It’s not even 9 in the morning and the sun is already beating down on us like a plantation whip. The acrid smell of diesel fuel and garbage mingles with burning incense and spices frying in oil as people and animals—goats, cows, chickens–trishaws and trucks navigate every inch of available space of the Pettah, Colombo’s central market. You must be conscious of each step you take in this delicate waltz of chaos where the ebb and flow never ceases. Becoming part of it is not an option. As we move through surroundings both foreign and familiar, Tony receives his initiation to Sri Lanka.
We are visiting St. Johns, the main fish market, housed in a colossal but crumbling concrete structure adjacent to the harbor. Every morning at about four a.m. the days’ catch arrives here, greeted by hotel buyers and distributors, who cherry-pick the heaviest crabs and the choicest chunks of blood red tuna. But even now the market still hustles and bustles with hawkers and buyers jamming rows of tiled stalls brimming with the freshest that the Indian Ocean has to offer. From tiny sprats, spiny lobsters, crabs, prawns, squid, shark, sting ray, snapper, mackerel, halibut, bass, and tuna carcasses as fat as torpedoes, Sri Lanka has seafood to spare. Just go to Singapore, and you’ll see that Sri Lankan lagoon crabs are the basis for popular favorites like Chili Crab and Pepper Crab.
After slogging through soggy alleys ripe with fish guts and overseen by cackling crows, we make a move to Mohammed’s, a nearby eatery that caters to the market crowd. For our first meal of the show, I think a typical Sri Lankan breakfast is in order: String hoppers (steamed rice noodles); katta sambol, made with dry flakes of Maldive fish, an ingredient very specific to Sri Lankan cuisine; pol sambol, a staple that weds fresh shredded coconut with chili, salt and lime; mild potato curry; fiery red fish curry, laced with chili; and one of my personal favorites, sour fish curry (fish ambul thial), a gravy-less dish made with goraka(gamboge), an acidic fruit indigenous to Sri Lanka that imparts a sour taste. Since the dishes are already prepared and sitting in small metal dishes behind a glass counter at the entrance, they are immediately brought to the table, and we dive in with our fingers. Though
slightly challenged at eating without cutlery, Tony seems unfazed at the preponderance of chili in these dishes. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be lounging beneath a whirling ceiling fan, and sipping Coke from an old-fashioned bottle straight from the cooler. We make quick work of the spicy and substantial breakfast, but I immediately notice that something is not right. I don’t want to sound like a Jewish mother, but I’m both surprised and concerned that Tony does not eat much. On other episodes I have seen him really get down to business and stuff his gullet–like the time he mainlined foie gras in Montreal–so I’m wondering if he simply doesn’t like the food. When I ask him about it after the meal, he tells me that he wasn’t feeling well to begin with when we left New York three days prior. He had apparently contracted some kind of bug in New York, and ‘wasn’t keeping anything down,’ in his own words.
I comfort myself with an internal sigh–at least it wasn’t the food.
String hoppers with all the trimmings are one of my favorite Sri Lankan specialties. The rice flour and coconut milk dough is first squeezed through a wooden press that forms thin noodles, shaped as a round, before being steamed on coaster-sized bamboo racks. It is a fairly labor intensive process, and most people prefer to buy them from vendors instead of bother with the fuss at home. Though Tony could not properly appreciate this favorite dish of mine, I knew there were many more meals on the horizon.