Lampreis has got to be one of my favorite Sri Lankan meals, distilling the island’s cuisine down to its bare essence. Its nuance and complexity, however, is masked by its simplicity, which at face value is nothing more than a bundle of rice and curry wrapped up in a banana leaf. In fact, the name itself comes from the Dutch, literally meaning, “lump of rice,” but I doubt you’ll find anything remotely like this in Holland or anywhere else for that matter. For when it comes to rice and curry, lampreis assumes its place at the pinnacle.
While purists argue about what exactly constitutes lampreis, after a lifetime of research, I have reached the conclusion that this meal must include the following components: samba rice cooked in a rich marrow bone stock; tempered brinjal (eggplant) curry; a cutlet or frikadel; a mixed meat curry of pork, beef and mutton; seeni (or sugar) sambol; fried ash plantain curry (made from the banana flower); and blachan (a condiment of Indonesian origin made of dried prawns, onions, salt, lime and spices all ground together into a paste); and sometimes a whole egg, which is hardboiled and then fried. Prepared individually, these dishes are then assembled together in a banana leaf and steamed so that the flavors meld together creating a rich and flavorful meal that is miles from the run-of-the-mill rice packet that Sri Lankans favor as a portable lunch. I don’t know if it’s the earthy flavor of the banana leaf that gives it that added edge or the interplay of the individual dishes themselves, but to know lampreis is to love it.
In Sri Lanka today, many banana-leaf wrapped bundles masquerade as lampreis, but the best commercially available product can be found at three places—the esteemed Green Cabin eatery on Galle Road, a Colombo institution; The Fab, a newish bakery chain whose flagship store is in Colpetty; and of course, the Dutch Burgher Union, a members only club that thankfully sells its lampreis at a take-out counter at the back. I say commercially available, because if you are lucky to know someone like Jean Daniels, a home cook, who fills private bulk orders, you are in for the best, most authentic lampreis that money can buy.
Upon first landing in Sri Lanka, I always begin my food odyssey with a Green Cabin lampreis. Not only is it the most readily available, but Green Cabin also stocks such a huge assortment of short eats (savory pastries and appetizers) and sweets that I end up ordering a sampling of the entire inventory to boot–plus some of their delicious, condensed-milk laced iced-coffee to wash it all down. I’ve been coming to Green Cabin since I was a kid, so old habits die hard, and even though their lampreis is a tad on the greasy side, it’s exactly the first meal I want upon arrival in Sri Lanka.
This trip was the first time I sampled The Fab’s lampreis, however, and I found it even better than Green Cabin’s. A neighbor told me to try it, warning me to get there before noon or I would be out f luck, and sure enough, the first time I rolled up there at quarter to one, they were sold out. The next time I made sure to reserve two packets of chicken lampreis. Technically this was not “real” lampreis because “real” lampreis is made with a mixed meat curry of pork, beef and mutton, but the small chicken drumstick in my packet sufficed just fine as the primary protein.
Out of the three varieties mentioned here, however, Lorraine Bartholomewz, another home cook and staunchly proud Burgher lady (who was also featured on the Bourdain show), makes the best lampreis, which she sells at the DBU. It’s less greasy than the other two, and though smaller and more expensive (at 365 rupees or roughly US$3 per packet), this lampreis struck me as the most authentic and delicious. So if size matters, order two. It’s obvious that she takes a lot of care in the preparation of the individual components, made at her kitchen at home, and I was lucky to get the last two packets when I stopped by the DBU around lunchtime. The DBU also sells a great Beef Smore, a top round beef roast smothered in a coconut milk gravy and lime pickle, and Pork Badun, a similar spicy pork roast.
If you’re in Colombo and looking for a good lampreis, you really can’t go wrong at any of these spots. Now if I could only find a good source of lampreis in the States!
Green Cabin , 453 Galle Road, Colombo 3
FAB FOODS (PVT) LTD , 474 Galle Road, Colombo 3
The Dutch Burgher Union of Sri Lanka, 114 Reid Avenue, Colombo 4