A Culinary Delight

A Culinary Delight

Sri Lanka is truly a gastronomic wonderland and no visit would be complete without sampling the cuisine. So, if you’re a foodie like me and game to try something new then check out our list of Sri Lankan taste sensations below… but be warned, you may lose yourself in the multitude of exciting new flavours and spices. Seven months after my trip, I’m still dreaming of a good Sri Lankan curry complete with sambal and hoppers! dishes

To really appreciate Sri Lankan food you have to like coconut. Coconuts are a staple in the Sri Lankan diet and form the basis of most dishes. And in cooking, all parts of the coconut are used, from the milk, to the flesh, to fermented coconut juice. Despite coconut being the key ingredient in most dishes, the flavours are so diverse that no two dishes are the same.

While travelling through this wondrous country we fell in love with the following dishes:

  1. Young or green jackfruit curry (Polos)

This is a savoury curry made on chunks of unripe jackfruit cooked until tender. The texture somewhat resembles that of tuna and the unique blend of spices means you’ve probably never had a curry like this one before.

  1. Ripe jackfruit curry (Kiri Kos)

Unlike Polos, Kiri Kos curry is made on ripe jackfruit making it a sweet curry. It is typically made on coconut milk and is a really nurturing and satisfying dish.

  1. Beetroot curry

As the name suggests the main ingredient in this curry is beetroot, cooked to perfection on a coconut milk base. The flavour is subtle, the colour is bright and the texture silky. While it may not sound like it would be your first choice, this curry is a much overlooked gem.

  1. Dhal

Each time we ordered dhal it was never the same, but always delicious. Typically, dhal is made on coconut milk using red lentils and a variety of spices, resulting in a thick, creamy delicious dish unlike any dhal I’ve tasted before.curry

  1. Pol sambol

Pol Sambol is a spicy dish made from a perfectly balanced blend of finely chopped coconut meat, chilies, red onions, spices and tomato. It is served with any or all of the main meals and if you like things spicy, you’ll end up going back for more.

  1. Eggplant relish (Wambatu Moju)

This dish is like a caramelised eggplant condiment in a tasty thickish sauce. Others might describe it as more of a relish or pickle. Either way, it’s good. It’s a nice addition to any meal.

  1. Rotti

Rotti is a soft-textured round, flat bread usually served warm with your curry. You’ll also find Rotti advertised with a variety of enticing fillings both sweet and savoury. They look like warm, doughy parcels of yumminess, and can be eaten as a snack or a meal in their own right. bread

  1. Kottu Rotti

Kottu rotti like the name suggests is a dish from Rotti, chopped and quickly fried on a metal hot plate together with either vegetables, egg or meat.  It sort of resembles fried rice. You can find this anywhere: at street stalls, cafés and restaurants. Watching the Kottu Rotti being prepared is half the fun and you’ll hear the clanging of metal everywhere you go, as this dish is being cooked. It’s definitely one of the signature sounds of Sri Lanka.

  1. Coconut Rotti (Thengappu)

Coconut Rotti is a round bread though considerably thicker due to the coconut meat which is mixed into the dough before it is cooked. Mouth-wateringly delicious but it must be eaten fresh off the hot plate.

  1. Plain hoppers (Appa)

Plain hoppers are made using slightly fermented coconut nectar added to a rice batter. Once cooked, they look a little bit like a small bowl-shaped crispy crepe with a soft crumpet-type bottom. Great for putting curry, dahl or sambal in. You can also order your hopper with an egg in it if you prefer (a.k.a. Egg Hopper).

  1. String hoppers

String hoppers are thin noodles made from rice flour, interwoven into a circular shape and steamed. They are a popular breakfast dish, even if only for their appearance. In my opinion, they really don’t have much flavour – it’s what you eat them with and their patterned appearance that makes them special.

  1. Milk Rice (Kiribath)

Kiribath is a white rice cooked in coconut milk until it’s sticky in texture. It’s often pressed into triangles and served warm. A popular breakfast option, it usually accompanies a sambal or curry but it can be eaten on its own.

  1. Pittu

Pittu is another popular breakfast dish. It is made with rice flour, mixed with coconut meat, rolled into cylinders and steamed. Surprisingly good!

  1. Jaggery dessert (Watalappan)

This sweet treat was being sold in big trays on the sidewalk by a local lady who happily cut off whatever sized portion we wanted. It’s guaranteed to satisfy even the sweetest tooth. While it’s not traditionally served with coconut cream drizzled over the top, I think it would really compliment the dessert and help to tone down the sweetness a little.

Throughout my travels in Sri Lankadscf6383-2 I found that many of the dishes above varied depending on who made them and in what region they were being made. So, it’s definitely worthwhile trying a few of them in different places to fully appreciate them. You’ll soon have your own list of favourites. The above list is also far from exhaustive and you’ve probably already realised that they’re all vegetarian. That’s because Nic and I prefer a mostly plant-based diet. However, if you’re a meat eater then you needn’t worry as I’m confident you’re still going to enjoy them. Sri Lanka is renowned for its many seafood and meat dishes, so there’s plenty more out there for you to try.

I had so much fun in Sri Lanka sampling all the different foods. I quickly learned that if you want to try real Sri Lankan food you don’t have to venture far. Most hotels have restaurants that serve the local cuisine and if you’re in Colombo a great one to try is Nuga Gama at dscf6387the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. This authentic Sri Lankan restaurant is set among enormous banyan trees and furnished in the style of a traditional village, a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Colombo. The majority of guesthouses are also willing to cook for you, you just have to ask. On numerous occasions our hosts would offer to make whatever it was that we wanted to try. There are also plenty of excellent restaurants around. One I highly recommend is Dewata Villa in Habarana – if you get the chance make sure you call in for a fantastic dining experience. You’ll also find there is an abundance of markets and street food vendors everywhere you go. Good food is never far away!

Some other things we recommend trying on your Sri Lankan holiday are:

  1. Toddy

Toddy is a drink made from the fermented nectar of coconut flowers and traditionally drunk for its perceived health benefits. It’s typically served in the morning as it becomes increasingly bitter throughout the day. This drink wasn’t as easy to come by as I’d initially thought and in the end I asked the staff at the small hotel where I was staying where I could find it. They offered to source it for me and sure enough it was waiting for me at breakfast the next morning. I personally liked the tanginess of the drink but like many things you might say it’s an acquired taste.

  1. Arrack

Arrack is an alcoholic drink also made from the nectar of coconut flowers. The liquid is fermented then distilled before being stored in barrels. There is a wide range of Arracks available so I’d recommend trying a few of the more popular ones at a bar before committing to buying a whole bottle from a wine store. Some are definitely nicer than others and they can vary in price considerably. Essentially Arrack tastes like rum, so if you’re not a fan of rum then this might not be the drink for you.

  1. Sri Lankan beers

The most popular beer by far is Lion Lager. It’s an easy drinking average strength beer with a light refreshing flavour and is readily available everywhere you go. However, for something a little different, I’d recommend trying one of Sri Lanka’s other beers such as Lion Strong, Lion Stout, Baron’s Strong Brew, Bison XXXTRA strong just to name a few. These are all around 8% in strength and are not as easy to find as Lion Lager, unless you go to one of the many local bottle shops.

  1. Ceylon tea

Sri Lanka is famous for a cup of perfectly brewed Ceylon tea. It’s often offered as a complementary welcome drink when you check into your accommodation in the tea growing areas. Even if you’re not a tea drinker it’s worth trying at least one cup to see what it’s all about.

  1. Sri Lankan coffee

If by some unfortunate chance you are offered Nescafe at breakfast time don’t feel it’s your only option. Most guesthouses and hotels offer pots of ground Sri Lankan coffee but you may need to ask. The Sri Lankan coffee is quite palatable not to mention strong and is guaranteed to keep the caffeine headache at bay. There was only one morning where our host didn’t have any coffee and since we’d asked for it, they went out especially and bought some that afternoon!

  1. King coconuts

You can find street sellers selling coconuts practically everywhere and they make for a cheap refreshing drink on a hot day. We found that the smaller the coconut the sweeter they seemed to be.dscf6392

  1. Sri Lankan Beedi and cigars

We tried our first Sri Lankan beedi and a Sri Lankan cigar over a relaxing drink at Nuga Gama. Even as a non-smoker, these were quite enjoyable. Beedi can at times be difficult to find as you travel around the countryside. Only a few places stock them so it is best to ask around with the locals. And, you’ll be shocked at how cheap they are once you get away from the tourist areas.

Sri Lanka is a great country to visit and not just for the food. No matter how you choose to spend your time there, you’re bound to have a ball. And, it’s an easy country to travel around – see our post on Getting Around Sri Lanka for more info.

Getting Around Sri Lanka

Getting Around Sri Lanka

Hiring a car and driver is a popular option for many people visiting Sri Lanka. For many, it seems it is a quick, safe, hassle-free way of getting around and seeing as much of the country and its sights as possible in a reasonably short space of time. The popularity of this option is not surprising, however, when you read the innumerable reports on online travellers’ forums about the state of Sri Lanka’s roads and transport system; the general consensus seems to be that the public transport is slow and unreliable. Trains and buses are said to be hot and crowded and tickets could rarely be purchased ahead of time. Renting a car is renounced as expensive with unnecessary licence stipulations while Sri Lankan roads are described as congested, narrow and winding, made further perilous by an incomprehensible road-rule system. Renting a car and driving oneself around sounded like an option for only the most courageous, the undiscerning, or those with an outright death wish. The more I read and the more I began to quiz others who had visited the country, the more it began to sound like hiring a car and a driver was the only option. While Nic and I recognised there are definitely some benefits to this option, the thought of sitting in an isolated, air-conditioned bubble while being chauffeured from one tourist sight to another just wasn’t appealing.

Nic and I have always preferred to travel on our own. We love to just wander, seeing what we see and not caring about that which we don’t. We often say that the best plan is a loose plan, one that is flexible, leaving the door open for opportunities and experiences. This suits us as we like to explore nooks and crannies, get amongst it all, soak up the atmosphere, and to step out of our comfort zone. We want to interact with locals, eating where they eat, hanging out where they hang out, and seeing the world through their eyes. As a result, neither of us are great at tick-and-flick whirlwind tours or travelling to somebody else’s schedule.

Subsequently, we couldn’t help but wonder whether the roads and the public transport system were really that bad. With a population of over 20 million, and with more than 1 million international tourists visiting the country in 2015 alone, surely Sri Lanka had an infrastructure that could cope with such demands. So we decided to take up the challenge – aside from our initial free airport transfer it was to be buses, trains, and tuk tuks all the way. And, what we found was this: It is not only quite easy to travel around Sri Lanka using the public transport, it is also an experience.

Tuk Tuks

Tuk tuks are an ideal means of getting around when you’re travelling in Sri Lanka. They’re a dime a dozen, so you never have to wait long for one to come by and their open design means you get to feel like you’re part of your surroundings – perfect for sightseeing. img_3698And, Sri Lankan tuk tuks are mostly four stroke, which means they are less noisy and fumy than their two stroke counterparts in other parts of the world. They are also roomy enough to fit two adults and two large backpacks, believe it or not. The downside, though, is that they’re not as pleasant in inclement weather. While they have covers that can be rolled down in the rain, your view is all but completely obstructed and, in the cooler months, it can get VERY chilly.

Tuk tuks, like other modes of transport, have their place in the transport system. Whilst they are fine for short trips, they’re not particularly good for long distance travel, though many tuk tuk drivers will try to reassure you otherwise. Tuk tuks are much slower and smaller than everything else on the road, making the buses and trucks around you seem a bit intimidating.  The tuk tuks’ suspension is poor, compared with other vehicles, and as they don’t have an enclosed cabin, the engine and road noise can soon become overbearing. This, along with their limited leg room, typically makes them a less comfortable option for inter-city journeys or when travelling to some of the more remote sights. dscf7106Tuk tuks aren’t ideal if you are travelling on country roads either, particularly in the mountainous areas. Many of these roads are narrow, winding and very steep, not to mention bumpy. I was grateful we were warned by some of the locals against taking tuk tuks in certain areas due to the number of accidents reported on these roads. And, when it comes to the most economical transport option over long distances, tuk tuks rarely come out on top.

We took tuk tuks in a number of places including Colombo, Galle, Unawatunna, Mirissa Beach, Tangalle, Haputale, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Habarana, and Negombo. Most of our experiences were very positive, with the odd exception but no more or less so than in other places we have travelled.

In Colombo, all of the tuk tuks we hailed had meters and, for the most part, the drivers were happy to use them. Occasionally, a driver would insist on trying to bargain for a higher fare, rather than using the meter, and when we refused sometimes the driver would concede while on other occasions the driver would remain steadfast so we chose to hail another tuk tuk. In other towns, however, the tuk tuks did not have meters so we had to negotiate a price with the driver. We’d “researched” what seemed to be the average tourist price and used this as a rough guide. We weren’t trying to get the best price ever in history, nor did we see bargaining as a game to be played, so in our experience it was relatively easy to arrive at a mutually agreeable price without much fuss. When using tuk tuks we generally found that most drivers took a direct route, however, there were a couple of occasions in the metered taxis where we were taken the long way. What we learned was: if you know the route then it is good to tell the driver which way you want them to take you BEFORE you set out, and, if you don’t know the route then looking it up beforehand on Google Maps can help avoid these (rare) situations. Otherwise just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride and don’t stress about the extra dollar or two that you might end up spending.

Overall, we really enjoyed the experience of taking tuk tuks. We got to know a couple of the drivers quite well as we tended to use them time and again if they were safe and reliable. And, unexpectedly, we found that in return for our custom they showed us other things that we wanted to see or that they thought would be of interest to us at no extra charge. One driver even went out of his way to help us to find an authentic Sri Lankan restaurant, who then amazed us by putting on a feast, specially making for us all seven dishes that we’d been wanting to try! (If you get the chance, and you are in Habarana, check out this amazing restaurant.)

If you are planning on taking a tuk tuk while you are in Sri Lanka, we would offer the following tips:

  • Ask the driver to use the meter, or, agree on a price upfront
  • A fair price generally buys a fair service
  • Check your route on Google Maps beforehand and let the driver know which route you want them to take so that you aren’t inadvertently taken the “scenic” way
  • Ask around what other tourists paid for their journey so you have a rough idea on the going rate. You can also ask a local what they would expect to pay, but remember the local price is a minimum benchmark only from which to start your bargaining. Tourists never get the local price.

Trains

There are a number of different train services in Sri Lanka. dscf7153 Some you can book in advance while others you can only buy tickets for on the day. It all depends on your point of origin, your destination and on what day you plan to travel. Two good websites to check out before any train trip are Seat 61 and the Sri Lankan railways website. Because Nic and I prioritise flexibility in our travel plans, we decided not to book any seats before leaving home, choosing instead to try our luck when we were there.

The first train trip we took was from Colombo to Galle. It sounded like the perfect start to our holiday as the train line reportedly follows the South-west coast line all the way, passing through numerous little villages and tourist towns. I’d read on the travel forums that it was incredibly pretty journey and so after a couple of days in Colombo we decided to catch the train south. However, images of us relaxing into our seats and watching the waves roll in and palm trees whizz by dscf6466were quickly shattered as the old rattler pulled into Colombo Fort Railway Station and we climbed aboard…with what seemed to be the rest of Colombo. We hadn’t been particularly concerned when we found out that we could only buy our tickets on the day of travel and that seats were not allocated but then we hadn’t counted on the weekend crowds, all clambering to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, destined for their favourite beach spots down the coast. In hindsight, had we known, we would have tried to choose a more appropriate day and time to travel but as it was all seats were taken. There was standing room only and all the luggage space was occupied. So with our big backpacks crammed between our legs, we fought the crush to hold “our” spot in the vestibule area. With each stop, people pushed their way out while others pushed their way in. We were packed in like sardines, with barely room to move which thankfully thwarted Nic’s desire to wander down the aisle and allow her increasingly pungent aroma to wipe the smug serenity from the faces of a few seated, fellow tourists. Yet, unbelievably, despite the densely packed carriages, the food sellers managed skillfully to navigate their way through. At least there was no need to worry about being hungry or thirsty. It was a hot day, and after standing the whole way, with no air-conditioning and very little air-flow through the crowded carriage, I was relieved to disembark at Galle railway station. It had been a long journey, with the trip taking an extra 45 minutes than what was stated on the schedule, in pretty trying conditions. But let’s face it, it just made that beer at the end of the day all the more enjoyable.

Our next planned train trip, was from Haputale to Kandy. The train journey between Colombo and Ella, in the highlands, is reported to be one of the most scenic in the world and with this in mind we were quite excited at the prospect while at the same time being somewhat hesitant as again we could not book our tickets in advance. While we could’ve booked our tickets over the phone on the day of travel, if we’d had a local SIM card, we crossed our fingers and chose instead to arrive when the ticket office opened. We were lucky and got the last two seats situated together in 3rd class, though the downside was that we now had to wait at the station for approximately 1 ½ hours for the train. We had no idea what to expect from a 3rd class ticket and when the train arrived we were surprised to find that it was much less crowded than the 2nd class carriages, with larger windows, offering a much better outlook. So we sat back and took in the scenery, watching the rolling hills and tea plantations pass by.

Our next train trip, from Kandy to Polgahawela, was equally beautiful, as the train meandered its way down the mountain range. Again, we’d been able to get seats allocated together, without having booked in advance. Our luck ran out, though, on our final 3 hour trip from Polgahawela to Anuradhapura. There were no allocated seats on this train, and we again found ourselves standing in the vestibule with a number of others. This time, however, there were no crushes and plenty of room to move about and, like the locals, even sit down and lean against the doorway. As Australians, being from the land of “can’t”, it was exhilarating to sit in the doorway, with the wind against our face and the scenery rushing by.

If I were to travel by train again in Sri Lanka the only things I would do differently would be to:

  • Travel outside of commuting hours
  • Avoid travelling to popular beachside or holiday destinations on the weekend or when it is a local holiday
  • Travel on trains where seats are allocated at the time of booking.

All in all, travelling by train is still a great way to see the countryside and get a real taste of local life.

Bicycles

Now, while I wasn’t personally interested in cycling around the whole country, if you are fit, active and that way inclined then it is definitely doable.dscf7270 The roads are not overly crowded or chaotic nor are the road rules difficult to grasp. In fact, compared to many countries I’ve visited, it all felt quite civilised and it turned out to be far less daunting than was portrayed in some of the online travel forums. What Nic and I did decide to do, was cycle around the ancient city ruins of Polonnaruwa and the sacred city of Anuradhapura, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Both sites are open to traffic so we did encounter trucks, buses, tuk tuks and scooters on our cycle route but there was sufficient room for all to pass and to stop and dscf7217enjoy the remnants of such ancient civilisations. Hiring a bike was a good choice for getting around these huge areas, far less exhausting than attempting to walk them and there are plenty of places to chain up the bikes allowing you to venture into different areas on foot and explore the various dagobas and temples more closely.

 

Buses

Of all the different modes of transport available, the local Sri Lankan buses were by far my favourite. Each bus was painted in an array of bright colours and decorated lovingly inside, adorned with pot plants, pictures, beads and statues. Some blared music while others played Bollywood films, amidst the intermittent call of the tout-cum-fare collector who hung from the open doorway yelling out the destination each time the bus drew in to a stop. He would then alight as the bus halted, drumming up business, while hawkers jumped on to sell their wares, anything from toys to drinks. In a final crescendo of cries, the hawker would disappear out the back door while the tout-cum-fare collector dscf7192would jump back on the bus, as the driver tooting the horn edged back out into the traffic and then we were off again.

As a pedestrian, I found the continual honking of the horn as the bus bore down on you to be somewhat irritating. As I watched the buses barrel down various roads, there seemed to be a honk for everything. Honk – I’m approaching. Honk – move over. Honk – I’m coming to a corner. Honk – I’m overtaking. Honk – I’m pulling into the bus stop. After riding a number of the buses, I began to realise they were King of the Road and appreciate their elevated status in the world of Sri Lankan transport – ferrying people back and forth as quickly as possible. So fast, in fact, that I can only describe them as crack-a-lackin’.

Nic and I caught various buses across the country. While they tend to leave once the driver thinks there are sufficient passengers, it is not like other countries where you could be waiting for half a day or more for the bus to be full before it leaves. We rarely waited more than 25 minutes for a bus to depart and what was particularly appealing was that there is no hassle connected with pre-booking seats, and in most cases intercity buses run hourly and we ALWAYS got a seat. Often, if you tell the bus driver where you are heading, he will do his best to get you as close to that point as possible, regardless of there being an official stop or not. The buses were also incredibly cheap and by far the most economical, efficient and most comfortable way to get around the country…and there is always room for your bags. While the bus stations may appear at first to be chaotic and somewhat daunting, finding the right bus is as easy as asking a random stranger at the station or any one of the bus touts. They all speak English and will ensure you get on the right bus.

So, if you are heading to Sri Lanka and are still contemplating the best way to get around and see this incredible country, don’t feel that your only option is to hire a car and a driver. There are many reliable, safe and exciting ways to do it.

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Harmful Aussies

Harmful Aussies

The creatures listed here have been put into the harmful category, as they can be harmful, sometimes fatal, if you happen to be unlucky enough to have an extremely close encounter of the bitten kind. These creatures mean you no harm, and will often make every effort to get away from you or out of your way before you even see them. As with all wildlife, keep your distance, do not try to touch or prod them and give them the same respect all creatures deserve and you’ll live to tell your exciting tale. If you do happen to be on the receiving end of unwanted attention, make sure you seek first aid or medical attention – (call 000 -zero, zero, zero)

The Red-bellied Black Snake img_5814

The red-bellied black, which is named because of its red belly and black body, is found mostly on the east coast of Australia in wetter areas. Quite commonly found in gardens and on rural properties, they can deliver a toxic bite if provoked, but these bites rarely result in death. Being shy, they will do everything to avoid you. If you see one of these beauties, stay well clear, allow them space to move away and just admire them from afar. This baby lives at my folks’ place.

The King Brown or Mulga Snake

The King Brown or Mulga Snake  is, despite its name, a black snake. It is the most widely distributed snake found in most parts of Australia, except some southern areas of Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia. Like any snake, they are generally placid and will try to avoid you, however in mating season, they have been known to become aggressive. They will warn before striking, by raising their heads and swaying from side to side. img_6869This means get away now. Best to take heed and back away slowly without any sudden movements.The venom of this snake is toxic, but rarely results in death. If bitten, though, seek swift medical attention- call 000.

We were fortunate to meet this snake (approx. 1.5m in length) at the base of Uluru, while doing the Kuniya walk, which we felt was quite significant.

The red-back spider

img_0275Red-back spiders are found almost everywhere in Australia, and now, due to travellers, and expat relocations, they are also found in many countries throughout the world. Although these are not an aggressive spider, many reported bites occur, usually because they live in such close proximity to human habitat, and a person has become entangled in the web of the spider. To avoid being bitten, check picnic tables, lawn chairs and toilet doors and walls (particularly in lower traffic areas in national parks, etc) before sitting. If you notice a web that has grass tangled in it, chances are somewhere in a corner will be a red-back spider. This gorgeous girl was found at a backpackers in Alice Springs. You’ll notice the white egg sac she has in her super-sticky web. This can contain up to 250 eggs. That’s right, 250 new red-backs in that little white ball. When the red-back babies come out, they will be white or grey and develop their darker colourings with each moult. When you see a black spider with a red abdomen, this is the adult female. Chances are, somewhere nearby there will be a smaller male, waiting to mate with her…if she hasn’t already eaten him!

 

 

Stay tuned as we update our close encounters with the wonderful Aussie wildlife.