Sri Lankan Sojourns: Small Eats – Streetfood.
Ten days is never enough time to see and taste the food experiences of Sri Lanka, and there was so much more that Brunyfire would have liked to have checked out. Nevertheless, a taste is what we had, and despite that not being nearly enough, it sure whetted the appetite. Only one day in inkredible Kandy – should have been two at least to check out this lovely hill town. We had arrived in the afternoon from Sigiriya to pre-purchase our train tickets to Nuwara Eliya for the following day, to visit the Temple of the the Tooth Relic and still have time for a traditional Kandyan dance performance before checking into our hotel.
After a refreshing walk alongside Kandy lake in the cool of an evening mist……..……..and after the thrills of the Kandyan fire walking finale……………..we were hungry and headed into town for egg hoppers (appams) and kottu rotti.
Sri Lankan hoppers are an interesting dish in that they reflect a particular Sri Lankan tradition. Basically, hoppers are an inverted dome shaped, fermented rice pancake that combines the cooking techniques of frying and steaming simultaneously. Looking rather like fine porcelain……………….these delicious delicacies have a thin crispy edge with a spongy soft centre at its base, and in our case, with an egg nestling in the bottom. Traditionally, appams are made by soaking rice over night and grinding this into a smooth batter along with cooked rice, fresh coconut or coconut milk. The fermentation agent that creates the light spongy texture is due to toddy, or kallu, a crude palm alcohol. But toddy is not commonly available, so yeast or baking soda make good substitutes and is what is used nowadays.
However, the toddy story is a fascinating one and needs to be told. Whilst Brunyfire didn’t witness its collection personally, I’ve raided the images from a number of sites to tell its story as it is not only symbolic of Sri Lankan ingenuity, but represents a tradition that, like so many others, is at risk of disappearing.
Kallu is collected on a daily basis from the sap of the coconut flower bud (Cocos Nucifera)………… ………which is cut at the tip before it blossoms – the sap oozes out over the course of several hours where it is collected in an earthenware pot that hangs beneath. A bit of the coconut flower is shaved off each day, and is gently tapped with a wooden mallet to encourage the flow of sap and then this is harvested the following morning.Each earthenware pot is then passed down from above to a helper below who then empties the contents into a vat made out from mango wood. Sadly, Sri Lankan toddy tappers are a dying race. Hardly surprising with the risks they undertake and the poor returns they make on the sale of the sap – 100 litres daily are required in order to make 750 rupees (about $7.50) and it takes a skilled tapper to collect this amount. Thus speed is of the essence in the daily collection roster and this is facilitated by an intriguingly dangerous network of coir (coconut fibre) ropes strung from tree to tree at great heights.This provides a dangerous high-wire highway for the tappers to run between tree tops rather than waste energy in climbing up and down the tree each time. (Check out the story of toddy tappers on ceylonphoto.blogspot).
The other byproduct of toddy is one of Sri Lanka’s favourite tipples – Arrack. The liquid from thousands of trees are transported within 3-4 hours of the sap being drawn from the flower in wooden barrels to collection centres, tested for quality, and taken to the distillery and processed.There seems to some controversy in what constitutes the best appam recipe according to Peter Kuravita. In his book Serendip, his recipe calls for a combination of coconut cream, fresh yeast, rice flour and egg whites (he considers it is these latter that add the mandatory crispy edges to the hopper). I suspect the egg whites are omitted in street food hoppers, an expensive addition in both time and produce, and then there’s all the left over yolks.
In an interesting little book found in Juliet Coombe’s Serendipity Arts Cafe in Galle Fort, Ceylon Cookery’s, (1976) author, Chandra Dissanayake suggests that the hopper pan, or appachatti (a small two handled wok or a small wok with a short handle) used to have a concave lid that held hot coals, and it was these that would crisp up the hopper edges to the delicate frill we’ve come to appreciate gastronomically.So – once the batter was dropped into the wok and swirled around to establish the thin edges and once the bubbles start to rise to the top of the doughy centre, a lid is placed on top to create the steam necessary to help the centre rise.
There are various types of hoppers in Sri Lanka. Plain hoppers – bowl-shaped thin pancakes made from fermented rice flour; egg hoppers, which are the same as plain hoppers, but with an egg broken into the pancake as it cooks; milk hoppers, have a spoonful of thick coconut milk/coconut cream added to the doughy centre. When cooked, the centre is firm to the touch but remains soft inside and is sweeter as a result of the coconut milk and honey hoppers, which are crispy pancakes cooked with a generous amount of palm treacle and jaggery.(Removing a hopper from the wok at a street food stall in Haputale)
We had our egg hoppers along with a pile of freshly prepared kottu rotti. Kottu rotti is a classic Sri Lankan dish comprising of chopped up rotti (an unleavened flat bread) that is shredded atop a heated hotplate with a pair of lethal looking (but blunt) chopping blades along with a load of vegetables, spices and a range of meat choices – we chose chicken. Watching and listening to the preparation of this Sri Lankan favourite is mesmirising – very much like a choreographed dance movement – the timing of the hips and the chopping all synchronised into a toe tapping rhythm.
From Kandy we took the train to Nuwara Eliya, spent a night in the colonial comfort of a grand old hotel, and then drove to the mountain township of Haputale, some 4000 feet above sea level and seemed to be in perpetual cloud. The views were spectacular, and it was here thanks to advice from Lonely Planet’s that we tasted the best samosas ever.We ate these straight from the deep fryer – hot to scalding, these tasty morsels are filled with filling spiced potatoes, onions, peas, lentils, ground lamb, ground beef or ground chicken.
From the mountain town of Haputale to the southern plains of Tissamaharama where Brunyfire was waiting to try the legendary buffalo curds (known as mee-kiri) and palm treacle. We’d been told by our landlady in Negombo that curds were no longer made the old way, being taken over by the commercial food industry……………..and was thus only available in supermarkets – but we didn’t believe this! Along the main road leading to Galle for example, the roadside was littered with curd stands…………. ………. testimony not only to the fact that there were producers of curds………..………but also of potters producing the curd pots. However, the curds and treacle story are for another post, they’re just too good to pass by on a mention, but need the time and the space for the fully story.
Spicing and pickling fruits is also a very popular street side snack. Veralu Achcharu, or pickled olives, are boiled olives that are mixed with a variety of spices, the essential ingredients of which would comprise of vinegar, sugar, salt and chili powder to create a combination taste of tangy, spicy and sweet.
The sweet and sour theme is also extended to pineapple or annasi Achcharu where chunks of pineapple are tossed in a mixture of salt and chili.
Isso (prawn) wade’s are a ground dhal (lentil) patty, spiced up and partially cooked, with three prawns reclining on the top. When ordered, these are deep fried in coconut oil until crispy and served with a spicy curry sauce topped crisp capsicum, onions and carrots and drizzled with lime juice and a sprinkling of salt.
Coconuts figure largely in Sri Lankan cuisine as we’d already discovered in its use as toddy – we’d seen coconuts aplenty along the roadside and at most tourist stops where we’d drunk the thin but tasty and refreshing water from King coconuts.According to Wikepedia, the water of the king coconut is naturally sterile and therefore it is a good substitute for saline. In World War 2 both American and Japanese military doctors injected king coconut water into a patient’s veins instead of sterile glucose solutions.
Whether served from the back of a bike, a roadside stall or the tarted up at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lankans and visitors alike consume thousands of coconuts on a daily basis.And finally, as we were downing the last of our cocktails at the grand Galle Face Hotel in Colombo on the eve of our departure back to Oz, we shared our cherry with this cheeky fellow