Of course Sri Lanka boasts it’s fair share of modern supermarkets—namely the island-wide chains, Keel’s and Cargill’s Food City. Though nothing on par with lavish and über-stocked mega-markets of the U.S., they still offer some semblance of western-style food shopping in a climate-controlled setting. But to really get a taste of how most of the local populace buys groceries, you need go no further than any main street. The bustling capital of Colombo abounds with all manner of street vendors, sometimes peddling their wares on nothing more than a sackcloth laid out on the pavement. Since these vendors tend to congregate next to each other, you find dozens of impromptu markets, usually around the busier thoroughfares. In addition, several long-established covered markets around town featuring semi-permanent stalls offer a farmers’ market feel with fresh, seasonal produce to match. No imported Peruvian asparagus or oranges from South Africa here, but rather mountains of local mangoes or pyramids of pineapple stacked neatly next to more obscure fruits and vegetables. In Sri Lanka, ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ are not buzzwords, but the norm.
The best part about shopping at such open-air markets is being able to see, smell, touch, and taste the food you are eventually going to ingest. Bargaining is welcomed, but hardly necessary considering the comparatively low prices: I would feel bad trying to pay anything less than 50 cents for a juicy pineapple. However, I do take full advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a whole host of foods I would never be able to find back in America—stuff like gotu kola, jackfruit, and rambutan. Gotu kola, a green plant with long stalks and rounded leaves, somewhat resembles cilantro. It is typically used in mallun (a concoction which includes shredded coconut, lime juice, green chilies, and spices), a great side dish for rice and curry. Speaking of curries, polos, or young jackfruit is a favorite—probably because I’m only able to eat it in Sri Lanka. The oblong-shaped jackfruit, green in appearance and covered with hard ‘scales,’ is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, sometimes reaching 80 pounds in weight, up to 36 inches in length, and 20 inches in diameter. It’s mild flavor lies somewhere between a potato and a plantain, and if it were up to me I would classify it as a vegetable.
As far as fruits go, I gorge myself on mangoes, papayas, pineapple, and plantains, but rambutan, ranks as A childhood favorite. Certainly unique in appearance, their bright, red hue and spiny but soft skin, has earned them the nickname, ‘hairy balls,’ in my family. Peeling off this outer layer reveals a sweet, tender white core that resembles a lichi fruit and tastes divine. While all of this produce may not be ‘certified organic,’ in the western sense of the term, most small farmers who peddle their crops cannot afford expensive chemical fertilizers and pest protection. As a result, fruits and vegetables in Sri Lanka taste how they should taste, and not like flavorless facsimiles.
In addition to produce, meat and fish is also sold at street markets. But unlike the sanitized supermarket version—in shrink-wrap and styrofoam—you see exactly where your food was sourced (in fact, maybe more than you wanted to see). Typically, freshly gutted carcasses—whether cow, pig, lamb, goat, or chicken—are hung up in the sun with no refrigeration and nothing to protect them from the flies, heat, and dust. Squawking crows congregate greedily waiting for a scrap, but nothing goes to waste as all parts of the animal (including the offal or innards) for sale. Barbath, or cow’s stomach, is a real delicacy here. Even the fish and seafood is not iced. The best they can hope for is a dousing of cold water to prevent them from drying out in the sun. But all of these animals have been killed or caught on the very same day they go to market. They will be cooked and usually eaten on that same day as well. Despite having refrigeration at home, Sri Lankans prize fresh food and will make daily trips to the market because old habits die hard.
For the uninitiated, a trip to a Sri Lankan street market offers an eye opening, though sometimes scary, experience. Regardless, the sights, sounds, tastes, and people provide an excellent way to get to the heart of this culture (or any culture for that matter). Though the absence of health codes, handling regulations, and plastic, may make you feel as if you were taking your life into your hands, the simple fact is that people have been living this way for thousands of years without issue. The tainted food that prompts recalls—a symptom of our modern mass agricultural methods in the west—have never occurred in Sri Lanka. In fact, on my many trips there over the years, I can honestly say that food poisoning has never been an issue, only overindulgence!