Sunshine and the Stick Men: Crafted from Heat
Text & Photos by Flash Parker
In college, I had one of those grills endorsed by out-of-work and overweight celebrity boxers. I imagine eating Sri Lankan food for the first time is equivalent to trying to Panini-press my tongue between the hot parts of that grill: no cuisine on Earth matches Sri Lankan for sheer punishing hotness.
I’ve just tried Colombo curry and I imagine my face must look like one of the folktale masks sold in the fancy galleries along Dharmapala Mawatha Road: eyes bulging, nostrils flared, tongue waging and flames erupting from my mouth. I’m seeing ghosts, too.
A small boy flying a kite just streaked past me wearing nothing but a smile, while a man with a dead snake slung over his shoulder just ran out into the traffic. Earlier, I found a neat little café in the atmospheric Mardana neighbourhood and ordered breakfast. It came with a hearty helping of industrial strength spice but no water – that’s why I’m racing from shop to shop along Kularatne Mawatha Street looking for something to satiate me. I scramble past the Maradana Mosque where women in burqas step out of my way and men in lungis – long, traditional cloth wraps worn in regions where the heat makes wearing pants uncomfortable – gaze at me in amusement. I dip into a bakery that sells all manner of sweets laced with chilli powder, then dash past the ubiquitous tuk-tuk repair shops, where shirtless Sri Lankan men wipe their greasy palms on their lungis before reaching out to shake my hand.
Eventually I come to a shop where a large woman is stirring milk in a steel milk basin. I take a sip directly from the ladle then devour a thin chapati, careful to inspect the moist bread for renegade chilli pieces. My vision slowly returns to normal and the apparitions that have assailed me disperse. I return to the breakfast café to pay my bill. Then, against my better judgment I ask for another serving. I don’t care that the mutton curry is hotter than tap dancing on the Sun or that the chilli pepper squid is stored in a burlap sack on the floor: I want more.
Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, but I’ve realised that travel in Sri Lanka is all about throwing yourself into the fire. Heat defines Sri Lanka: cuisine and culture are inexorably linked through history, one informing the other over time. I want to know what keeps them aflame.
When hot is too hot
I jump into a game of football with school kids on the Galle Face Green Promenade, fly a kite for the first time in 20 years and wipe the cooling spray of the Indian Ocean from my face as couples chase each other out beyond the sand and into the surf. With eclectic art galleries, concert halls, sports stadiums and a world-class promenade, Colombo has the look and feel of a Western star with all the ancient grace of the East: the kind of place where food vendors fight for elbow room with snake charmers and contortionists.
Near the pier, I stop for a snack and wonder if this is what Sri Lanka is all about: mirroring the best of the West and allowing the sun to distil all the loose, acrid particles into something wholly unique, a place where men wear neatly pressed tartan skirts to work instead of designer trousers and people begin conversations asking after cricket scores.
For lunch, I choose a shaved beef chapati wrap over chicken sliders and set fire to my mouth. The vendor encourages me to cool down with a faluda, a sweet beverage made by mixing rose syrup, vermicelli, tapioca and milk. Best of all, a faluda isn’t spicy, so long as you don’t order one with green chilli. I ask where in town I should go the next time I want a faluda; the vendor points me towards the Fort Railway Station.
Adjacent to the always-busy Fort Station, the Manning Market is a fine example of the traditional South Asian experience I’ve come to know and love: betel nut-chewing men huddled around rudimentary game boards made of refuse cardboard and soda caps, women dolling out flaming curries from massive cauldrons and people ducking under plastic umbrellas to escape the heat. I find a shop selling faluda and concoct a treat that includes pistachios and creamed coconut, then find a curry stall, where I scoop up the spicy blend with a half dozen string hoppers, a kind of flattened noodle designed for dunking. When I step back out into the street I’m struck immediately by the heat reflecting off of the pavement and the sweet, rancid taste of petrol fumes and humanity that mix with the curry at the back of my throat. I feel like there are clues to the mystery of Sri Lankan cuisine here in Colombo, but they’re all mixed up and fused together in a kaleidoscope of colour and light and sound. I need to escape if I’m ever going to make sense of it all.