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A Big, Colourful Kandy Market

SRI LANKA | Wednesday, 22 July 2015 | Views [574]

After several hours on the road, we finally arrived in Kandy, a city with Bogambara Lake at its centre. The lake was constructed by King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha in the 19th century, with a square island that apparently used to be the king’s private bathing facility, and was connected to the palace by a secret tunnel. That’s one expensive bathroom.

Today, the lake is often surrounded by barefoot pilgrims in white, who are on their way to visit the sacred Temple of the Tooth. But more on that in another post…..

My first impression of Kandy? It is abundantly green, the kind of verdant heaven one might dream of when lost in the desert.

From the lake’s edges, the city rises up into leafy surrounding hills, where our hotel was.

My second impression of Kandy? I didn’t care about second impressions, I just wanted to sleep. By the time we arrived in the city I’d been up for 36 hours, and was grateful to crawl into a comfortable bed.

Only in the morning did I discover my room had a deck, and that deck had this view:

And this warning:


The day began with a breakfast spread for six, served to just one (me).

After my first cup of Sri Lankan tea on Sri Lankan soil, I ate slice after slice of fresh pineapple while heaping spoonfuls of fish curry and coconut sambal over string hoppers. Before this trip, the word ‘hopper’ had only brought to mind images of tractors or bugs, but that quickly changed over breakfast. In Sri Lanka, hoppers aren’t just any food - they’re an absolute staple of the cuisine. String hoppers are flat clusters of roasted rice noodles, usually the size and shape of latkes. They’re a bit chewy, quite filling, and their lacy design is perfect for absorbing spicy sauces.

After my enormous breakfast, I met up with Asanga and Seth for our first day of exploring, and we headed down the hill to check out Kandy’s special Friday market.

Each week, in a parking lot wedged between the lake and an old British prison, dozens of vegetable and fruit vendors lay out their goods for the locals to browse. It’s a colourful spread of people and food, and it was first real experience in the Sri Lankan heat. At times it was so hot, it felt as though the sun hung just a few feet above my head. And I was in Hill Country, where everyone claims it’s ‘cool’!

The market was busy and diverse, full of foods I didn’t recognize, or had never seen in situ.

There were trucks with bananas tumbling off their flatbeds, mountains of shaggy brown coconuts, and vegetables the size of baseball bats.

I very quickly learned the difference between an immature jackfruit, which is chopped (very skillfully) with machetes and utilized in dishes as a vegetable, and a mature jackfruit, which has quickly transitioned to an extremely sticky texture and sweet, banana-like flavour.

I wandered amongst neatly-arranged piles of ginger, tapioca root, okra, squash, peppers, mangos, avocados, eggplants, onions, beans, and branches of dark green curry leaves. They’re another staple of Sri Lankan food, and something with which I am now completely obsessed. In Kandy, the vendors bound up the branches with equally-fragrant stalks of pandan, like beautiful – and very green - edible bouquets.

While at the market, just one day into my trip, I learned something about Sri Lankans as a people: they are friendly. So very friendly. As I moved through the crowds, I was met with nothing but warm, somewhat shy smiles. No one approached me as the obvious outsider, or pushed their product on me, or asked me for money. They just let me be, answering my requests for pictures with an easy-going nod.

I should mention that when I say ‘nod,’ I really mean ‘wobble’ – it’s much more of an ears-towards-shoulders situation than a chin-towards-chest. There is no direct translation for the head wobble, as famous in India as in Sri Lanka, but it generally means “sure,” or “I understand,” or is simply a way of acknowledging someone. The head wobble is so incredibly ubiqitous, it wasn’t long before I had the desire to answer a wobble with a wobble, and my head began to feel looser, like my neck was a slightly-uncoiled spring. This bobble-head habit was something I noticed Seth also picked up on, whether he was conscious of it or not.

After the market, we wandered down the street and met Mohammed, a Muslim street food vendor who’d just returned from the mosque. He has a modest stand, tucked into a gap within the city wall, and his setup includes a sack of tapioca root, a small cutting board, a knife, and a pot of hot coconut oil over a gas flame.

He spends his days chopping the dense tapioca into matchsticks or cubes, then frying them in oil until they’re pale golden. As customers come, he scoops the tapioca into small paper pockets made from students’ old homework, and sprinkles them with chili salt. We bought a bag, and they were a crispy, satisfying snack.

Mohammed also had a bowl of ‘Ceylon olives,’ which are made with a type of fruit that’s indigenous to the island. They look similar to European-style olives but have a softer texture, and are first boiled, then crushed, and pickled with salt, pepper, chili, sugar, and water. I would absolutely snack on them daily if I lived there.    

Later in the day, we visited the Royal Botanical Gardens. Here are some pictures from our walk amongst the bamboo, jackfruit trees, and orchids. Plenty more food (including spices) to come…..

Tags: botanical gardens, culinary travel, farmers market, food, hill country, market, sri lanka, world nomads, world travel

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