Happily, weather forecasts of nearly constant rain turned out to be a figment of the mystery weatherperson’s imagination and we were able to have our first day this vacation where we did what we like to do – walk and eat. Our mission today: lampreis (pronounced lump-rice, kind of). The hands down winner of many best lampreis in Colombo discussions is the VOC cafe at the Dutch Burgher Union. (For info about the Burghers, click here.) Websites suggest you call early to reserve your meal as they are sold out between 11:00 a.m. and noon. We did just that and after a rather difficult interchange, got our point across and knew our order would be waiting for us when we got there.
So we walked around for a while, stopped for quick short eats (fish bun, chicken roti) which were good, but not great and then finally it was 11:00 and we made our way to the DBU. When we got there, our happiness quadrupled because they sold their own homemade ginger beer! There is a brand of ginger beer here, EGB, that is as ubiquitous as Coke and is good, but this was spectacular. The bottle was huge, the ratio of sugar to ginger perfect and as an added bonus there were tiny, ginger beer soaked raisins at the bottom of the bottle. We ate every last one and decided we’d come back for another bottle later! And then came the lampreis – OMG! This was a FANTASTIC dish. It’s rice with small bites of curries (plantain, eggplant, chicken), a sprinkling of a dried fish condiment, topped with 2 fish cutlets and cooked inside a banana leaf. (Our first banana leaf!!) This is a really different flavor from the traditional rice and curry. There’s a sweetness that goes with the salty fishy flavors that makes it truly stand out. By far, our favorite dish so far. The picture doesn’t do it justice. It’s a good thing we didn’t find this place sooner or we may never have gone anywhere else for the last three days.
After lunch we tuk-tuked to the big outdoor market area – kind of like a crazy version of Maxwell Street Market in Chicago on steroids, with many, many streets, each devoted to different items (men’s clothes/women’s clothes/food/electronics/remote controls, etc.) We walked around for hours, spending more time (and having more fun) shopping here than we do at home. Finding the food market was a great moment as so far in Colombo all we’ve seen are supermarkets – a big difference from last year in Malaysia where the wet market is the norm. We stopped for a cold drink right next to the main produce market and had a chat with a lovely Sri Lankan man who was eating a snack that he highly recommended, so, of course, we got one. Sadly we forgot to take a picture! It was a crepe like pancake with jaggery and coconut spread in the middle and rolled up like a cigar. Great little bite with some much needed sweetness. We also later got a bag of manioc chips from a street vendor…B wasn’t crazy about the slight bitterness, but M will eat any salty fried food so he was happy.
Next was one of our very specific challenges – find the crab curry place where Anthony Bourdain ate on No Reservations. We forgot to write down the name before leaving wifi but Michael had a general idea of where it was in a warren of streets and alleys. And we found it! I don’t think words can describe how truly remarkable this was given the chaos of Colombo streets. In we go to a crazy crowded restaurant (filled entirely with men) and get two seats at one of the cramped four-tops. Out comes another banana leaf (yay!) that is quickly filled with food by staff people with giant containers roaming up and down the crowded aisle – rice in the middle, dal and vegetable curries on the sides, curry sauce to pour over the top. A separate plate is brought to us with 2 decent size crabs coated in spicy sauce- our first seafood. This was the first time where eating with our hands really proved a challenge. We are used to eating crab with picks and cracking devices, but no such luck here so we just started breaking them open with our hands. After a change in strategy that involved abandoning the smaller appendages, success was achieved, thought not without minor injury. But who cares when you’re eating food this great. We asked around for some tips on how to bus the table ourselves (as others were doing) and managed to look somewhat like we knew what we were doing. Total bill for two crab meals, Pepsi, bottled water – 900 rupees or about $6.50 USD! Unbelievable for fresh and delicious food. There’s a white table cloth crab restaurant that is highly rated on tripadvisor, but would have cost at least 10x this place. And given that our white tablecloth/crab experience in Singapore was the worst meal of that trip, we made the wise decision to go for the local dive.
The expected rains came eventually, but much lighter than the last two days. Even so we finished up our walk on Galle Green, a strip of Colombo that is next to the ocean (and therefore has a slightly higher oxygen to diesel fume ration), and took a tuk tuk back to our neighborhood to do a little souvenir shopping. On the way back to our Airbnb we had a delicious chocolate chili milk that we drank too fast to take a picture of (it was very hot and muggy and the cold drink was a godsend) and stumbled upon a ‘caterer’ (some restaurants are called caterers…like the ‘hotel’ issue, we’re not sure what that distinction means) that we had read about somewhere and noticed a long line of people waiting for their freshly made hoppers, short eats and kottu roti. We hadn’t yet tried hoppers (as opposed to string hoppers, regular hoppers are rice based batter cooked up quickly in a hot, round pan. They retain their bowl shape after cooking) so we ordered up a couple with egg cooked in the bottom and a couple plain and added some freshly fried samosa and a fish treat to the package. They suffered a little in the transport back to the house, but they were fantastic! Especially because of the two sambols we had with them, one spicy and one a sweet sambol that we wished we had gotten the name of. It seemed like caramelized onions cooked with some fruity/spicy flavors (we found a little piece of cinnamon in it). Add to that the intense, spicy, fresh flavors of our short eats and we had a great dinner. After eating we washed off our sweat and then made our way back to DBU for that second botle of ginger beer. On the way we took a different path and realized we’re staying in the embassy district. Embassies we saw: Italy, Netherlands, Canada, Iran, and the Holy See!