Friday, July 22, 2011

To Create Trust, First Eat the Fire

“Do you live in Sri Lanka?” A Sri Lanka woman standing in behind me at the breakfast buffet waiting for hoppers, a fermented bowl shaped pancake, asked me this question incredulously, watching me spoon a heaping pile of spicy chili sambal on my plate.

This was not the first time I had been asked that question in the previous five days. John and I had landed back at the historic Galle Face Hotel in Colombo having finished a Southern loop of Sri Lanka. In a few days our eyes had taken in miles of pure white beaches, benevolent giant Buddhas, smiling school children on bikes, fisherman pulling in catch on colorful boats, creased and toothless Tamil woman trudging uphill with several kilos of harvested tea leaves strapped to their heads in nylon bags.

Along this route we had instructed our capable driver to only pull over his white Toyota Corolla to eat if the establishment looked like the sort of joint a Sri Lankan would eat at for lunch. We wanted it to be safe- no dirty water boiled potatoes- but we also could not bear even one buffet lunch surrounded by fat European tourists heaping up piles of bland curries and poorly imitated continental food thinking they were eating authentically.

Our driver was successful in this venture, first introducing us to one of the nicer local establishments in the fishing town of Weligama and later taking a chance on an empty Sri Lankan-owned guesthouse in Dickwalla that he thought looked promising. At these places we did not so much as glance another Westerner and hardly a Sri Lankan but the curries came out hot, fresh, and spicy.

Curry rice, the national dish of Sri Lanka, is much more than the name would suggest. Whether we chose chicken, fish, beef, shrimp or any combination thereof, a bowl of fish curry would arrive in a spice laced coconut sauce distinct from the chicken curry and with it bowl upon bowl of fresh vegetable curries from green beans to pumpkin to cucumber along with dal, rice, crispy papadums, and the ubiquitous grated coconut mixed with sambal.

We tested the limits our tolerance for spice with “deviled fish”- cubes of a local tuna served in a dry sauté which, as the name suggested, was fiery enough as to invoke the inferno of some imagined hell. The sweat that beaded on our forehead was welcome, having a cooling effect in the muggy afternoon heat.

At a religious festival in the hillside town of Katharagama we paused to admire the smiling woman working a street stand at night, turning out fresh hoppers with the expert turn of spatula and rotation of rounded pan on gas flame that hinted she had been at this for years. When we ordered two for the road, each with a cracked egg- scrambled in the center while the yeasty pancake finished setting- and seasoned with salt, pepper, and a dollop of sambal, her smile lit up her steamy booth with a radiance that threatened to outshine the surrounding lights of the nighttime festival.

For the next five days we looked for hoppers at roadside stands and in the breakfast buffet line at nicer hotels. None made them as well as our smiling friend in Katharagama.

The question as to whether we lived in Sri Lanka was always coupled with astonishment that John and I like our food as the locals do, which most often means spicy. This could be some misunderstanding from the locals that pale skin means a bland palate. But I fear this comes from experience.

Later on that week in the central-north region of Sri Lanka, the Ancient Cities area, we were with a group for a few days at a conference where John was to deliver a speech. The group was a lively and entertaining bunch, some two dozen or so men and women who were either Asian or Western people who had adopted Asia as their home. Yet come group dinners, there was something a little off in the spread. The food looked like a fancier version of the curries we had been eating for days at roadside stalls, but not a single chili appeared anywhere throughout the meal. No sambal, no spicy chutney, no hot spice period.

I can’t say the food was bad, but it is hard to think one is dining authentically in a country that thrives on spice when all chilies have been removed for the sake of our wimpy non-Sri Lankan palates. I cannot blame this on the chef- my guess is that from experience or instruction, he had his reasons for keeping the chilies as far away from the table as possible.

It is no wonder the woman in the line behind me asked if I lived in Sri Lanka. Sambal and spice are the currency of their cuisine. To eat with Sri Lankans as they do opens the door to a shared passion, with that comes trust and friendship.

My once hot hopper with sambal cooled to room temperature as I chatted with my new friend Romaine in line at the hopper station. While the chef worked on her egg hopper she asked me questions about New York City and I asked her about family and life in Sri Lanka. Desperate to dig into my new favorite breakfast food, I excused myself from Romaine, but not before she had slipped me her number and the offer to spend the afternoon together in Colombo. Spicy sambal had made me a new friend.

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