The seaside town of Unawatuna, near Galle on the southwest tip of Sri Lanka, may seem an unlikely hero in a tale about Sri Lankan food. It’s known for many things: swaying coconut trees, golden sands, azure waters and rope swings that extend over the Indian Ocean surf for that all-important Instagram snap.
What Unawatuna is not known for is food. Yet, on a four-day glutton’s tour of the teardrop island, it’s where we have our most memorable meal. Leading the expedition is Sri Lankan-born chef Gisela ‘Gizzy’ Alesbrook, who heads up Hotal Colombo in Hong Kong. She’s determined to show us the unique wonders of her nation’s under-represented cuisine (note: it is not the same as Indian food).
The hand-drawn sign pointing down a dirt lane to Happy Spice (120 Yaddehimulla Rd) doesn’t look promising. The no-frills space and absence of other diners doesn’t, either. But concerns soon evaporate when, after taking our order, chef-owner Chintha goes to her garden to pick bunches of curry leaves.
We follow her into the kitchen, where the tang of spice lingers – pepper, chilli, cumin, cloves, turmeric, fenugreek and cinnamon. Chintha cooks and shares tips with Alesbrook while her son squeezes fresh coconut milk from just-grated coconut flesh. Clearly, this is no place for curry in a hurry.
A good hour later, we are feasting on a spread of Sri Lankan food that includes sweet and sour devilled squid, earthy pumpkin curry, and tuna curry that hints of the sea.
Alesbrook reminisces: ‘Being in the kitchen with Chintha reminds me of home, of my grandmother and mum. The meal she prepared for us was made from scratch with such love and care, and was so tasty, it touches you in a way that fancier restaurants don’t.’
Growing up just outside Colombo, Alesbrook credits her grandmother with inspiring her to cook: ‘I loved to watch her cook, but I was so small that I was only allowed to stand on a stool and stir the curries.’ Her grandmother passed away when Alesbrook was 10, and she assumed cooking duties while both parents worked. ‘Before going to work, mum would leave me instructions on what to prepare for dinner,’ recalls Alesbrook.
Becoming a chef however, was accidental. After a 15-year career in garment design and production, Alesbrook found herself in Guangzhou and then Hong Kong. Seeking a change, she answered an advertisement to cook at Vietnamese restaurant Chôm Chôm. It’s here that she met Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of the popular Black Sheep flock of restaurants. Despite no formal training, she impressed Hussain and his business partner Christopher Mark with her cooking skills: and six years later, in 2018, they offered her the role of head chef at Hotal Colombo, one of only a handful of Sri Lankan restaurants in Hong Kong.
Hussain, whose family hails from Pakistan, was inspired to open Hotal Colombo ‘to correct the injustice of pushing South Asian culture and 2 billion people into a single catch-all bucket, when there are so many incredible subcultures and cuisines,’ he says. The Punjabi tandoor cuisine at Michelin-starred New Punjab Club was the first restaurant within the group to address this shortcoming, reflecting ‘what I grew up eating,’ says Hussain, while Sri Lankan food ‘is the food that transports me back to the holidays of my youth’.
Sri Lanka’s cuisine reflects the diversity of its inhabitants – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers. ‘The food is communal, family oriented, with lots of sharing platters,’ says Alesbrook, adding that ‘most Sri Lankans eat at home, that’s where the best cooking is.’
According to Alesbrook: ‘Once you taste Sri Lankan food, you will realise it’s different from Indian food. It’s much lighter, more fragrant, the ingredients are fresher, and we use less seasoning and spices. We don’t cook with ghee or dairy, preferring coconut milk and coconut oil.’ Being an island nation, seafood is plentiful, and while dishes are spice-laden, they are not necessarily fiery.
Our first lunch in Colombo is at the Dutch Burgher Union (114 Reid Ave), a club for the minority ethnic burghers of mixed Dutch, Portuguese and Sri Lankan descent. ‘My mother is Tamil and my father is a Dutch burgher,’ says Alesbrook. ‘We used to come here when I was young.’ The dish to order is lamprais, baked banana leaf-wrapped flavour sensations made with rice, meat curry, ash plantain, eggplant, croquettes, onion and sambol.
‘No meal is complete without sambol,’ Alesbrook says, and the most popular of these chilli-spiked condiments are seeni sambol, made with red onions, curry leaves, cloves, cardamom and tamarind, pol sambol, which contains onion and grated coconut, and lunu miris, a mix of red onion, dried Maldives fish and lime juice.
At Upali’s (65 C.W.W Kannangara Mawatha), an institution renowned for its home-style cooking, we like the food so much we visit twice. The deep-fried croquettes, Jaffna-style crab curry and jackfruit salad are all delicious, but the biggest hit is maalu olu, or fish head curry, swimming in an earthen bowl heady with coconut milk, okra, murunga and wonderfully meaty snapper fish head.
On a walking food tour that begins at the bustling Fort Railway Station, we stop at the Al Bath Ha Muslim Hotel (74, Olcott Mawatha, Pettah), which, like scores of these hyper-local diners, is a technicolour assault on the eyes. These eateries are hotel in name only, adopted to make them sound more upscale, although the reality is somewhat down and dirty. It’s here though, that we enjoy one of the stars of Sri Lankan food: hoppers. These bowl-shaped pancakes are made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk, crispy on the sides and spongy at the bottom, with an egg sometimes added. Eaten with sambol and curry, Sri Lanka’s most iconic dish is impossible not to love.
Next up, Pettah Market (211, Main St, Pettah), a madcap rumble and jumble of vendors, shoppers, produce, clothing and thousands of things you don’t need. In the produce section, sellers pile fruits and vegetables on gunny sacks or makeshift tables: stumpy hands of bananas and ash plantains, mounds of mangoes and papaya, bunches of gotu kola, pungent dried fish, piquant chillies, and so much more. We refuel at First Bombay Sweets, opposite the stunning Red Mosque, for falooda, a shockingly pink milkshake-like dessert.
We sample a host of other restaurants, including the Ministry of Crab (Old Dutch Hospital Complex), voted best restaurant in Sri Lanka several years running by the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants academy. The exorbitantly priced crabs and prawns, doused in pepper, chilli or garlic sauces, are indeed superb, but don’t expect a local experience. Diners are almost all foreigners, and the dining room could be anywhere in the world.
Asked to nominate their favourite experiences on our Sri Lankan food quest, Alesbrook and Hussain are quick to choose Happy Spice and Upali’s. Al Bath Ha Muslim Hotel’s hoppers get the thumbs up, too. Disparate establishments, but what they have in common is honesty, accessibility and a lack of pretence. It’s the sort of food that inspires Alesbrook at Hotal Colombo: food that transports you to Sri Lanka, even if you are in Hong Kong.
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