A Feast for the Senses: 11 March 2024

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Good morning, Colombo!

We awoke long before the dawn. Due to a combination of jetlag with having fallen asleep at 7:30 the night before found Michael and Kyle wide awake at 3:30 in the morning with a long wait until breakfast which, by the way, was phenomenal!

All three of us ordered the Sri Lankan Breakfast plate, which came with a serving of chicken curry, dahl curry, and coconut sambol to be eaten with soft milk rice cakes, thick and chewy roti pancakes, and "string hoppers" (rice flour dough that is pressed through a mold to form thin noodles that are woven into discs and steamed).

The rice cakes, roti, and string hoppers - relatively plain on their own - were the vessel for eating the various curries and were used to scoop up and absorb all of their delicious flavors.

Breakfast was rich, spicy, and filling, and was served with hot coffee and world-famous Ceylon tea.

While researching things to do and see in Colombo, Kyle came across the Geoffrey Bawa Residence Museum, a house museum built in the 1960s by famous architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003), a pioneer of the "tropical modernist" school of architecture.

The museum was about a 15-minute walk from our hotel, so we decided to head out on foot to explore the neighborhood.

The house, Number 11 33rd Lane, is actually four houses combined. Over the years, Mr. Bawa purchased neighboring houses, roofed over the lanes between them, and created a compound that served as a playground for him to experiment with his ideal tropical modernism.

We found it a great introduction to the arts and culture of 20th century Sri Lanka. Like the country itself, Mr. Bawa embodied multiculturalism: his father was a Sri Lankan Muslim and his mother was Dutch. Mr. Bawa himself was a Christian but had a great deal of respect for the arts and beliefs of other religions, evidenced by his collection of Buddhist and Hindu art and artifacts.

The result is a blend of indoor and outdoor spaces featuring simple colors, strong geometric designs, gardens, fountains, and ponds, and combining Eastern and Western art and architectural styles.

When he passed, Mr. Bawa left his house and all of his collections in a trust, with the stipulation that everything must be preserved exactly as he had left it, including the pair of tailor's scissors left sitting on a coffee table in his living room.

Despite not being airconditioned, the house was surprisingly cool. Because of the way it was designed, it was also very bright, even without many electric lights.

In order to explore the house, you must book a tour. The guide was excellent and took his time to explain all about Mr. Bawa's eclectic collections and style and answer any questions that we had.

After leaving the house, we walked to the nearby Gallery Cafe upon a recommendation from the guide.

The Gallery is an outdoor coffee shop, restaurant, and art gallery surrounded by leafy trees, reflecting pools, and fishponds. It was the perfect oasis in which to escape the tropical heat for an iced coffee and a shared slice of passionfruit meringue pie.

Then, it was back to the hotel for a swim and a rest. We skipped lunch, because we had booked something very special in the evening: a tuk-tuk food tour of some of the city's culinary highlights.

We were picked up at our hotel at 3pm by two tuk-tuks driven by two guides named Ricky and Romesh. They handed each of us a king coconut as a welcome drink, and we set off, zipping down the busy streets of downtown Colombo.

A king coconut is a special type of coconut native to Sri Lanka and very different from any type of coconut we had ever tried before. King coconuts are less sweet and slightly tangier than other varieties of coconuts, and are rich in electrolytes, minerals, and vitamins. We hope to enjoy many more as a way to cool off and hydrate while we are on our adventure. It's very hot and humid in Sri Lanka, and since we are so close to the equator, the sun feels really hot and bright. It's important to stay hydrated.

Ricky and Romesh asked if we wanted to take a quick stop at Galle Face Green, an oceanside public park that stretches half a kilometer along the coast near Colombo's business district.

At sunset people come down to the green to enjoy the cooler weather of the evening.

Kyle asked if the green is a common place to play cricket (a popular game in South Asia). The guide said yes, but volleyball is by far the most popular national sport in Sri Lanka. We had no idea!

Our first stop on the food tour was The Beans Coffee Factory in the Pettah Market neighborhood, a predominantly Muslim part of the city. Originally, we had booked a 4pm food tour, however, as tonight would be the start of Ramadan. the guides asked if we could go a little early as some of the shops would be closing soon.

Sri Lanka is most famous for their tea. Ceylon tea is well-known across the world, but there is a small and upcoming coffee industry as well.

The manager of the coffee shop told us that coffee used to be grown in the Sri Lanakn highlands, but a coffee blight killed most of the coffee plants in the 19th century, and plantations had to switch to tea, which was also encouraged by the British colonial government, which demanded a lot of tea.

The Beans sell freshly roasted coffee from central Sri Lanka as well as their signature "sukku coffee", which is a finely ground coffee mixed with dried ginger.

We piled back in the tuk-tuks and moved on, passing the magnificent Moorish Jami Ul-Alfar, or Red Mosque. We also passed the Young Men's Buddhist Association (it's fun to stay at the Y-M-B-A!), the Old Parliament (which now houses the Ministry of Finance), and other significant city landmarks.

After a brief stop for a refreshing cup of passionfruit juice, we pulled in to another tiny shophouse to sample Sri Lankan tea.

After tea, we drove to the beach for "small eats", a sampling of fried street food snacks, many of which were made from seafood.

First, we tried prawn vadai, a dahl (lentil) cracker topped with three full, deep-fried, crispy prawns (eyes, feelers, and all). We watched as the guy running the cart dipped the vadai in hot oil, then covered them in a spicy red sauce, and a handful of slaw.

Romesh asked Kyle if he ate prawns, and Kyle took a long time to reply. He was clearly a bit freaked out by the prawns, but he decided to face his fears, especially because the sauce completely covered up the creatures. (Michael, who has been living in Thailand for the past decade, had no such misgivings.)

However, on first bite, all of Kyle's worries vanished. The vadai were hot and crispy and very flavorful. The sauce had some lime juice in it and was a little hot and sour. It was slightly reminiscent of the flavors of Mexican street tacos.

Kim and Kyle were happy to see that the second small eat had no eyes or visible body parts. It was a slice of crispy fried roti covered in a similar sauce and toppings.

Next, we tried hoppers, something that Michael had been especially looking forward to trying in Sri Lanka. Hoppers, also known as "appam" are one of the most ubiquitous dishes in Sri Lankan cuisine. At its simplest form a hopper is a very thin and crispy crepe-like pancake made from rice flour and coconut milk that is cooked in a deep pan.

The bowl-shaped pancake is then filled with a variety of ingredients, rolled up, and eaten like a burrito.

The first hopper that we got to try was an egg hopper. A fluffy egg is fried right in the center of the hopper as it cooks in the pan, clinging to the bottom and coating the rice flour pancake with a rich pillow of egg.

The egg hopper was topped with a spicy potato curry and a heaping of sambol, a spicy coconut relish made with hot chili peppers, salt, and lime juice.

We also tried a coconut custard hopper. The creamy and chilled custard cut through the spice of the previous hoppers and was a perfect sweet dessert after a delicious meal.

Kim, Kyle, and Michael agreed that the hoppers were their favorite dish from the food tour.

We were getting extremely full, but we weren't finished yet. It was time for our last stop: Yarl Restaurant.

We sat down at a small metal table in a smoky dining room. This place was a cacophony of sound and smell. Hindi music blared from the speakers and smoke filled the room from the sizzling open kitchen.

A shrine to various Hindu deities hung on the wall alongside a portrait of Buddha and Jesus.

The waiter slapped three large banana leaves on the table in front of us, and Romesh helped to serve our dinner. We didn't know what was happening yet, but this was going to be our most authentic Sri Lankan dining experience thus far.

Curry in Sri Lanaka is traditionally eaten by hand, and that is what we were going to be doing. We were served dahl, curry, sambol, cuttlefish, and a portion of soft rice. Our guides explained to us that we should use our hands to mix everything together, then just scoop a bite up with our fingers to eat.

I wish you could see the stunned look on Kim and Kyle's faces!

The evening finished with a small cup of curd and honey, a yogurt-like dessert served in a cup. It was a really nice way to finish up the food tour.

We have a few more days in Colombo before heading off to Negombo, where our adventure is really going to kick off. We are enjoying our last few days of "holiday mode" before the going gets rough.

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