THE CAFES OPEN at seven or sometimes even five or six, and by nine or ten breakfast is over. The hotels sell tourist breakfasts well into the afternoon, but the real Sri Lankan stuff is much better.
I eat my breakfast at a cafe on the seafront. From the front it looks like little more than a snack shop, but inside it’s spacious and has an outside dining area that backs right onto the ocean. The tables are made of plastic, the walls are flaking, and flies buzz around the sloppy remains of food on the floor, but I don’t come for the décor.
I order in Sinhalese — “Idiappa denna” — and my waiter runs off with a knowing wink. I’ve been coming here every day for six months, and it’s our little joke that he lets me order — we both know what I’m going to have.
The waiter comes back to my table and lays down five plates. First is the string hoppers, the noodle-like nests of creamed and steamed rice flour dough that are the most important part of the meal. Hailing from India originally, the string hopper is to a Sri Lankan breakfast as toast is to a Western one — without it, the meal is nothing but a set of condiments.
Next up are the curries. A bowl containing a fluffy pink substance made from coconuts, red chilies, and onions smashed together is placed on the table, and I grab a large spoonful and put it on top of my string hoppers. Known as pol sambol, it tastes both spicy and sweet and if it’s made well it melts on your tongue. Equally important to the dish are the two curries paripu (which we know in the West as dahl) and malu kiri hodi (made up of tuna boiled in a thin coconut milk, fenugreek, and green chili sauce). The tuna is bought fresh every morning from the fishermen who often cast their nets right in front of the cafe’s outside seating area.
Sometimes my waiter will bring me a few extras, and when I’m feeling particularly hungry I take him up on them. Today I allow myself to indulge with some parboiled eggs. And then I begin the process of mixing all this food together.
Sri Lankan food is traditionally eaten by hand, “because it tastes better.” The idea is to mix all the food on your plate so that everything is equally distributed. Once mixed, you use the forefingers of your right hand to ball up the food and plop it into your mouth. The string hoppers have a lightly chewy texture and fold easily underneath your teeth. The tuna falls apart in flakes and has a salty, rich taste that one only finds in fish that’s gone straight from sea to plate. The coconut sambol is piquant and abounding with subtle flavours of lime, dried fish, and garlic. The dahl is thick and filling, oozing with pulses and spices and sweetened with cinnamon sticks.
I clean my plate with my fingers and then clean my hands. After paying and leaving a tip, I walk towards the village, passing the coconut trees which contributed to my sambol and curry, the cinnamon plantations and the bushes of curry leaves that flavoured my meal, and a little further down the road I reach the rice paddies which grew the rice that made my string hoppers.