires. My Sri Lankan guide told me that “Ceylon,” a corruption of “Sea Land,” named so because of its importance as a port for early sailors.

Not many Americans visit there mostly because of the distance (12,000+ miles) and long flight times.  It took me about 25 hours total travel time each way.  This is a shame because it is a beautiful tropical island with a diversity of geography and some of the most friendly people I have met.SriLankaMap

My work kept me in the capital city of Colombo most of the time. Since I had the weekend free I enjoyed a guided day trip into the mountains to the city of Kandy.  More about that trip in a later blog.

The island was inhabited for over 10,000 years by a wide diversity of people, resulting in a series of kingdoms and territorial wars for centuries before Europeans arrived.  Portuguese Jesuits set up a trading center in Colombo in the 1500s.  Of course they also began to work at converting the islanders from Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions to Christianity.  The Dutch came later in the late 17th and early 18th century, establishing a fort at the city of Galle (pronounce Gaul) on the southern end as part of the Dutch East Indies company. The British made their appearance in the early 19th century when it looked like France would conquer the Netherlands and its colonies would become French.

Ceylon became part of the British Empire in 1815.  Independence from Great Britain occurred at the same time as India in 1948, but remained a member of the Commonwealth until 1972.  There have been a series of governments in Sri Lanka including a Communist leaning one in the late 70s and 80s.

There are currently two major ethnic groups, the Singhalese and the Tamils.  Each group has its own language and alphabet. I was told that because each refuses to learn the other, English is the common language.  In fact at the local universities all classes are taught in English and theses and all papers must be written in English.

The upper is Singhalese; the middle is Tamil

The upper is Singhalese; the middle is Tamil

srilankabombMost recently there has been a very bloody uprising by a faction (ILTE or Tamil Tigers) of the Tamil minority that lasted from 1983 until 2009 when the Singhalese dominated military was able to crush the rebellion.  Numerous bombings were commonplace during this time.  Several top officials of the government and parliament were assassinated.

Although Colombo is quiet and relatively safe, a number of bombings occur in the Tamil dominated northern and eastern sections of the country each month.  Land mines planted during the insurrection are still discovered in rural areas; unfortunately when elephants or people step on them.  There are soldiers at key positions around Colombo with Chinese made AK-47s and numerous police (mostly unarmed) throughout the city.  Directing traffic seems to be the main occupation of many police.traffic

I considered taking a picture of one of the soldiers but thought it might not be a good idea.Gunboat

I thought this boat was just a fishing vessel when I took the picture until I blew it up and could see the deck guns.  It was patrolling off shore opposite my hotel.

Since 2009, there has been a resurgence of foreign capital coming into Sri Lanka with a building boom in Colombo.  There is a goal of constructing 3000 new hotel rooms over the next couple of years.  A new toll road to the airport was just opened.  A cab driver told me it is an election year so the current president is seen a lot cutting ribbons on projects.


Galle Face Hotel

The hotel where I stayed (Galle Face Hotel), originally built in 1864 is undergoing the second phase of restoration to be completed next year.ViewFormHotelRoom

This was my residence for the two weeks in Sri Lanka.  A historic hotel with hardwood floors, ceiling fans and an ocean view where I could watch the sun set from either my room  or from the patio bar and pool below.  As most guests stay only for a few days, my two week stay may have resulted in some of the comps (bottle of wine, fresh fruit and candies) I received, and the service was excellent.


After a full week there I had laundry done…it was return perfectly folded in a rattan basket.MyLaugndryDelivered

I had the feeling of being in a Victorian novel where the elite made the Grand Tour of the Indies, staying at hotels like the Galle Face.  BedroomThe room had all the standard accouterments  with a very modern bath.  BAthIn addition to central air conditioning there was a ceiling fan in the room which I much appreciated especially coming in from the 90 degree 90% humidity that reminded me of summers in Houston, Texas. LibraryGalleFaceHotelThe hotel had a library,   (yes it was that yellow!) gym and spa.


woodcarvingDiningoomCarved wood trim everywhere including the dining room


ChekhovNehruLots of staff available (more it seemed that in a typical Hilton) willing to take care of any need.  The bar had photos of famous people who had stayed there including Nehru,  Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Alex Guinness and Sir Lawrence Olivier.  The general manager told me that during the filming of Bridge over the River Kwai, much of which was shot in Sri Lanka, several of the cast stayed there.  He also told me a visitor commented to him that any hotel that hosted both Che’ Guevara and Richard Nixon (not at the same time!) was his kind of place!