Pungent, meaty smoke swirls out of the kitchen at Pilawoos, an unassuming, somewhat dodgy looking café in Colombo 03. The plastic tables and chairs are packed with families, drivers who are stopping to refuel, and groups of young men – but not a tourist in sight. Our driver Danny, who is from Kandy but nostalgically remembers his time living in Colombo and dining at Pilawoos, has taken us here to try the spicy chicken kottu roti – his favourite. With a knowing wink to the waiter and the spice levels adjusted accordingly for ‘the white people’, we are soon tucking into a few different variations of the chicken kottu roti. It’s similar to a pad thai, but instead of rice noodles you are treated to shredded, buttery stips of roti in the stir fry.
This isn’t the first authentic Sri Lankan culinary experience that Danny has treated us to this week. Three nights earlier, as we make our way from Udawalawe to Anaradaphura, we stop for a night in Kandy. Danny and his family graciously invite us to eat with them at their house. With his two young children riding a trike around the lounge room, we sit on the couches and eat rice and curry prepared by Danny’s wife and their helper with our hands. Rice and curry is a staple meal, which many Sri Lankans enjoy for three meals a day. Once you have tasted the combination of fragrant gravy with perfectly tender meat, it is easy to imagine eating like this all the time.
Deep in the jungle of Yala, staying in a serviced treehouse we sit outside under the stars. In the distance we can hear elephants trumpeting and trampling, mosquitos buzzing and watch the light dancing across the outdoor pool. We sit down to the dinner table and are served a fluffy pile of yellow biriyani rice. Nestled beneath the golden grains, is a single chicken drumstick, aromatic and deep brown in colour from the spices rubbed into the skin. This surprise within the dome of rice is exactly what we felt like after a day of exploring the jungle.
Sri Lanka has the most public holidays of any country in the world due to having such a diverse religious population of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Because of the religious culture, there are a number of days on the calendar where it is illegal to sell alcohol in bars or restaurants. But on the other days – beer and locally made liquors such as arrack and toddy are readily enjoyed – everywhere from inside a bar to from an old man selling homemade arrack on the side of the road. In a dark nightclub with a pulsing beat, we sit at a small table among the smoke. A tall, frosty tower of the local Lion Lager glistens under the rainbow lightscoming from the nearby stage. While normally I would drink wine, the overbearing heat and humidity has pushed me to quickly down a couple of glasses of beer in quick succession.
Down south, on the beaches of Mirissa, we sit on the sand watching the gentle waves roll into the shore. We sip fruity, icy cocktails and eat thick, flaky pieces of roti, a local flat bread. The texture is light and chewy and so buttery that the wax paper it is wrapped in quickly turns transparent in our hands.
Against the background of chattering families and buzzing mosquitos, we sit outside at long tables eating curry and hoppers. The delicate caps of the thin hoppers and the webbed baskets of string hoppers encase a spicy chicken curry. One basket after another arrives at the table, but it is never enough.
Just like the hoppers – no matter how long you spend exploring this colourful, exciting place, you feel like enough is never enough in Sri Lanka.