At the peak of the summer months, Sri Lanka is almost too humid and hot to bear. The only refuge from the unbridled heat is the torrential rain showers, which are hardly helpful when one is on holiday. Yet, this island nation, which is also known by its old Persian name Serendib, hovers delicately between heat and rain and offers some of the world’s most beautiful coastlines, genuinely friendly people and a bustling city life anchored by its commercial capital, Colombo.
Traffic in this former port city is a riot of activity set by codes absorbed in the daily diet of Sri Lankans, but it is still not as disorganised as, say, Bangkok. The one thing that will remind you of the Thai capital, however, is the plethora of three-wheelers, which are driven with the same ferocious abandon as in Krungthep. The temptation to get into one is irresistible, so be sure to ask your hotel concierge to negotiate prices (the stated fare of LKR50 per km is for decoration only) and relative speed beforehand. If your heart can’t quite take the adrenaline rush of a three-wheeler and the option of a driver isn’t possible, fret not, Uber is readily available around Colombo.
Throughout its years of colonisation — Dutch, Portuguese and British — Sri Lankan cuisine had remained a potent blend of strong flavours, distinct for its generous use of spices. Colombo is a great place to sample the generous variety of this nation’s gastronomic offerings. Here’s how you can plot your day of eating in this vibrant and cheerful city. Pro tip: Sri Lankans tend to dress up when they eat out, so it’s a nice idea to up your style ante too.
One Up All Day
11, Kinross Avenue
In a country famous for tea, getting a really good cup of coffee can be difficult — especially if you’re used to strong, Italian-style espressos. All-day breakfast joint One Up All Day appears to have been established almost purely for that purpose — serving the needs of deprived millennial travellers who need their fix of caffeine and hipster-appropriate breakfast foods. It is very Instagram-friendly, with its cement-finished walls and a calming white-and-Tiffany-blue décor, right down to matching tableware. The menu isn’t very large, but everything on it is made with the same care that food in Sri Lanka is treated with — it’s tasty and fulfilling. Smoothies are great for a light breakfast, while more indulgent dishes include bircher muesli, pancakes, waffles and eggs. Here’s a suggestion: the cement seat in the garden is especially good to soak in the morning sunshine ahead of a busy day of exploring.
A SOLID LUNCH
328 Galle Road
No matter what you think you know about Sri Lankan Tamil food, a meal at Palmyrah Restaurant will re-set your counter — this is Jaffna food at it most authentic and traditional, outside of the Jaffna region itself. Located at the basement of Renuka Hotel — a paragon of old-world charm — Palmyrah provides efficient service in a minimalist setting, but this is secondary to the food. Indeed, we recommend folding up your sleeves and going at it with your hands: top picks include the milk and egg hoppers (what we know as appam), mutton paal poriyal, Jaffna crab curry, fried fish pittu and odiyal kool. There are desserts as well, and a meal at Palmyrah should ideally end with a cup of sweet milk tea. Oh, and a nice nap.
TEA AND COCKTAILS
The Gallery Café
2, Alfred House Road
The Gallery Café is an institution in Sri Lanka and is rated quite highly on most travel websites. A snatch of peaceful solitude right in the middle of Colombo, The Gallery Café brings food, drinks and art under one umbrella with elegant flair. Another reason that makes this space a must on your dining itinerary is its provenance — it is the former office of Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, the late Geoffrey Bawa. He personally approved of the takeover of his precious property and its conversion into a gallery and café by designer Udayshanth Fernando, who has beautifully maintained the building in its original state, adding only a pavilion to the structure. The cocktails are interesting, the desserts rich and sweet and the on-site gift shop rather exciting — but if you really want to satiate your soul, The Gallery Café hosts rotating exhibitions by local artists, just right for anyone keen on padding their art collection.
DINNER WITH A SHOW
The Sooriya Village
49 Skelton Road
Birthed from a simple children’s bookshop which later became a record label that produced some of the greatest tunes of Sri Lankan music, The Sooriya Village has reinvented itself with the aim to transform the industry with its new and exciting centre. Located in the heart of Colombo, this sprawling facility provides amenities such as rehearsal suits, a top gear recording studio, library and research services and a tech-based lecture room. Best of all, however, is its restaurant with a menu filled with mouth-watering local delights as well as a smattering of Western dishes. The food is absolutely delicious no matter what you order, and the service is attentive and friendly. The Sooriya Village is especially suitable if you have children who need to expend some energy, as its lush grounds are both safe and big enough for them to stretch their legs ahead of dinner. On some nights, you can even catch a screening of local indie movies. Although reservations aren’t strictly required, The Sooriya Village is sometimes booked out for events like weddings and parties, so it can’t hurt to call ahead and check.
This article first appeared on Mar 12, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.