I learned an important lesson in Sri Lanka, where I spent the past two weeks on a work assignment. Life is too short for horrible food. You would have thought I’d have figured that out by now, given the amount of time I spend reading cookbooks and blogs, scouting out restaurants and generally obsessing about ingredients. And I’m sure I knew it on some level. But it took the unrelenting awfulness of a few meals in Sri Lanka to convince me that, given a choice of horrible or nothing, I’d rather eat air.
During the day, I was eating in the cafeteria of the institute that hired me to help them write a strategic plan. Now you don’t really expect institutional food to be particularly good and in this I was not disappointed. The mercurial Sri Lankan lady in charge of the cafeteria (depending on whether she liked you or not, she’d give you more or less food and charge you more or less than the normal rate of about $.80 per meal – mine was free because I was a guest) would shovel out a kilo of rice and cover it with bits of egg, vegetable and chicken, all swimming in oil and dyed bright red by the millions of chilis that were basically the only flavoring in every dish. So hot. So so hot. By the second day, my throat was raw and my taste buds were gasping for a nice gazpacho. Yes, I fantasized about gazpacho for nearly two weeks. And not just any gazpacho. This one. The only exception to the atomic lunch motif was the one day she served some carrots and green beans mixed with what tasted like Campbell’s cream of chicken soup.
The food at the hotel was far worse. It was Western-style-ish (I think). Not Western enough. I would have given anything for a nice hamburger or chicken sandwich (or that gazpacho). Two highlights: the Steak Sizzler: a minute steak wrapped around some diced onions and brought to the table aflame. Tasted like charcoal and chewed like rubber. And an impossibly tough ‘barbecued’ pork chop, which came smothered in ketchup and broiled canned pineapple. That was it. Although it was the fiscally irresponsible choice (because the institute would have covered my meals at the hotel), I resolved never to eat there again.
The first place I went was the Ministry of Crab in the Old Dutch Hospital, which was recently converted into a little shopping mall with several restaurants. Apparently the restaurant was owned by a couple of famous Sri Lankan cricketers. Sri Lanka is crab country and I was very excited to check out the local seafood. You choose the size of crab you want, ranging from small to colossel. I had garlic chili prawns to start and couldn’t stop dunking my bread in the sauce. The chili was just enough to give the old taste buds a little jolt but not enough to fling them against the wall, where they would lay whimpering and begging for mercy. The black pepper crab, which was made with crushed peppercorns, whole peppercorns and a pepper stock, had an incredible depth of flavour.
It was so good, I went back a few nights later.
I have a few more (great) Sri Lankan meals to write about. Once I escaped the hotel, I did very well indeed. But this will do for now.
Ministry of Crab, the Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo. 011 2 342722