As a former New Yorker, it’s practically in my DNA to look for the next hot new table in town. When I lived in NYC, I always wanted to eat at the place where, either it was almost impossible to get a reservation, or the neighborhood “hole in the wall” that didn’t even take reservations. Aside for a few classics, it was almost against my religion to eat at the same spot twice. So much food to try, at all price points, why limit oneself?
I then, however, upped and moved across the globe to this paradise isle. With a limited number of expat-friendly restaurants, being that my tolerance threshold for fiery and bold flavors was much lower then, and since the country was in the midst of a brutal civil war, my restaurant-hopping had come to a grinding halt.
I had no idea how to cook - in NYC, I would either eat at work or out. I was fortunate to have a helper in Colombo, but she only knew how to make regional dishes. Although lip-smackingly delicious, I restricted myself to once-a-week because of the heavy coconut milk and carbs.
Cut to twelve years later, the modern world’s eating patterns have changed. Carbs are no longer the enemy and exotic foods such as coconut milk are trending big-time. The national diet tends to be heavily rice-based rendering many dishes gluten-free. Healthy staple carbs include heirloom rice, kurakkan (millet), hoppers (fermented rice flour), string hoppers (red rice flour) and pol roti (coconut flatbread).
We have all these ‘miracle foods’ in our backyards but some of us, especially in the younger generations, can’t get enough of the convenience of delivery apps.
These carbs form the perfect complement to the burst of flavor in my mouth every time I take a bite from my colorful plate of Sri Lankan food. Being an island, the fish is fresh and simmered in sumptuous and aromatic curries. The spices, fruits and vegetables that are found here from turmeric, moringa, kithul, jackfruit, manioc, pandan leaves, fenugreek, pepper, coriander, cardamom, lemongrass and cinnamon, read like a laundry list of anti-oxidants and superfoods. We even have “healthier” options for sugar easily available; kithul, jaggery and coconut sugar.
To purchase the aforementioned ingredients for a year at a Whole Foods in New York would cost a small fortune. For example, a bottle of raw coconut water costs upwards of $5 and here it costs Rs. 80. For 500ml of organic coconut oil, it costs upwards of $15 and here, it costs a fraction of that, even if compared with a very high-quality product, say from the likes of Ceylon Coconut Company.
The age-defying miracle, nelli, aka gooseberry, grows abundantly here, whereas in the west, celebrities have endorsed the capsule versions, $90 for a two-month supply. Kola Kanda, the herbal porridge that cools the body, is being brought to the US by startup, Kola Goodies, in the form of super powders, which range in price from $16 to $32 a pop.
There is a popular Hindi expression which roughly translates to, “A chicken at home, is equivalent to simple dhal,” which basically means that we don’t value what we have at home, even if it is, in fact, better. The Sri Lankan diet has a part to play in the country’s higher than regional-average for longevity. The more research that comes out about the causes of lifestyle diseases and cancers, the more evident it becomes that eating locally and sustainably is critical.
We have all these “miracle foods” in our backyards but some of us, especially in the younger generations, can’t get enough of the convenience of delivery apps. Rarely are we ordering Sri Lankan cuisine, but often other foreign fares. Fortunately, Colombo restaurants such as Seed Cafe, Café Kumbuk and Milk & Honey are putting innovative twists on local ingredients with a “clean” approach. Hopefully, more neighborhood players will use our home-grown elements to recreate traditional Sri Lankan food. This way, we can get all the nutrients, but presented in a contemporary way, preferably in delivery-app-friendly packaging.
After a year of eating more Sri Lankan food than I ever have before, I am going to miss my Sri Lankan home-cooked food when I go to NY next. I now empathize with Sri Lankan students who study abroad and take suitcases filled with Koluu’s mixes and Ma’s spices!
Hoppers at Home in London offers a taste of the iconic restaurant (Hoppers) via delivery but also at their latest inventive “kade-like” spin-off, Cash & Kari, in the form of meal-kits (£17 for chicken lamprais to £110 for an ultimate Hoppers Meal-Kit + Drinks, serving four).
Paradise, also in London, figured out a way to have food, inspired by Colombo’s street side cafes and fish markets, packed in a box (£55). What’s in a box? Potato pea and raw green mango patty empanadas with tamarind mayo, spiced pork belly skewers and smoked coconut yoghurt.
Short-eats, pickles, sambols, pappadums and even watalappam, are available through a click on the Deliveroo app via Kolamba (£1.50 to £15).
Delivery-app friendliness will be essential to Sri Lankan cuisine’s staying power, at least in my house, because, I am going to be honest, I still don’t cook much. That said, I love to experiment with making Lankan food quicker and lighter for my family. Jackfruit biryani anyone? A smashed avocado hopper? Modernizing recipes that have been in my husband’s family over generations is an incredibly tasty way to get my family to eat a well-rounded meal.
After a year of eating more Sri Lankan food than I ever have before, I am going to miss my home-cooked meals when I go to NY next. I now empathize with Sri Lankan students who study abroad and take suitcases filled with Koluu’s mixes and Ma’s spices!
So, who’d have thought, the New Yorker living all the way in Sri Lanka would find the new hot thing outside of New York? The cuisine has become extremely popular in other major cities such as London, Shanghai and Hong Kong, with long lines outside hot restaurants including Hoppers, Ministry of Crab, Kolamba and Hotal Colombo.
I would venture a guess that, when the world goes back to normal, New Yorkers will be looking for the next hot and superfood-filled trend and I am hopeful that it could be Sri Lanka’s moment to make strides in the American culinary scene. Palmyrah, my local favorite, are you listening? Hoppers, ready for a NYC outpost? I hope that America will soon say a huge “Ayubowan” to Sri Lankan food!