Whenever I’m in Colombo, a city I’ve eaten my way around quite often, I’m always eager to go off the eaten path and discover a place that I’ve never dined at before. A special favorite of mine is Jaffna food, the spicy Tamil cuisine of the northern part of the island, and when in search of a new spot, it’s wise to take a well-informed guide like my friend, filmmaker T. Arjuna, who has a nose that knows since he himself hails from Jaffna. We meet at my Aunt’s place in Slave Island on a stiflingly hot day, and after downing a cold beer and making a few phone calls, Arjuna has just the spot in mind in nearby Wellawatte, a predominantly Tamil enclave in Colombo. He’s never eaten at Nalapaham Restaurant located just off the Galle Road on E.S Fernando Mawatha, so we are both in for a surprise.
What I’ve learned about the differences between ordinary rice and curry and Jaffna cuisine comes down to subtleties in spicing and flavoring. Jaffna curries tend to use more tamarind and tomato as their base, but there are also just as many “frys” or dry curries without gravy. Seafood and mutton are the main proteins, but plenty of vegetables make it to the table as well. Of course the use of chilies is abundant, which makes this particular regional cuisine among my favorites.
Arriving just short of noon, we are the first customers in Nalapaham, and I’m immediately impressed with the cleanliness of the place. This is clearly not your ordinary “hole-in-the-wall.” A large menu in English dominates an entire wall, and they are just bringing out all of the days dishes onto the steam table.
They’ve got nandu (crab) curry; iral pooriyal (dry fry prawns); kanawa pooriyal (cuttlefish dry fry); varutha koli (dry fry chicken); attuirachi (mutton) curry; jillameen (fish) curry; and fried fish. They also offer a whole host of vegetables including katharika kootu (eggplant tamarind curry); gotu kola salad; pineapple/cucumber/onion salad; dhal, long beans, and wing beans. We order one of everything except the crabs (since I had been ODing on crabs this trip). Served first, the rice, dhal, and vegetables are all-you-can- eat. But pretty soon our table is covered with a colorful, mouth-watering palette of different dishes, and we dig in—using out fingers, or course.
After filling my plate with a bit of everything—Sri Lankan style—I douse my mound of red rice with a few spoonfuls of the crab gravy, which is one of the spicier things we ordered. I dive right into the curries and pretty soon my lips are pleasantly on fire. This is how Jaffna food is supposed to taste! The dry curries—prawns and chicken—remind me of a spicy stir-fry with sliced capsicums and onions. The mutton curry has a proper gravy, thickened by coconut milk, and the tender eggplant has the tangy taste of tamarind. I eat the fried fish, which has been marinated in spices, bones and all, since it is so crispy good. Everything has a little bite to it–even the gotu kola salad, which is laced with slices of fresh green chilies. Following the meal, we sip a cup of the traditional rasam, which is a digestive made of ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, black pepper and some other spices I can’t quite identify. But good to last drop! The meal was amazing save for the cuttlefish, which was a little overcooked and rubbery. When I got the bill, however, I couldn’t be mad: 1430 rupees, which comes to about US $11.34 or $3.78 per person since Arjuna’s driver also joined us. For its fast, friendly service; cleanliness; cheap prices, and excellent eats, Nalapaham proved to be a great find, and a definite keeper.