The sweltering streets of Maradana, where largely Muslim merchants ply their trade from ramshackle storefronts amidst the din of street markets and incessant traffic, seems to be a good a place as any to get a good biryiani in Colombo. After all, this originally Moghul dish, brought to Sri Lanka by Arab traders, has become a lunchtime favorite among Lankans of all stripes. Who doesn’t like hunks of tender chicken or mutton cooked in a savory rice, usually served with condiments like mixed pickle (acharu) and topped with a hard-boiled egg. Of course, the Sri Lankan variety substitutes short-grain samba rice for the traditional Basmati, and there’s not even a hint of yoghurt present, which is usually used to tenderize the meat. Instead the rice is cooked in a rich stock, and the chicken, coated in a blend of dry spices, is roasted or fried and served on the side. Also a side of curry gravy in a plastic bad is usually included, as well as a dollop of katta sambol (Maldive fish chips, chili, and lime), and some fresh chopped capsicum peppers or pineapple. If you’re especially hungry, you can also order some additional curries—liver, peas and cashew being a favorite.
I’ve been ordering biriyani from a particular street stand in Maradana called Iqbal’s for a while now, so I thought I might as well steer some business their way, for those looking for an authentic street food experience in Colombo, off the beaten path, of course. If this place was located in New York city, a camera would be as unwelcome as a Health Department inspection, but thanks to Iqbal and company for letting me step behind the counter to bring you the real sights and flavor of a true Sri Lankan specialty. This is nothing like traditional Pakistani biriyani—there are plenty of places where you can get that in Colombo as well—so if you happen to be on the island, I recommend you try Iqbal’s. Despite the apparent lack of hygiene as seen from Western eyes, these guys are constantly washing their hands and the utensils they serve with, and even though the chef sharpened his knife on the ground, he scrubbed it vigorously before cutting my roast chicken.