Sri Lanka’s proximity to India makes many people assume the food is the same, and one of my reason’s for embarking on this mission with Tony is to prove the opposite—that Sri Lankan cuisine can stand up as something tasty and unique in its own right. That being said, however, there is no question that Indian food has exerted a tremendous influence on the tiny island just off it’s southern tip. Biriyani, for example, one of India’s signature dishes, is just as popular in Sri Lanka, where they put their own spin on it. Truth be told, this simple but complex one-pot dish in which the rice and meat are cooked together, was actually introduced to India by the Moguls, Muslim invaders who once ruled parts of the country. It just goes to show how much food is a reflection of history and the influence of immigrants and conquerors.
These days ‘biriyani’ is as loose a term as ‘curry,’ and simply implies savory rice cooked with meat. Colombo boasts a wide variety of biriyani joints, but the ones I tend to favor stick to the traditional recipe—known as “Pakistani biriyani–which calls for long-grain basmathi rice, ghee, yogurt, nuts (usually cashews), stock, and of course, saffron, that most expensive of all spices. Lamb or goat (or ‘mutton’ as its referred to in Sri Lanka) constitutes the meat of choice, though chicken is a close second. When you see the local Pizza Hut selling a concoction called the “Birizza,” which is basically a pizza topped with rice and chicken or mutton, you can understand the popularity of biriyani in Sri Lanka.
Because it’s a Muslim dish, you should really patronize a Muslim establishment to enjoy the real deal. But instead of taking Tony to a “Pakistani biriyani” spot, I want him to sample the local version known as “Bombay biriyani.” Substituting short-grain samba rice for the traditional basmathi, this variety is also made with a lot more spices and is served with different condiments. The place best known for such biriyani is neither a restaurant nor a kade, but Rifka Caterers run by one Mr. Saifudeen, whose Indian father brought the recipe here. For 34 years they have been specializing in this one dish, and count among their clients the Colombo Hilton, though Muslim weddings and holidays account for the bulk of their business.
I lead Tony down a small alley off Church Street in Colombo’s Slave Island, an area that boasts a large Muslim community. We emerge into a small courtyard of sorts bordered by residential houses on the right and a large factory on the left. No signboard identifies Rifka Caterers, but we follow our noses through the open doorway of a pink building ahead of us. At the end of a dark hallway we enter a room with high ceilings and plenty of light streaming through its large open windows. Stacks of industrial strength biriyani pots, maybe four feet in diameter and two feet deep, line the walls and I know for sure we’re in the right place.
After greeting the proprietor Mr. Saifudeen and his son, we are shown how the biriyani is prepared. First, several huge pots containing chicken parts that have been washed and chopped are laid out in a row on newspaper. Father and son take turns coating the raw chicken with handfuls of various ground spices—coriander, cumin, chili, garlic, ginger—before mixing everything together by hand. Then parboiled rice, about 30 percent cooked, is added followed by more spices. The last ingredients include cashews, creamy white curd, yellow ghee and a reddish solution of saffron and water. The final stage involves covering each pot with a metal lid and then sealing it shut with dough, which allows just the right amount of steam to escape. Then their assistants heft the filled pots onto special frames to cook over a gas fire. When the dough cooks to resemble a pizza crust, in roughly 30 minutes time, the dish is done. Though I love to make biriyani myself at home, the assembly of this dish on such an industrial scale and without exact measurements makes for an impressive sight. But, ultimately, it is the taste that matters the most, and Mr. Saifudeen invites us outside to try some.
He has graciously set up a table and chairs under a wooden awning beside his building where Tony and I plop down and prepare to chow. One of his employees brings out a huge, steaming platter, known as a savan, of chicken biriyani, Bombay style, as well as some of the typical Sri Lankan accompaniments. Biriyani is traditionally served with raita, a cucumber and yogurt mixture, but in Sri Lanka it comes with either mint sambol, a cooling concoction made of crushed mint and fresh shredded coconut; chili sambol, which is ground chilies with Maldive fish, salt and lime; mixed pickle (acharu), a combination of pickled onions carrots and green chilies; and finally fresh pineapple wedges. He also brings out an additional plate of chicken (not cooked in the rice but rather fried) and a bowl of gravy with which to douse it.
The rice tastes moist and delicious, despite the fact that this recipe uses absolutely no stock. But you can instantly recognize the rich flavor and feel the oily residue of ghee, which helps ease everything down your throat. The chicken also packs a spicy punch and turns out incredibly tender thanks to the pressure steaming method in which it was cooked. Like Arroz con Pollo or Singapore’s staple Chicken and Rice, this very basic preparation exhibits such sublime undertones that it’s got Tony and I “Mmmming” and “Ahhhing”and licking our fingers. Now I know why it’s called food porn. The hint of saffron, and the special biriyani masala, which contains nutmeg and star anise, among other things, has our taste buds on the brink. The condiments also help to kick the meal up a notch, making this a typically Sri Lankan dining experience. Dare I say it? Tony’s got a new favorite Sri Lankan dish.