From Our Foreign Curryspondent ... Dateline: Sri Lanka!

(The TATTGOC brotherhood extends around the globe, and we welcome reports of curry expeditions beyond Glasgow – here, international traveller and photographer Tikka Mabaws explores the curry scene in Sri Lanka. Check out his regular travel blog at I Done A Holiday)

“Spices, spices, always I am eating spices,” says robbing bastard, liar and general bad guy Bernard as we hurtle around Colombo in a tuk tuk. Shortly thereafter, he demands 2000 rupees (less than an hour ago, he'd said it would be 300) for allegedly giving us a tour. In fact, all we've done is tear around the block and get dumped outside a Buddhist temple in front of a couple of bemused monks. Something tells me that the clipboard identifying him as a qualified tour guide may have been fabricated ... Here, in Sri Lanka’s capital, he is not alone in being spice fiend (or bastard for that matter) which perhaps goes some way to explaining why mosquitoes feast so readily on tourists, but leave locals well alone, no matter how much they chance their arm.

In Sri Lanka it’s not uncommon for people to enjoy curry three times a day; certainly local agriculture is set up to make that as easy as possible, with rice paddies and spice gardens fighting for light amid a jungle of coconut trees. It’s cheap and it’s readily available, meaning many locals have curry quite literally seeping through their pores. Sri Lanka has a reputation for producing fiercely hot curries, but most chefs will tailor it, depending on your taste. As I’m with Phall From Grace (ma burd) this generally means we can take it easy. In nine days on the island, we have it only four or five times and I never do quite manage to gather the courage to have it for breakfast.

When ordering a curry here, it’s not just a case of picking a single dish and a single rice, nor are there the wide choice of types of curry. There is simply Curry, the term for any dish at the heart of a sprawling spice selection. It’s not uncommon for ten or more tapas-style bowls to be fighting for room on the table by the time a waiter has finished. At the centre sits a perennial, preposterously large, bowl of rice. Coconut sambal also turns up in every restaurant and hotel, as does potato dahl. In each instance they are far spicier than I, as a colonial wimp, expect. Green beans, mushrooms, tomatoes … All of them for the basis for individual dishes, making for a colourful display.

Unless eating in a particularly posh restaurant (I’d recommend here for that kind of thing) any meat within the curry is almost always chicken, and almost always inedible. Mercifully we avoid any explosive repercussions from eating the meat, but that’s mostly because in the slightly dingier places (and there are thousands) the meat is often bone-heavy and rarely worth wrestling with.

Perhaps that makes the whole experience sound a little disappointing, when it certainly isn’t. Each of the dishes tastes wonderfully distinct from one another – there’s none of the creamy blandness you might find in a UK curry house here. The ingredients, which spring from plants that cover every inch of non-developed land, taste wonderfully fresh too.

Aubergine pops up regularly and is always a surprise treat as does the frequent – if subtle – flavour of cinnamon. That’s mibbe not so surprising when you consider that Sri Lanka is the world capital when it comes to the growing and harvesting of the stuff.

It’s a similar case with jackfruit, which can be prepared as part of its own curry, but is also used to make the papadoms. The flavour is much stronger – and, in the opinion of this curryspondent, better – than would be found in the UK.

Their presence often makes up for the almost total absence of naans. Indeed, on the one occasion we are served our doughy favourite, the offering is petit, pancake-like and not altogether worthwhile.

The same cannot be said for the local lager, Lion, which comes in big 700ml bottles, is dirt cheap and actually tastes Pretty Good. Alongside the wide, generous selection of curry dishes I find in Sri Lanka, it’s just about enough to take my mind of that shiny shyster Bernard.

Tikka Mabaws, out.


The Tramp said...

Nice work Tikka Mabaws... Loving your work. I'd like to hear more about this Bernard character - I'm guessing that's not his real name - he looks like he's dressed as a 70's mafia footsoldier. And I think that I might try and start a TATTGOC campaign to introduce 700ml bottles in more restaurants over here, although I'm not sure how safe that would be in Glasgow.