Though I love a good burger, fast food, in the traditional sense, is not really my cup of tea. On the other hand, I live for street food, and if I could eat with five fingers instead of at a five star, I’m there. But what is street food other than good food done fast–ergo, fast food. Go to Vietnam, Thailand or Singapore and you can live off the street food options, which are not only many and varied, but exotic, delicious, cheap, and often healthy. In Sri Lanka, the street food options boil down to mostly hoppers, kotthu roti, or short eats, so I was surprised when my cousin Shalini recommended I accompany her to one of her favorite street spots, which specializes in burgers. ‘Did I really come all the way to Sri Lanka to eat a burger,’ I asked myself. Then she told me they also have barbecued chicken, kebabs, shwarma, and the best french fries in town. That sounded more interesting–especially since man does not live by curry alone, and I was looking for some alternative to Sri Lankan food after 2 straight weeks of eating it. She even sweetened the deal by telling me that we could stop at the little cart down the street that specializes in my favorite (and hers), isso (shrimp) vadaai. ‘Ok, I’m game,’ I told her.
When the sun goes down in Colombo, street vendors come out, and I was surprised I had never seen this guy with a little wooden cart frying up isso vadais and ulundu vadais just down road from my Aunty Dora’s place on Park Street, Colombo 2. The isso vadai is similar to a falafel, only spicier, and topped with three whole baby shrimp. The ulundu vadai is like a deep-fried, savory donut (complete with hole) made from black gram flour and laced with spices. It was nice and crispy on the outside and moist and hot inside. We popped a couple of each right then and there before heading off to Maradana in a trishaw for the main event.
Though I had passed this corner thousands of times, I had no idea about Burger’s King or just how popular it was. After all, when I come to Sri Lanka, a burger is hardly the first craving on my list. Maybe it was the huge sign for MCcain’s french fries, which threw me off. When I see a McDonald’s, KFC or Burger King–especially in the east–I instinctively gag at the cultural imperialism of American fast food. But this was like no American fast food restaurant I had ever encountered. It was all there out on the street–a small grill, a serving counter and a big hunk of chicken shwarma roasting on a vertical spit. Around this glorified street stand was a large gaggle of people ordering food and the alluring smell of roasting meats wafting through the air. On the wall behind the outdoor “kitchen,” there were pictures of everything they had to offer: beef burgers, jumbo hot dogs, barbecued chicken, and several types of chicken burgers, including the chicken corden bleu burger. Wow! Now this was getting my juices flowing, and I told Shali to order one of all her favorites so we could have a fast food tasting menu.
Most people eat their food right there, but as we had ordered so much we decided to bring it all home. I loved the barbecued chicken, the beef kebabs, the shwarma and all the various types of chicken burgers that we ordered. Oh, and the fries were damn good as well. The beef burger was my least favorite, but Shali scarfed that up like a champion. All we needed was some milkshakes (as if there was any room left in my stomach).
Though I do not consider myself a foodie or a food snob, this whole experience taught me a great lesson: Good food is often in the last place you’d think you’d find it. So the moral of the story is: Free your mind and your stomach will follow.