Saturday, 30 August 2014

Eating out in Colombo, Sri Lanka (or "How to Eat Your Own Bodyweight in Seafood")

Colombo feels as though its a city on the cusp of change. For years it has had a reputation as somewhere that you don't stop for long before heading to one of the coasts and, similarly to the much maligned Bangkok, is as a grubby portal to the beaches. I loved Colombo despite the dirt and hustle and bustle. Various areas are in the process of regeneration but its fair to see there are plenty of places in the city that have already up and come and where you can have an excellent meal and a good night out.

Lagoon at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel is a glass box of a restaurant  with a terrace overlooking a small man made lagoon.  The premise is essentially that you visit the fishmonger's counter, pick your weapon and it can then be cooked one of a multitude of ways. Seer is a fish that you see lots on menus in Sri Lanka - its a member of the mackerel family but is much bigger and essentially more similar to tuna in terms of size of steak and meaty texture. 

We ordered an array of food cooked in different styles to share. Cuttlefish in white curry sauce (a delicate creamy sauce - the Sri Lankan version of a korma you might say) was particularly good, fried crab claw cakes had a ginger tang were one of my favourites too. 

Giant river prawns were covered in a spicy crumb and grilled before being drizzled in butter. 
King prawns were in a spiced tomato and onion garlic sauce and fair blew my head off.

It is very much a hotel restaurant and ensures there is something for everyone. You can have your seafood with sweet and sour sauce or breaded with ketchup if you prefer- we just tried to go for the more local options. 

At the other end of the price spectrum is Beach Wadiya.  A 10 minute tuk tuk drive out of town it lies on Marine Drive opposite KFC but is well worth the journey. Sitting right on the beach front with the waves lapping the shore you feel instantaneously a world away from the humid hustle and bustle of Colombo town. 

It has an unparalleled reputation and the walls are plastered in photos of the great and the good with manager Olwyn.  Despite being well into his seventies, he sits there day and night surveying his territory and its guests. Princess Anne is reported to have deemed it her favourite place in Sri Lanka and amongst her favourite restaurants ever.

This was by far and away my favourite place in Colombo and a must visit as far as I am concerned. A large plate of king prawns grilled with garlic is around £3. The cuttlefish come in at around the same price and are cooked to order from the fishcounter

I ate there twice and never left with a bill over about £12 for everything including beers. Watch out getting back to the mainroad for a tuk tuk home after all that beer though!

Curry Leaf at the HIlton turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I'm always a bit dubious of hotel restaurants especially ones that offer buffets. For a fixed price of 2750 rupees (£13) you get to select all the fish and seafood you like to be cooked to your preference and delivered to your table. Outside are various little streetfood stalls offering made to order portions of kottu, stringhoppers and roti. It was a briliant way to get a crash course into Sri Lankan cuisine before ordering the things I liked best at other restaurants during the trip.

One of the most popular places around is the fantastically named  "Ministry of Crab". Co-owned by two international Sri Lankan cricket players, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara (which makes them Gods in these parts where the first question any taxi driver asks you is "do you like cricket?") the price tags are designed to match. The smallest crab size starts at 3000 rupees (around £15) which is megabucks by Sri Lankan standards. Mainly for that reason I decided to give it a miss. It is located in the Dutch Courtyard though which is a renovated colonial area with shops and bars etc in it and the heartland of an up and coming modern Sri Lankan scene and worth a visit even if you don't eat at Ministry. 

I wish I had been able to spend more time in the city to explore its burgeoning street food scene but the rest of the country awaited me. Hopefully this whistlestop tour gives you a taste of Sri Lanka though.


Thursday, 28 August 2014

Hikkaduwa, East Coast Sri Lanka

Hikkaduwa sits in the centre of the region worst hit by the Tsunami on boxing day back in 2004 (its hard to believe that it was already a decade ago). You might recall reports of a train that was swept off its tracks along with all its passengers, well that was here. In some ways it is a very restful place, sleepy at this time of year as most tourists are over on the West side of Sri Lanka. That's one of the great things about visiting Sri Lanka; there is always a part of the island that is in season. That restfulness also feels as though it has a sadness to it too though. Graves of various religions line the side of the road along the coast commemorating those taken by the same waves.  Fading photographs glued to telegraph poles and the sides of buildings. The shell of the fateful train sits unmoved from its last port of call.  Life gradually moves on though and whilst noone in the area will ever forget, new business have sprung up and the area is making a new name for itself pinning its hopes on a new dawn of tourists drawn to the teardrop isle of Sri Lanka. 

After the heat and bustle of Colombo I couldn't wait to leap out of the car and feel the sand between my toes and a sea breeze in my hair. Although a swim was exactly what I wanted the waves were choppy with a ratty red flag warning against the warm water's temptations. 

Meandering along the beach I came across hardly another soul other than the occasional fisherman. That is until I reached a sign swinging in the breeze.

Shhhh! I'm going to tell you something but only if you can keep it to yourself, in fact its Top Secret. Top Secret only because that's the name of the restaurant. Under the sign a sea of hammocks and brightly coloured sun loungers entice you in. Wander inside and travellers of all nationalities are sat sipping cold beers, making full use of the wifi and nibbling on local delicacies. Our stumbling across Top Secret was a happy coincidence due to the deep rumbling sound, partly from my stomach and partly due to the darkening clouds rolling in across the horizon from the sea.  

Sure enough, no sooner than I had ordered a drink at the bar than the heavens opened sending a flurry of gap year students who had been sleeping off hangovers on the sand scurrying for cover into the shadowy depths of the bar. 

We grabbed a table in the restaurant and ordered plates of seafood and rice. My favourites were these squid rings in a piquant and peppery sauce. 

The drumming beat of rain on the roof began to slow in rhythm and finally subsided leaving us free to carry on our wander along the shoreline and walk off lunch, spotting a few bits of nature thrown by the waves onto the beach as we went. 

No swimming for us today though, the lifeguard's flags made sure of that. 


Saturday, 23 August 2014

Colombo: Galle Face Green

I don't know about you but I am an expert people watcher. I get it from my mother. My brother calls it just plain nosey but I'd like to think I'm just super observant and good at taking in my surroundings. At least that's what I call it.  Galle Face Green in Colombo is an excellent place to sharpen those well-honed people watching skills and is a fascinating snapshot into leisure time in Sri Lanka.

Dusk begins to fall and the Green gets busier and busier as parents finish work and bring their children to the shore.  The skyline becomes dotted with kites dancing in the breeze as people weave in and out, dodging competing kite strings and chasing their aerial toys.

Whole families kick off their shoes and paddle in the foamy waves crashing onto the sand.

Even soggy monks get in on the action

Lovebird couples stroll along the waterfront or steal kisses hidden under umbrellas unfurled in the pretence of blocking out the sun.

Small green huts dotted along the promenade offer various types of street food usually involving prawns in every incarnation you can think of...

Street vendors call out offering all kinds of mystery goods...

Brightly coloured inflatables and windmills draw admiring glances from awestruck toddlers

Most of all though, it feels like a very happy carefree place to be.

If you're thirsty or just need some time away from the hustle and bustle head next door to the Galle Face Hotel for a pot of Ceylon tea or an early evening cocktail. First constructed in 1864 it has managed to retain a lot of its old world charm. It was under renovation when I visited (and will be until the end of 2014) but despite the builders you can still see hints of the beautiful colonial architecture.  If you sit in the garden there is a fair chance you will be visited by one of these inquisitive chaps….

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