“When you’re travelling, food gives you a glimpse into the culture of a place, the people, their psyche. We found ourselves in a completely unexpected situation one night in Sri Lanka which resulted in one of the best meals of our trip and gaining a deeper understanding of Sri Lankan culture and the generosity of spirit of the Sri Lankan people.
It’s certainly not what we expected of a beach resort- in fact it’s quite the opposite. We’re in Mirissa, a seaside town in Sri Lanka famed for its whale watching and stunning beach. It’s rainy, windy and there is literally not another soul about. Sure, it’s off-season, but who knew that translated to shuttered windows, empty hotels and a town devoid of life?
We’re wandering the streets looking for dinner, so far the only option is an Italian joint- a concrete behemoth whose idea of mood lighting is alien white light bulbs. Not ideal. A quick scour on our phones reveals there’s another restaurant close by so we continue walking down the gloomy, dusty streets. We peer into the dimly lit garage, stacked chairs and tables line the walls and the air is slightly musty. There are unmistakable delicious smells coming from the rear of the building. We creep in and see a small woman hovering over a pot of dal bubbling away on a two burner stove.
‘Hello? Are you open?’ She jumps with surprise, a broad grin spreads across her face. ‘No, but are you looking for dinner? Are there no other restaurants open?’ We quickly dismiss all thoughts of the Italian and shake our heads. ‘Well come in then’. She leads us out of the garage, into her house, through her kitchen and into the lounge. Her daughter who is doing homework on the dining room table rolls her eyes, packs up her books and heads to her room. Her husband waves from the sofa where he’s watching Animal Planet as she ushers us into seats at the table. ‘What do you want to eat?’ ‘Anything is fine by us’ we answer gamely. She whips into the kitchen.
For the next hour we sit with her husband veering between 90s music hits and a programme about lion cubs. Finally she emerges from the kitchen with two plates piled high with spiced basmati rice, grilled chicken, creamy dal, beetroot chutney and crisp vegetables redolent with cardamom and curry leaves. ‘Eat, eat’ she urges us. ‘Sorry it took so long, I was cooking for the family too’. Flavoursome, fragrant and plentiful, there really is nothing like home cooking.
At first it’s slightly bizarre to be eating a meal in a stranger’s living room late at night but we talk about Sri Lanka, our families, travelling and by the end of the night it’s like being with old friends. Stuffed full, we push back our chairs, hug and shake hands. ‘Come back if you’re hungry over the next few days and there are no restaurants open’ she calls out as the family wave us goodbye from the front door.”