Archive for the ‘food on the road’ Category

The Best Sri Lankan Restaurants in Toronto

by Pira Pathmanathan

Sri Lankan restaurants Toronto

The best Sri Lankan restaurants in Toronto are often overshadowed by those serving up food from its neighbor to the north. But as good as Indian food is in Toronto, cuisine from this beautiful island nation shouldn’t be missed. In its most traditional form, Sri Lankan food brings to mind a plate of rice served with several curries served on a banana leaf. Popular dishes include string hoppers, roti, pittu, and appum. Kothu roti–a seasoned blend of thinly sliced roti served with chicken, mutton or vegetables–can be nothing short of life-altering if prepared right.

With its large Sri Lankan community, Scarborough is home to the greatest concentration of Sri Lankan restaurants in Toronto although it is possible to find the cuisine in Cabbagetown and other areas of the city.

Here are the best Sri Lankan restaurants in Toronto.


Babu Catering

Babu Catering

You can’t talk about Sri Lankan food without bringing up this Toronto gem. Established two decades ago, Babu now has locations in both Scarborough and Markham. With a wide array of tasty Sri Lankan fare, lineups tend to be perpetually long but the efficient staff ensures swift service. Be sure to pick up some patties and sweets from their bakery section too.MORE »

Hopper Hut

Hopper Hut

Located at Kennedy and Ellesmere, Hopper Hut is a go-to for Sri Lankan Torontonians. Their kothu roti is something to write home about and for a special dessert treat, try their appam, a crepe-like dish with a soft, sweet centre made from coconut milk. For an incredibly cost-effective meal, simply pick up a heaping box of string hoppers served with spicy sambul for about five bucks. Don’t forget to also order a few delicious samosa and crunchy vadais. Unlike many other pickup counter-style Sri Lankan restaurants, Hopper Hut has a seating area. MORE »



Found in Cabbagetown, Rashnaa feels slightly more formal than most spots on this list. With many entrees listed under $10, Rashnaa offers an inexpensive entry to the world of Sri Lankan eats for those wanting to dine south of Eglinton. Be sure to order the masala thosai, a popular Sri Lankan dish (similar to South India’s masala dosa) consisting of a lentil rice and wheat flour crepe filled with potato curry. Rashnaa also offers take-out and delivery. MORE »



Known for its spicy kothu roti, Gasa is another east Toronto mainstay for Sri Lankan cuisine. Gasa has two locations. One at Kennedy and Finch in Scarborough and the other on New Delhi Drive in Markham. Be sure to try their nandu (crab) curry but also be prepared to sweat! If you aren’t gunning for a spicy feast, ask the staff to recommend a few milder options. MORE »



Located at Birchmount and Finch, Suvaiyakam is another Sri Lankan takeout joint that offers the usual fare. Like many of its rivals, Suvaiyakam serves up a great variety of roti, string hoppers, curries, noodles, and short eats like mutton rolls, patties and the like. MORE »

Amma Take Out and Catering

Amma Take Out and Catering

Amma Take Out and Catering at Markham and Steeles is fairly new to the Sri Lankan scene but it has quickly gained a loyal following. Try their variety of lamprais or just some basic rice and curry. Amma also offers a variety of snacks including the ever-popular mutton roll. As the name suggests, be prepared to accept your food in a plastic bag. MORE »

Araliya Takeout and Catering

Araliya Takeout and Catering

Relatively new to the scene and located on Markham Road in the Woburn area of Scarborough, Araliya delivers with tasty Sri Lankan fare. Araliya has already established a following, with diners coming back for rice and spicy curries. MORE »

Abbirami Catering

Abbirami Catering

At Brimley and Eglinton, Abbirami is your best bet for lamprais, a traditional dish that consists of rice and various curries baked inside a banana leaf. For about $7, this dish can easily serve two. Be prepared to be adventurous as Abbirami lacks menus. Luckily, as with most Sri Lankan takeout counters, food is readily available in front of you so simply point to what you want to order. MORE »

Ceylon Flavor

Ceylon Flavor

Ceylon Flavor is not your typical Sri Lankan takeout-counter-style restaurant. Located at Markham and Steeles just a few steps from Amma, Ceylon Flavor is also relatively new and boasts a sleek design and comfortable seating area. They offer a large selection of vegetarian and meat dishes including mutton rolls and chicken curry. MORE »

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Pachamama, the fertility god of the indigenous people of the Andes

As I often judge a place by its street food, I was pleased to find Cusco with a vibrant tradition of the latter. In addition to anticucho, grilled beef heart on a stick served with a potato; and chicharrones, fried pork rinds, which surprisingly boasted a greater ratio of meat to fat; I also found hard-boiled quail eggs, choclo (giant corn on the cob) smothered with white cheese; chili rellenos (a chili stuffed inside a deep fried potato croquette ); baked sweet potatoes and plantains; and enough exotic fruit to keep me happy for days.

anticucho -- beefheart on a stick



chili rellenos

baked yams and plantains

soursop for sale on the street

fresh OJ vendor

Cusco’s central market also made a very favorable impression. This “Walmart” of the Andes is a one-stop shopping mecca that stocks everything from souvenirs to staples, which make up most of the huge mercado’s front section. But the back half is entirely dedicated to food–most of it prepared right in front of you. Two whole rows of vendors special in chicken noodle soup and escabeche topped with chopped cilantro and a spicy salsa picante. Other vendors specialize in lomo saltado, fried fish, beef ribs, ceviche, and more. You know everything is super fresh because the stalls selling meat and fish are right next door to all of these cheap eateries.

Nothing like some chicken noodle soup!

salsa picante


beef ribs

The market is pulsing with the sights, sounds, and smells of Andean Peru. Piles of vibrant textiles next to stacks of fruit, wheels of cheese, and the wafting aromas of dozens of food stalls serving lunch. Pork products occupy their own special aisle within the market, and Peruvians obviously go for the whole hog.

After a huge feed, you can relax with a cup of herba mate tea right outside the market. I also discovered a great cold drink called chicha morada, which is made from black corn. It’s sweet, hard to place taste lies somewhere between licorice and cinnamon, while it’s fermented cousin, chicha, made of regular corn, is known to pack quite a wallop.

herbe mate vendor

chicha & chicha morado

black corn, the raw material of chicha morada

Speaking of drinks, I was not about to leave Peru without trying  their home-grown liquor, pisco, a type of grape brandy. The drink of choice, a pisco sour made with lime juice, sugar, and topped with a foam of egg whites, is certainly potent, but also very tasty, and it reminded me of one of my favorite cocktails, the Caipirinha ( a brazilian drink made from sugar cane liquor).

The potent Pisco Sour

I feel like I got a good taste of Peru on my 10 day excursion, but I also feel like there’s much more to see and do here. As different as Lima and Cusco are to one another, I’m sure there are other corners of the country that are just as unique. I liked pretty much everything I tried except for one thing: coca leaves. In Cusco, especially, all the locals chew the leaf (or drink it in tea), from which the drug cocaine is distilled, as a means to deal with the effects of the high altitude. While the strong bitterness of the leaf is obviously an acquired taste, I would never have known that it actually does help with the altitude had I not tried it. I also credit it  for giving me the energy to climb Machu Picchu in just under an hour.

coca leaves

High plains drifter


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Machu Picchu as seen from Huayna Picchu

The ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, located high up in the Andes Mountains, has long been on my list of “must see” places on the planet, and I was finally able to fulfill this dream this past March, climbing both Machu Picchu and the lesser known Huayna Picchu (the rounded peak in the background of many classic Machu Picchu shots). But no matter how many photos you have seen of this popular site, it cannot compare to the experience of actually being there, surrounded by cloud covered peaks; breathing in the thin, crisp air; and being awestruck at the huge scale of the ruins and what it must have taken to build them in such a challenging location.

Of course, one of the main attractions of any trip abroad for me, is the food. Having never visited Peru before, I had no idea what to expect other than great ceviche and, of course, cuy or guinea pig. Arriving early in the morning in Lima, one of the first bites I had, however, was the familiar empanada–ground meat wrapped up in a pastry. So many cultures worldwide have something similar: In Jamaica and Sri Lanka, they call them “patties,” in Brasil, salgados.  In Peru, empanadas are as ubiquitous as Manhattan’s dirty water hot dogs, stuffed with all kinds of fillings from ham & cheese, to beef, chicken, as well as an amazing sweet variety made with guava and cheese.


a flaky pastry surrounds a moist, meaty filling--who doesn't like that?

the ultimate street food

Judging by the hotels in which I stayed, breakfast is not much of a meal in Peru. The most you’ll get is a white roll with butter and jam and maybe some fruit along with a concentrated coffee liquid to which you add hot milk. To see what average Peruvians start the day of with, however, I took a look at what’s cooking on the streets. Outside one of Lima’s old school mercados (markets), where you can by all manner of fresh meats and produce, I followed the noise of frying and the aroma of meat and eggs, to discover what’s really for breakfast here.

can't beat the streets...

...for a classic fry up!

Speaking of the mercado, it’s a great place to get a “lay of the land” and see which foods are available in a country as well as which foods people like to eat. In Peru, where the mighty Amazon begins, there are no shortage of exotic eats, many  of which I am still trying to at least put a name to.

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The meat section reminds me of a typical market in Sri Lanka (or any developing nation for that matter), where huge sides of beef hang on hooks sans refrigeration. As people waste  no part of the animal, plenty of offal (the nasty bits) is available as well, to be made into traditional dishes like cau-cau, or cow’s stomach (which I did not have the pleasure of trying this time around) .

In Lima, ceviche is king, and I tried all manner of this seafood-cooked-in-citrus specialty, from the 5 soles plate at the mercado to the more high-end offering at La Rosa Nautica Restaurant (see earlier blog post). What I love about ceviche here is that they serve it with so many sides–a boiled sweet potato, toasted corn kernals, rice, and even fried calamari–which make it a full meal, while also providing a textural counterpoint for the tender chunks of fish and seafood. I also love the marinating liquid–leche de tigre (milk of the tiger)–made of lime juice, cilantro, red onions, and salt.

my first ceviche: can't even see the fish swimming in the "leche de tigre" and topped with fried calamari and a chunk of sweet potato

freshwater ceviche

But while seafood is primarily the province of coastal areas, a plate of lomo saltado stands as more a contender for the national dish. A simple stir fry of (usually) beef with onions tomatoes and peas served with rice and french fries, lomo is a gut-buster that is guaranteed to keep you going all day (that is, if you are not inclined to take a nap after eating it).

lomo saltado

Of course, if beef is not your thing, there’s plenty of pork and chicken to go around, and for those on the more adventurous side, alpaca (a relative of the llama) provides a great lean alternative. With a taste akin to beef, alpaca, prized for its soft fur, which is used to make everything from sweaters to rugs, also makes a mean steak.

an alpaca

grilled alpaca

Another quintessentially Peruvian favorite is, of course, guinea pig or cuy. Though Americans might balk at the idea of eating an animal that many consider a household pet like dogs and cats, Peruvians also keep these animals as pets, yet relish their taste, regardless. No self-respecting gastronaut, could bypass such an opportunity, so I seized the cuy with both hands at a restaurant catering to locals in Cusco, the former Inca capital. Located almost 12,000 feet above sea level, Cusco has a decidedly rootsier feel compared to more cosmopolitan Lima. It’s also difficult to breathe here, and handful of coca leaves placed between the cheek and gums and alternately chewed and sucked on greatly helps deal with it. It doesn’t seem to bother the locals, however, mostly quechua-speaking Indians, who appear out of a different era.

cuy...or guinea pig to you

a typical resident of Cusco

The grilled guinea pig was served whole (or actually vivisected from head to tail) along with some pasta, sauteed vegetables, and a couple of large Andean potatoes. The crispy skin, much like chicken skin, was delicious and comprised most of the edible material here as this small animal does not have that much meat (and a lot of bones). In fact, what little flesh there was tasted a lot like chicken except for the ‘head cheese’ up in the well-baked cranial cavity which had its own unique flavor. I thought nothing of polishing off the little critter except when I stared at its tiny, rat-like claws, which elicited unwelcome visions of the New York subway. At 20 soles (about $7.50), cuy was also no bargain in comparison to other local food, so I didn’t have it again on the trip. However, I did see a much cheaper version of cuy at a street fair Cusco, served with bread, cheese, and topped with a kind of seaweed of all things, but having just polished off a hefty portion of lomo saltado, my appetite was satiated for the rest of the day.

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La Canta Rana -- currently undergoing renovations

When traveling, it is sometimes advisable to go by the guidebook and follow other peoples’ recommendations, while at other times, it is best to throw the book out the window, and follow your own instincts. I much prefer the latter because it gives you a sense of discovery and makes you feel like a true traveler as opposed to just a tourist. And believe me, there’s a great chasm between the two. A tourist goes places to take pictures of himself/herself in front of the popular sites; buy souvenirs; and get a tan, generally playing it pretty safe, and not straying to far from the herd of other tourists.  A gastronaut like myself, however, is always open to try something new; prefers street food over fine dining; and loves to go off the eaten path in search of his next meal.

Lima is a great city to explore, and after spending a couple of days getting oriented in the ritzy neighborhood of Miraflores, I decided to try out the more liveable, downtempo area known as Barranco. It reminded me Brooklyn, my home for 11 years, and I decided that if I ever moved to Lima, this would be the place. An eclectic mix of casual eateries, mom and pop shops, and run-down casonas (mansions),the neighborhood had a decidedly laid-back appeal, and a plethora of street art. I knew some good eating lay around the way.

Street art in Barranco











Since the Lonely Planet Guide only listed 3 restaurants for Barranco–2 of which were on the pricey side–we decided to go for the cheap option, La Canta Rana. “An unpretentious place that packs in the locals…” was all the description I needed, as the book said to look out for the green walls. Unfortunately, when we rolled up to the spot and peeked inside, the dust and scaffolding told us that the place was clearly not open for business. Luckily a man inside said that their sister restaurant was open just a few blocks away. He gestured this way and that, and we vaguely set off in the direction to which he had pointed. We soon stumbled into a small covered mercado with various little stalls, some serving food.  There was some nice chicken and rice going on at one spot, but the place that hooked me was serving huge plates of ceviche. I was almost going to suggest we give up our search and eat here as I reflexively took a seat and snagged a menu. When I saw the words, “La Canta Ranita,” however, I knew we had arrived.

a seafood broth (with a little surprise at the bottom) for starters

No sooner had we sat down, when a kid brought us a complimentary mug of soup–a basic, but delicious seafood broth, with a mussel tucked away at the bottom. I checked out the menu of some 20 offerings–mostly seafood, of course–and ordered the grilled pulpo (octopus). My friend Sue ordered something called Causa de Pescado arrebozado, which the table next door was having.  Despite our humble surroundings, what we got was worthy of a fine-dining establishment.

causa de pescado arrebozado

The Causa was actually pieces of fried fish atop a “pillow” of mashed sweet potato and avocado, all topped with a mayonnaise and tomato relish. Super good! And I loved the vertical presentation. Then, my octopus arrived–three long tentacles smothered in an aji (chili) sauce. Wow! This dish is tailor-made for me, I was thinking as I carved off a bite of tender tentacle, smoky from the grill.

pulpo a la parrilla

washed down with a cold one!

the kitchen at La Canta Ranita

Later that night, we decided to try another one of the book’s picks–this one a more upscale place called Chala. On an interesting ‘street’ (if  you could call it that), Bajada  de Banos, Chala served novoandina cusine, the nouvelle cuisine of Peru, and its prices reflected that. Luckily we arrived some 45 minutes before the restaurant opened, so we had the opportunity to check out the surrounding area, which we soon learned was chock full of interesting eateries. There seemed to be a lot of competition for customers, too, as restaurant hosts, approached us, menues in hand, trying to get us to have a seat inside their place. One place in particular caught my eye because of their colorful, mouth-watering menu, and the low prices of the food. They also offered us a free pisco sour as a pre-dinner cocktail, so who was I to argue? We took a seat overlooking the ocean at the homey Toto’s Restaurant.

Toto's restaurant, Barranco

There was one item on the menu that seemed to good to be true–especially at the low low price of 20 soles (about US $8)– so I had to ask them again about it, and this was the Specialty of the House, a seafood stew featuring crab, fish, octopus, squid, mussels, scallops,  and shrimp. It was indeed available, and though I expected it to look nothing like the picture on the menu, I ordered it anyway. When it arrived, to my surprise, it looked even better.

The Specialty of the House at Toto's ....before....

...and after

All of the seafood I mentioned before arrived swimming in a broth made of tomato and clam juice, and topped with chopped cilantro. There were even a couple long slices of yuca for good measure. I had just eaten a dish very similar in San Francisco, the famous cioppino, but Toto’s special blew it away on all counts.  The fact that I had practically stumbled into this place made it all the more satisfying because it really felt like a discovery worth telling others about.

return to La Canta Ranita

Just to make sure the whole day wasn’t a dream, we revisited La Canta Ranita and Toto’s the next day as well.  For lunch, my friend Susan had the Arroz con mariscos, a kind of Peruvian seafood paella, topped with a healthy dose of parmesano cheese.  I went for the Pescado frito con langostinos al ajillo, fried fish topped with shrimp in a chili sauce. Both dishes were fantastic and under 20 soles each.

Arroz con mariscos

pescado frito con langostinos al ajillo

For dinner that night at Toto’s we both went for traditional dishes. Susan had the Aji de Galina, chicken cooked in a thick walnut and cream sauce. I ate the Seco de cabrito con frijoles, stewed baby goat with white beans and rice.  While it would have been tough to top my previous nights’ meal, the baby goat was super tender and not gamey in the least, and the beans sang with a hint of cumin. Susan’s chicken was very rich, but tasty as well. All in all, second time around, we could not go wrong, and we didn’t

Aji de Galina

Seco de cabrito con frijoles












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I love walking down some dingy alley and stumbling into a hole in the wall like Yarl Hotel. This is the real deal folks, not something you’ll find in a guidebook. You won’t find Foodies here either, but real people looking for real food to fill them up for a day of hard work. My cousin Sam and his son took me here because they know I like Jaffna food, the spicier Tamil cuisine found on the north of the island (“Yarl” is the Tamil name for Jaffna). Wellawatta, a suburb of Colombo, is about 99% Tamil, so this is the place to find some serious Jaffna food. And in Jaffna, they love their seafood–fish, prawns, crab, and squid. They also love their chilies, and so do I!


Yarl Hotel

46/1 Station Road

Wellawatte, Colombo


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A lovely bunch of king coconut

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I am Koo-Koo for coconuts. I love everything about them–the milk, the water, the oil, and, of course, the white “meat,” all of which is heavily utilized in Sri Lankan cooking. Until recently, the coconut’s highest profile in the west most probably came in candy bar form–either Mounds or Almond Joy (or for you Brits, a Bounty). But today you see coconut water everywhere. Whether due to a Hollywood trend or health craze, numerous brands of coconut water have hit the market with a vengeance, and while it’s great that it’s finally available here, paying $2.50 for a 16 oz. carton, is, well, slightly loco.

some of the popular brands of coconut water or thambily as it is known in Sri Lanka

What if I were to tell you that you can get this stuff all over the streets of Sri Lanka–and sip it straight out of its natural container–for only about 40 cents a pop. Not only that, but the soft, jelly-like lining of this fruit (not botanically classified as a nut), is also yours to enjoy, gratis. In fact, in Sri Lanka, the man who cuts open your king coconut with a huge machete will also fashion a spoon from the outer shell so you can scrape out the delicious innards.

cutting off the top

to expose the inner skin











I have always heard that coconut water is supposed to be an excellent health tonic, filled with electrolytes. It’s prescribed for a variety of ailments in Sri Lanka including upset stomach. Did you know that in a pinch, it may even be used in a drip as IV fluid? But all that aside, I don’t drink 3 or 4 coconuts a day when I’m in Sri Lanka for my health. I drink it because it tastes bloody good as well as being so refreshing on a hot, humid, tropical day.  And did I mention it only costs about 40 cents? Come to Sri Lanka and I’m buying. Thambily  for everybody!

Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby

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Whoa! Slow down. Wait a minute! Who forgot to tell me about Burmese food? I did, after all, date a girl from Myanmar once, and I have eaten at at least one Burmese restaurant in New York, but nothing I have experienced up to now could prepare me for my first real Burmese meal at Burma Superstar, Oakland. As an Asian food freak, who has tried practically every cuisine of the continent and subcontinent, I can now say that Burmese ranks up there as some of the best. It’s not quite like Chinese and it’s certainly  not like Indian, but somewhere in the middle–as reflected in the geography of the country of Myanmar itself–there lies the perfect fusion, which is Burmese food.

I  first heard about Burma Superstar through my friends Bill & Gigi. Bill having dined at their San Francisco location only had great things to report. Gigi’s sister Tiyo, managed the place, so when I was looking for places in the Bay Area to have my book party, it was a no brainer. You already heard about how well that event went, but I have a secret confession to make: one reason I wanted to have my book party at Burma Superstar was so that I could try their food. In fact, I had to purposefully abstain from eating the Sri Lankan food that I had prepared for the party in order to have room for a full dinner at the restaurant–a small sacrifice which was well rewarded!

out front at Burma Superstar Oakland

Joining me for dinner were 9 friends from the Bay Area (I didn’t know I even had that many friends in the Bay Area), who were all veterans of Burma Superstar. While  we perused the menu deciding what to have, Tiyo just started sending dishes out to us from the kitchen.  First came the salads–the legendary tea leaf and rainbow salads–both of which were featured on Food Network. I had more than one recommendation to try the tea leaf salad, especially since it was dressed with a unique paste of fermented tea leaves. How do I describe the flavor of this special ingredient other than to say it was…singular…and most delicious! The salad comes with all of it’s individual ingredients–including fried garlic, peanuts,  sunflower seeds, tomatoes, romain lettuce, and dried shrimp–unmixed and the waitperson tosses them together at the table, which also adds a nice touch. The rainbow salad came with a similar presentation, helpful in identifying all 22 ingredients it is composed of, before being quickly devoured.

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The dishes kept coming in such quick succession that all of us were kept very busy, spooning delicious tidbits onto our plates and making room at the table for everything. “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” replaced regular speech as we voiced our collective foodgasm over the great dishes we were tasting. So greedy was I that I forgot to take notes about individual plates, but much of my recollection of that evening is imprinted on my tongue. The curry pork with potatoes was incredibly moist and tender; the fiery tofu with vegetables, spicy/sweet; the sesame beef had a tanginess from the added tamarind; and the tender strips of chili lamb had a serious kick. The mango shrimp, a dish I had seen prepared in the kitchen also had the spicy/sweet combination, which I have come to associate with Burmese food.  No where was there any coconut milk or curry leaves like Sri Lankan food, or kaffir lime leaves and galangal, like Thai. Simply Burmese cuisine in all its glory!

After such a feeding frenzy, I don’t think anyone at the table was in any shape for dessert, but we had to go for it anyway. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen 10 stuffed people share one dessert, the sticky black rice with coconut ice cream, which was, of course, another victory. Eating at Burma made us all feel like superstars.

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Just another lunch at my Aunty Dora's flat on Park Street


I didn’t title my cookbook Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking for nothing. The best Sri Lankan food your are likely to get in country or abroad, for that matter, is not in a restaurant, but rather at someone’s home. Don’t get me wrong: I love to eat out when I’m traveling and check out new places, but sometimes you get food fatigue on the road. The best remedy for that is a home cooked meal. You know exactly where the food came from, who cooked it, and you can have it as spicy as you like–and as much of it as you like as well!


My Aunt Dora’s flat on Park Street in an area called Slave Island, is usually my base of operations when in Colombo. It’s centrally located, and my regular trishaw driver Nimal hangs out at the temple under the Bo tree across the street. I call on him to make many of my lunchtime excursions because he knows all my regular spots, and can weave in and out of gridlocked traffic to get me where I want to go,  no problem. It’s sometimes  a hairy ride, but never a dull one.


One Saturday, I was ready to take my cousin Sam’s family out to lunch somewhere, when his wife Charmalie started complaining that they had too much food in the house. Iraesha, the cook, had left several curries in the fridge, and they would apparently go bad if we didn’t eat them that day. Far be it from me to waste good food. Plus, I had been eating out almost every day for both lunch and dinner since I had been in Sri Lanka, and I needed a little break.


rice, the starting point of any good meal


parippu or dahl, when added to rice makes a perfect protein


miris malu or red fish curry


polos or young jackfruit curry


mallun or sauteed greens


fresh gotu kola salad


a gotu kola sambol


curried brinjals or eggplant


potato curry with kiri hodhi


fried onion sambol


I counted 10 different dishes–including rice–and all of them were good. I certainly didn’t expect such a grand lunch, but then I realized that this is how they eat everyday. And why on earth would you want to go out if you had food like this? They must look at me like I’m crazy or something.

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Sometimes these blog posts don’t work out as planned. I had planned, for example, to do a post on string hoppers, the rice noodle “nests” popular in Sri Lanka for breakfast and dinner. Problem is, I wanted to buck tradition, or conditioning, or whatever you want to call it, and have string hoppers for lunch. Not such a big deal, you  might think, but try finding string hoppers at lunch time in Colombo. My cousin Cane and I set off for Bambalapitiya with high hopes, but kade after kade, we struck out. In a land where rice reigns supreme, and lunch is the main meal, it seems as though it’s a serious breach of dining etiquette here to expect string hoppers for lunch.

string hoppers with fish ambul thiyal, kiri hodhi, pol sambol, and onion sambol

string hoppers with fish ambul thiyal, kiri hodhi, pol sambol, and onion sambol

So we ducked inside Hotel De New Pilawoos, a member of Colombo’s popular Pilawoos franchise (but neither a hotel or French or new), and settled instead for some biriyani. Sri Lankan biriyani is slightly different to what you’ve come to expect from this dish. For one, there’s no yogurt involved. The meat and rice are also cooked separately–and in this case the chicken is actually roasted while short-grain samba rice replaces the traditional long-grain, fragrant basmathi. You also get a whole hard-boiled egg, a side of minchi (mint) sambol, gravy for the chicken, and a piece of pineapple for good measure. We supplemented our biriyani with a side of beef curry because it looked so good!

the main event

with a side of gravy

and, of course, some beef curry

I must say that even though I did not get my string hoppers for lunch, I was not mad at this meal. The rice was bursting with flavors, prominent among them the essence of rose, which Muslims love to use in their cooking (and biriyani, of course, originally being a Moghul dish). The roasted chicken, though juicy, was much aided by the addition of the curry gravy. The minchi sambol added a cooling component to the whole meal (as did the sliver of pineapple), and the beef curry, though a little tough, tasted fine.

Of course, I couldn’t wash down a Muslim meal without a traditional Muslim dessert, so we chose to have some faluda. Faluda is a sweetened drink made with milk, ice cream and rose syrup, which is super sweet, and gives the drink it’s signature pinkish hue. There are also sometimes bits of tapioca floating in the drink for texture. You essentially stir up the whole thing and enjoy it like a milk shake. I hadn’t had faluda in a while, and this one was perfect because it was not overly sweet for my tastes. Though I had been to Pilawoos many times before, I can understand why it is the goto place for such foods as biriyani or Kothu roti in the evening–consistency is the key!


Hotel De Pilawoos

417, Galle Road, Colombo 3. (btw 6th Ln & Alfred Pl), Colombo, Sri Lanka

011 2 574795

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specialty of the house at Juchunyuan

Colombo has no shortage of Chinese restaurants, most of which serve food with its own particular character, shaped, of course, by local tastes (meaning, it’s much spicier than the run of the mill storefront Chinese in New York or any western city for that matter).  It’s also probably nothing like the ‘authentic’ Chinese food you get in China. That’s why Juchunyuan is such a find: It’s a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Colombo that obviously caters to a largely Chinese clientele looking for a true taste of home.

You could call this well-worn establishment a hole-in-the-wall because it’s off the eaten path, but a clean one at that exuding an odd charm. Though not heavy on ambience, the downstairs dining room, with its 4 semi-private booths, is at least spotless and cooled by AC. While upstairs offers additional seating, both times I have been there it was empty (which might have something to do with the waitresses not wanting to carry the large chafing dishes of hot soup up the stairs).

the upstairs dining room

Besides the paucity of décor, the first thing you notice upon sitting down is the gas burner built right into the center of your table, definitely an omen of good things to come. Also of interest is the single-page, double-sided menu that flashes Chinese characters at you (another good sign), but fret not as closer examination reveals tiny English subtitles written beneath. And anyway, didn’t you always want to know how to write “pig’s heart” or “sheep’s stomach” in Mandarin?

Once again, don’t be intimidated by the menu, because at least one of the waitresses speaks passable English and she will help you out with ordering.

“So how do we do this?” I shamelessly blurted. I might be a gastronaut, but never professed to being a know-it-all.

Our helpful waitress, Lena, directed our attention to the other side of the menu, which lists the different kinds of soup available. They’ve got fish, chicken, “pig bone” and even duck with beer among the offerings. You can order it spicy or not. We settled on the “three sort sea food with short rib soup,” extra spicy, of course.

Soup's On!

Soup is not only the starter here, but the star, as well as the medium in which you will cook your meal. That’s right; if you thought the chef was going to do all the work, guess again. This is, after all, not just any restaurant, but  a “Resraurant” as the sign proclaims.

Sign by Scooby Doo

The flip side of the menu features a dizzying array of ingredients. In addition to the afore-mentioned offal, they also have more normal stuff like prawns, cuttlefish, beef, mutton, and vegetables such as mushrooms, kelp, cabbage and kan kun.

“What’s good, today?” I asked Lena. She recommended the prawn wonton.

“We’ll have an order of those.”

I also got up to peek at the table next door, filled with a group of Japanese men happily swilling cold beers with their hot soup, and decided on getting some prawns, white cabbage, kan kun, and noodles.

“That should be enough for now.” I said, thinking about the “three sort seafood and short rib” that came with the soup.

Lena disappeared and reemerged with our utensils, an array of tools fit for us budding soup chefs, which included a tiny soup bowl and porcelain soup spoon, two metal serving spoons, one with holes; a fork; and a set of chopsticks. She flitted back and forth behind the scenes, returning with a delectable assortment of condiments—fresh chopped garlic and cilantro, peanut sauce, soy sauce, and a thick chili oil.

condiments and raw ingredients for the soup

“Wow! This is getting more interesting by the minute,” I said to my cousin Cane, who had turned me onto this place, though he had only eaten some fried rice on his initial visit. Cane was visibly excited because like most Sri Lankans, this was an entirely new dining experience for him.

Lena appeared next with a large stainless steel bowl of soup, whose broth was practically bright red from the preponderance of chilies. It’s good to see that extra spicy meant exactly that. She rested it on the gas burner in the center of the table, and turned on the flame. Then the stuff we ordered started appearing on the table in quick succession, raw, of course.  Our mouths sufficiently watering by now, we wasted no time, sliding a couple jumbo prawns (with head and tail intact) into the mix along with whole leaves of white cabbage, some freshly made prawn wontons, and kan kun  (stems and all).

Cousin Cane ready to get into some soup

While this stuff quickly cooked in the bubbling cauldron, it was time to assemble our bowls of soup. First in went the pre-cooked rice noodles, over which I ladled several spoonfuls of the spicy broth. Next I added a bit of all of the condiments, and finally some of the now cooked vegetables, wontons and a rosy red prawn. I gave it a little stir and sipped a spoonful of the broth.

“Wow! Flavor” I said as both mine and Cane’s eyes seemed to light up at the same time.


The broth alone was something worth writing home about with its three kinds of seafood and pork ribs. We found out after the meal that the seafood in question was actually dried squid, oysters, and mussels, which had been imported from China, according to Lena. As far as I knew, you couldn’t get this kind of stuff in Colombo.

The "three sort seafood" flavoring the broth -- dried oysters, squid, and mussels

More raw ingredients went into the broth and fished out cooked into our bowls. After much slurping and chewing it seemed like we actually made a small dent in the huge chafing dish of soup. But this was clearly a meal fit for a minimum of four people.

So we went away happy and satisfied with our taste buds thoroughly titillated, and resolved to bring the rest of Cane’s family to help us conquer the next bowl of soup (and next time we did go for the pig’s heart and cow’s stomach).  Juchunyuan proved itself a marvelous and surprising find in the middle of Colombo, and if you ever find yourself with curry-fatigue, it’s got just the tonic for you.


Juchunyuan Restaurant

450 B Charles Drive (off Duplication Road)

Colombo 3


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