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Arriving in the Big City

SRI LANKA | Tuesday, 20 October 2015 | Views [542]

The final few days of our trip were spent in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

In moving around the city, Asanga mentioned several times how much faster and more convenient it was to travel. During the decades-long civil war, Colombo was riddled with checkpoints, meaning you could be stopped and questioned multiple times, even on a short journey.

Though the war ended six years ago, only now is the city’s nightlife finally returning, as people start to become accustomed to life without a curfew, or fear of random attacks.

We drove into Colombo with such ease, even I was surprised. I’d become so used to winding country roads that the highways with passing lanes were a true novelty. As we neared the city, we passed flooded fields filled with water buffalo. They provided some of the milk for the curd I’d been eating every morning, topped with a liberal pour of sweet treacle. 

Colombo felt enormous after our time in Hill Country, a sprawling city in which old Sri Lanka shares space with a modern city on the rise.

Tuk tuks and unassuming shops selling short eats were still on offer everywhere, but now there were also luxury cars on the roads, grand hotels sweeping palm-lined boulevards, and seemingly more women dressed in western-style clothing than saris. 

We stayed right on busy Galle road, with nothing but a hundred feet and a railroad separating my room from the ocean.

Further north, the grassy Galle Face Beach is filled with people picnicking, flying kites, and buying snacks from vendors along the promenade.

We wandered around there on our first evening, amused by the large groups of school kids high on relative independence and the thrill of the big city.

A mass of adorable, giggling girls approached me, wanting to know where I was from, and declaring “You are white! Nice white! Very, very white!”  

Next, we headed to the Old Dutch Hospital, a restored complex that houses some of the city’s trendiest restaurants. Built during the 17th century, the building was indeed a hospital for Dutch colonizers, and later used to store arms during the war.

We ate at two of the restaurants there, the first being Ministry of Crab, a highly-successful collaboration between well-known Sri Lankan Chef Dharshan Munidasa and two of the country’s most famous cricket stars.

Chef Dharshan took the time to sit down with us, and talked about the philosophy behind the restaurant. A few years ago, he began questioning the fact that most of Sri Lanka’s best seafood – lagoon crabs, in particular – were all being exported to places like Singapore.

He made it his mission to keep Sri Lanka’s best food at home, and celebrates their bounty of seafood, spices, produce, and all-things-coconut at the restaurant.

We feasted on chili crab, enormous prawns in black bean sauce, dragged chunks of street bread through slicks of garlicky chili oil, and spooned up sticky coconut rice. Later, we joined Chef Dharshan at his flagship Japanese restaurant, the now 20 year-old Nihonbashi, and snacked on izakaya, like grilled chicken hearts and sashimi.

Another evening, we hung out with Harpo Gunarathna, a local restauranteur and entrepreneur. He started his career decades ago as a DJ, at a time when they were essentially unheard of in Sri Lanka. He worked his way up in the hotel and entertainment world, eventually opening his own hotel, followed by several restaurants, and even a hotelier school.

We ate dinner at his Colombo Fort Café, also located in the Dutch Hospital, tucking into the “Really Simple Prawn Curry” with a fried egg and fresh bread, Ceylon fish tacos, and mac and cheese.

Later, we joined Harpo and his two business partners at Park Street Mews, part of another stylishly-restored historic area in Colombo.

I got to order as many different kinds of ice cream as I wanted, including avocado. It was a dream.

Next up: my final post in Sri Lanka. It’s all fish markets and mongers!


Tags: colombo, culinary travel, food, hill country, ministry of crab, old dutch hospital, sri lanka, world nomads, world travel

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