I enjoyed my Sri Lankan chemical burn
I still can’t access my pictures, and it seems a shame to tell you about Sulamani Pahto temple’s beautiful carved stucco artwork when I can’t show you…so I’ll get to this guy, who has been patiently waiting in my Blog folder for a few weeks now.
But he’s a patient fellow. He showed that while he waited for me to finish my meal in Jaffna, at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, so I could take his picture. He was excited about that part.
I have no idea what his name was, and he spoke no English, but his welcoming smile when I went to his restaurant for dinner was exceeded only by the grin when I went back the second night.
As was the motief for so much of this trip, I was the only tourist in the restaurant (and the hotel, and the city as far as I could tell) but I was comfortable as Ambassador from Everywhere Else, and given the amazing hospitality I found among the Tamil people of Jaffna, we were all friends faster than you can say “holy shit that’s spicy.”
Sri Lankans like their spice.
In the more touristed areas they tone down the spice a little, but up there in Jaffna…I got what they were cooking. If I thought I was sweaty when I walked in the door, I just had to wait until halfway through the meal.
(As with most of the men here, they looked very stern and serious for the first picture, but this second one was me being sneaky, so I got their smiles. They were very much enjoying having their picture taken.)
But what a meal! I took a seat at the lightweight plastic table and they put a banana leaf in front of me. They seemed to recognize the words “rice” and “vegetables” but definitely understood “dhal” (lentil soup, popular throughout the subcontinent) and the gesture for food.
My buddy from the picture came up with a big bowl of white rice, and plopped a generous portion on my leaf. (Did you enjoy that sentence as much as I did?) Another guy followed him with a silver stand with three different sections, from which he ladled dhal, vegetable curry, and sambal, another Sri Lankan staple, shredded coconut spiced up with chili.
Sri Lanka is like Nepal in many ways, including that you eat with your hands, and it felt great to get up to the wrist in my food again. I love eating that way. I’ll do it anywhere they’ll let me. (Don’t invite me to dinner with the queen.)
A third guy (there is often plenty of staff in these countries) placed a fried fish on my plate with a proud smile. I always enjoy picking the meat off a fish and leaving just a perfect skeleton; it reminds me of the Garfield cartoons I watched as a kid.
At the end of the meal you take your own leaf and drop it down the garbage shoot before washing your hands. Fully compostable, no plastic, not even dishwasher soap involved. I like it.
Breakfast was the same sort of thing. Go into a restaurant, ask for food, see what they bring. A masala dosii is like a crepe, filled with spicy curry vegetables, with sambal and dhal on the side. By the time I finished I looked like I’d just climbed out of the pool. It was embarrassing.
But a strange thing happened after a couple days of scalding my tongue with caustic seasoning; I stopped sweating so much. I won’t say I felt comfortable under the belligerent sun and 40 temperatures, but I progressed from drenched to merely shiny.
It was worth the sensation like a chemical burn on my upper lip that lasted three days.
The question remained though, was I ready for the chili in Myanmar?
I love the idea of the banana leaf! So wonderful. Gotta get that idea happening over in these parts, though it does go hand in hand with eating with your…well..hands. Too many people are adverse to that, sadly!
It does take a little getting used to before one can comfortably dip into a meal with 4-5 fingers (I feel positively dainty when I do it, but sometimes my pinky sticks up by itself) but once you get used to it, it’s hard to stop. You could use fork and knife on the banana leaf…just be careful with the knife, you don’t want to spring a leak, and then dribble curry sauce during the entire walk to the garbage chute.
This sounds like a lovely, approach to food and travel and the people that bring these delicious surprises to you )
I do my best to be open to all of it…but to be honest, I didn’t sit to make friends with the guy selling pig-innards-on-a-stick in Myanmar. I wasn’t quite up for that particular experience.
Although I don’t like fish, for some reason I really like he picture of the picked through bones!
Did you watch Garfield as a kid too? There is something so satisfying about clean bones…much better than leaving a chicken bone with the tendons still hanging off it… But I don’t really like fish either, so next time I visit, I’ll just bring some bones and we can all put them on the plate when we’re done. Gastronomic aesthetic punctuation.
Plopping on a leaf sentence didn’t tickle me fancy quite as much as the one with you up to your wrist in food. You hit on something good here with this topic! I think I will make some finger friendly food for diner tonight, but not pasta. Pasta would be awkward.
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