Though the excursion to Jaffna made for a memorable trip full of tasty meals and interesting people—including the Sinhalese soldiers who invited us to dine with them in their humble barracks–ironically, my quest for the real deal Jaffna cuisine leads me right back to where I started, Colombo. Being the commercial capital of Sri Lanka, as well as its most populous city, Colombo is as a natural magnet for people all over the island. It is no surprise then, that the island’s biggest Tamil population resides not in the north, but in the Colombo suburb of Wellawatte, where I’ve eaten great Jaffna cuisine in the past. One place that comes to mind is Katpaham, a restaurant on Galle Road to which I took Anthony Bourdain (but unfortunately it never made the final cut of No Reservations: Sri Lanka). Another great spot I go to for Jaffna food in Colombo is the Palmyrah restaurant at The Renuka Hotel, also on Galle Road.
This time, however, through the advice of my friend Arjuna, who accompanied me on the trip to Jaffna, we were going down to Fort, which is the area once occupied by the Dutch fort in colonial times. Today, this harborside locale is the site of Pettah market, a bustling center of commerce. The largely Tamil and Muslim merchants of Pettah need a place to dine, and when they want a cheap, fast, and tasty lunch, they usually frequent one of the many ‘boutique’s” that have sprung up around the area. Most of them, like the Mayur Hotel, are really hole-in-the-wall spots where the food is served on disposable (and, of course, bio-degradeable) banana leaves, without cutlery, and you sit where you fit—usually next to some guy who’s been hauling in a load of fish from the fish market or some other type of manual labor.
No, this place in which you’d be hard pressed to get even a napkin, would never receive even one star in the Michelin guide. Yet it serves honest and authentic Jaffna cuisine in a setting to match. It’s off the beaten path, of course, and the experience of winding down back alleys to find the place and to finally sit down and eat with your fingers off banana leaves is as priceless as the food. The heat factor may not be up to par with my standards, but I’m finding out that I must have built up an immunity to chilies at this point. I only find that the food I make for myself can satisfy my hunger for the burning pain that accompanies good eating. Where authentic Jaffna food is concerned, I’ll bet it’s the same proposition. You’re not going to find the real deal Jaffna cuisine in any restaurant, but in someone’s house. And I’m officially accepting invitations.
Mayura Hotel — 46 Sri Kathirasan Street, Colombo 13