Every guide book warns us how hot the food will be, but nothing has been terribly hot, not so you can’t eat it. Maybe the books are for people who don’t like spicy food, but then why go to Sri Lanka? Many places only have a rice and curry buffet available, or the ‘western’ choices look so dodgy you wouldn’t want to try them. The curries are different to India – more flavours, lots of curry leaves, mustard seeds and coconut milk. There is fat, fluffy ‘country’ rice, speckled with red. There are pickles and sambols that do look fiery and I don’t attempt them. The fish curry is divine, something like Thai green curry, but milder, with rich coconut milk, not at all like the burnt taste of Keralan curries. We fall in love with coconuts from the first day. On the drive from the airport, our driver stopped and bought us one each. It is a hard flavour to describe, slightly salty, slightly sweet, not tasting at all like coconut milk or the nasty desiccated coconut of old lady cakes. You can buy them at the road side for about 15p; the top swiped off with a machete and a hole created with the knife’s point. In the posher hotels they stick the top and bottom pieces on the side like mouse ears, so the whole thing becomes something for kids and we are slightly embarrassed to be drinking them instead of beer or wine. Many buffets include brindal pehi, a rich aubergine curry. It looks and tastes like it has been cooked for hours; the oily aubergines, sweet chillies and sugar caramelizing into a spicy gooey mix. I love it so much, I ask for the recipe and the hotel chef obliges. It appears as we leave, typed on a manual typewriter, in an envelope. I try it at home. What kind of chilli is ‘capsicum’? How long should you cook it? It looks different, but tastes very similar, bringing the senses back to those now far away curries. A taste bud postcard.
Another liquid love is Elephant House ginger beer. It is so gingery it tingles your tongue. It seems healthier and more natural than sickly sweet Coke. We drink lime and soda, more out of necessity. It is a well-known ‘safe’ drink where you are unsure of the water. At Devon House it is super fizzy; the bubbles keep forcing the straw out of the glass until it jumps out and flops on the formica. Sometimes it is so sharp you can barely drink it; even worse than sucking a lemon, but again it feels healthy to have the lime juice.