Srilankan food deserves more credit: An introspection into visiting the capital city, Colombo
By 6:30 PM, the sun goes down crimson red and the beachfront hotel is already humming with sundowners. I sit out in the open-air lounge area, sipping El Che Refresco, vodka stirred in pear, raspberry puree, fresh mint, lemon juice, and sugar syrup concoct. With this pick-me-up in hand, I gaze out at the boisterous ocean. Do the waves ever not hit the rocks?
The signature cocktail menu read, ‘so good and refreshing that it could have been Che’s favorite!’. From inside, upbeat Havana music flows dashing out like a strong wind, waking you up from the moment's stupor. I sat spine up on a couch, and as I started fitting into the Havana party vibe, a man donned in a Cuban short-sleeve shirt, a straw hat, and a bright smile stopped by handing over the menu. This is not Cuba, as you may think. It’s Colombo, Sri Lanka.
If tropical beaches and lush forest full of unique critters call your attention, then Sri Lanka is teeming with incredible options for you. However, most people won’t know that a new Sri Lanka has lots to offer other than the already known wonders that have in the past put the country on the map. So imagine my surprise when I had a night of Cuban cocktails with plates that are the most wonderful rendition of Cuban-Mexican-Spanish flavors.
I began with Cuban mutton tacos, avocado guacamole with prawn crackers and salsa, and Spanish pork cutlets that go with the signature cocktails.
King of the Mambo, a Cuban themed in-house restaurant of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, is the place I was enjoying my time at just before the world shut down to the great pandemic.
Sundown here is to unwind with its selection of inventive cocktails. To all of those who feel like rum is a big no, I advise trying Santeria here, a beautiful shake of dark and white rum, peach schnapps, passion fruit puree, pineapple juice, and grenadine. And if you’re feeling more courageous, then Eldoblador, a tequila mix in Jägermeister and cinnamon syrup – The last in the list to call it a night, maybe! And the constant breeze is that add-on you never want to miss.
Colombo grew on me with time as I was staying at the colonial-era hotel by the beach. Galle Face is an 18th-century Dutch villa revamped into a luxury hotel. The makers were unaware that, by the late 19th century, the world would know this as the best hotel east of Suez. It gets its name from looking into the lush walking grounds of Colombo, Galle Face Green, along the coast. In Victorian times, this promenade was popular for a walk or a ride in a horse carriage.
The hotel museum's wall of autographs testifies legends from Gregory Peck and Arthur Conan Doyle to Prince Charles, all checked in here. I like saying that Galle Face makes for the city's most storied retreat, and I would love to believe living in luxury sometimes means living the history.
The heritage comes down to the hotel's dining scene. Verandah and Chequerboard (all-day dining) reward travelers with a spectacular ocean view like no other in Colombo. It has an array of dishes and an extensive wine list, along with local and imported beers to cool you off from the tropical sun.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast at Verandah. Whether it is the high-carb Sri Lankan breakfast, the winning full British breakfast buffet, or the American staples like bacon and pancakes, the chef curates the menu that's full of familiar flavors and seasonal produce.
Seeing chicken, fish, egg, vegetable curries, and string hoppers (noodles made of rice flour) at the breakfast table made me think Sri Lankans take the old saying "Breakfast like a king" seriously. I was happy to not load my plate with everything, but couldn’t miss the egg hopper, a savory crepe with a poached egg in the middle and served with caramelized onions, roasted coconut, and Sri Lankan spices. I relished this unique rendition of a Mexican taco.
We had to explore the city first by walking and then in a tuk-tuk, working up an appetite. When I heard my stomach growling in the late afternoon, we headed off to the Gallery café, a place that is a marriage of art and gastronomy, to say the least.
As you step into the café, expect to cloak in a bonsai garden right at the entrance. Once inside an elegant contemporary local handicraft store, a fish pond and an array of fine art appear and grab your attention.
The dining area had a natural play of light and shadow in the garden courtyard, keeping one half indoors and the other as an alfresco setup. The menu is modern European with an Asian touch, an interesting spin on casual dining.
We tried the Srilankan chicken mulligatawny soup, a curried soup stewed in chicken with vegetables simmering in coconut milk and hot spices. I enjoyed the lobster, prawn, and fennel lasagna. Next, duck breast with tamarind ginger sauce and egg noodles.
Gallery Cafe's most irresistible part is the selection of desserts, tempting an onlooker starting from the first gaze inside artfully arranged glass cloches. The decadent chocolate truffle cake with vanilla ice cream is for that sweet tooth who believes finishing a meal with a little sweet is customary. Needless to say, the restaurant has become a must-visit for anyone visiting the city.
We had to skip dinner after the day's over-eating. In the evening we hung out at T-lounge by Dilmah, an all-day teahouse. Born to the Darjeeling country, my husband and I are both tea addicts. Tea cocktails, t-shakes, bubble tea experience, and sparkling teas were a part of the menu, but as two tea aficionados, we chose the signature Ceylon tea.
The teahouse here offers tea with gourmet snacks and patisserie, and I couldn't resist the tea maker's gelato, made with Dilmah earl grey, orange, ginger, and brown sugar caramel. Even with a touch of modernity, this upscale tea lounge is at the root of authenticity.
Next day's lunch was special – Colombo's Dutch hospital today has a posh shopping and dining precinct under the same old colonial facade. Inside, you'll find a beeline in front of the Ministry of Crab, possibly the most famous restaurant in all of Sri Lanka.
We need no reminder that crabs are the major earners of the Sri Lankan fishing industry. The Ministry of Crab celebrates the crustaceans in many flavors, from Singaporean chilli crab to spiced crab curry. The place invites serious seafood lovers who book weeks ahead of time. The top Sri Lankan chef Dharshan Munidasa, a Sri Lankan origin and half Japanese, gifted the local cuisine a modern twist. Cuisines at his Tuna & the Crab and Nihonbashi are Japanese.
The Ministry of Crab is all about seafood based cooking, taken topnotch. I started with garlic chilli crab, the Chef's love for the Mediterranean and Japan put together on a plate. Then, I continued with the clay pot prawn curry, which had two lobsters resting in a well-spiced subtle coconut gravy and was served with local bread, freshly baked in a wood-fired oven. Keep aside the crab cracker and the bib and you'll know why this place hits the list of Asia's best 50.
There are eateries keeping up with the traditional local cuisine, but Ceylonese cuisine is also reminiscent of the regional flavors, imported from colonial routes. Today in Colombo, there is a surge of cafes and casual diners serving contemporary Mediterranean fare blended with Sri Lankan elements. Devoted to representing the capital city in every way, the top chefs have created the modern Sri Lankan cuisine, making a lot of noise in their homeland, if not internationally. As Sri Lanka is slowly hitting the travelers' radar, it's just a matter of time before we see the islanders' mastery of turning fresh raw ingredients into the finest of cuisine.