Five years ago, I tasted a spicy Sri Lankan rice dish in Australia that I still think of from time to time…
In early February we land in Colombo, busy with an abundance of Accidentally Wes Anderson signage. Central Telegraph Office. We walk to the candy cane mosque in the Muslim quarter, then to Galle Face Green at sunset, where night market vendors arrange fried donuts and orange prawn crackers in identical carts.
At the food court in the mall, we join a line for rice with curry and order a vegetarian plate. A mountain of yellow rice with four small scoops of jackfruit curry, chutney, salad, and sambal comes. These soon run out, but we have have plenty of rice left.
On the bus back to our hotel, the ticket collector runs up and down the aisle barefoot, skipping us each time we try to pay.
We leave the capital for the tea hills on the blue train to Kandy. A traveler across from us takes out a lunch box. Aaron whispers, what do you think he has in there? The young man cleans his spoon with hand sanitizer, then lifts the lid, revealing red rice.
Our train arrives in bright and colorful Kandy, where vendors are selling cartfuls of mandarins. We are welcomed with lemon iced tea and sesame sweets at The Radh Hotel, which sits next to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, where Buddha is offered 32 different curries daily.
We buy a paper bag of cassava chips at the market, the crunchiest I’ve ever had. I’m afraid they’ll break my teeth. Aaron loves them.
I find a restaurant with 5-star reviews, a hole-in-the-wall with a single wok. There is no menu. We can order kothu or fried rice, so we get one of each. The kothu is stir fried with a squirt of ketchup and egg, but the rice contains only a mere hint of shredded carrot and scallion. I eat as much as I can, but it is hard and dry.
At sundown we enter the temple. The staff brings each Buddha a dinner tray, accompanied by a cacophony of music and drumming. Worshippers line up to enter the main shrine with baskets of lotus flowers. The tooth is hidden inside seven golden stupas, like a Russian doll.
In the morning we are treated to avocado juice, omelettes, fresh fruit, potato curry, and string hoppers. All very good, but I’m still looking for lamprais, the elusive banana leaf packet.
Our driver picks us up after breakfast to take us to Haputale, a small town in the up country. We stop at a tea factory on the way for a tour and tasting. The tea sorting machines are British, a hundred years old. I choose gunpowder green. We buy a chicken samosa for our driver.
Passing through Nuwara Eliya, we see bountiful produce stands on the side of the road, one after another of beautiful okra, squash, watermelon, peppers, cauliflower, any vegetable you could want.
After hours of dizzily winding our way up the mountain, we arrive at a guesthouse that is still under construction. Our room looks out over the valley, a view that takes your breath away for a moment before the power lines come into focus.
On the second night it rains heavily. Little pieces of plaster start to fall from the ceiling onto the bed, just missing my head.
Every evening we eat at a restaurant down the hill. The rice and curry plates are still mountains of rice with a spoonful of daal, salad, soya protein, and curried vegetables. After so much rice, I finally order a tomato and cheese roti one night, hoping for paneer, but it turns out to be Kraft singles.
Before the sun is too strong in the mornings, we climb to the top of the ridge where we can see the valley below and hike along the trail until the mist rolls in. One morning we spot a three-foot-long snake before it disappears into the tea bushes.
Reserved seats are sold out, so we ride third class to Ella. The seats are pleather and the windows open. A woman across from us has a chicken in a box sitting at her feet.
We arrive delighted to find a busy main street lined with cafes and minimarts. Our host shows us a shortcut up to the train tracks and tells us to walk on the tracks until we reach the colonial-era Nine Arch Bridge. Near the end, we enter a tunnel filled with bats and rush through. On the other side, the bridge curves through lush green undergrowth and palm trees.
While we wait for the train in the shade of broad banana leaves, eating melting ice cream, a girl appears in front of me and asks, where you from? Her name is Lisa, she’s eleven and on vacation with her parents, three brothers, and five cousins from Galle.
For dinner we order stir fried okra, pumpkin curry, spinach daal, and jackfruit curry. The waiter suggests we order two plates of rice with curry, but we say no no no, we don’t want rice with curry, we want curry with rice.
When we return we discover the power is out. The German guests next door are reading by candlelight.
In the morning our host sets out a deep bowl of daal, hot roti, freshly grated coconut sambal, sweet watermelon, bananas, curd with pineapple and treacle, an omelette, and avocado smoothies. The German ladies offer us half their papaya.
By the time we finish breakfast, the sun is already high. We quickly set off to hike Little Adam’s Peak. At the top, two boys offer to sell us bottled water from their backpacks. We ask them what time they got there this morning, and the younger one says 6 AM. That’s so early, we say, and he replies rather seriously, I’m a businessman.
We find a table at Cafe Chill, parched and burnt after our hike. Every tourist in town must be here, packed as it is. I look through the menu and see it – at last, lamprais. Our waiter brings a frozen passionfruit mint tea and sets down small bowls of sambol and papadum chips, then unfolds a grilled banana leaf to reveal a steaming packet of eggplant, jackfruit, beetroot, and green peppers melting into soft yellow rice.
A middle aged man who lived in Italy for many years came back to open the hotel we’re staying in. He loves to talk. We ask him why Sri Lankans eat so much rice. Because it’s cheap, he says. Vegetables are expensive. I used to give mango at breakfast, but now, the price is too high.