Disclaimer: my palate is my own, and I am by no means a refined eater: I consider a good cheese kottu from Pilawoos the height of Sri Lankan culinary accomplishment, and be damned with your fancy 200-rupee hoppers.
I don’t mind saying that I rather looked forward to Jaffna. It was mostly the Yarl Geek Challenge, but also the food: my friends had all given me the impression that the people in Jaffna did their curries proper – that is, with enough chilli and spices to inspire sheer butt-clenching terror in all but the most hardened STF man (if you pictured a man in Army fatigues with a constipated expression, give yourself a pat on the back). Unfortunately, I didn’t get to explore as much as I would like to have, nor did I get to eat as much as I liked. Jaffna, from what little I saw of it, is a lovely place, with battered ruins, straight roads and examples of old, Lankini-ized western architecture and westernized Lankan architecture rising within green lanes.
However, the food was disappointing.
Perhaps it had a bit to do with that first day. I’m about as omnivore as can be, perhaps leaning towards a more carnivore-ish evolution of humanity: I don’t quite trust anything green on my plate, and I hold that most vegetables (like beans and carrots) are poisonous in large quantities, and should be exchanged for chicken where possible. Seriously, the only thing you can reliably trust is a potato. I don’t quite understand how vegetarians survive, and certainly not how they go about being so cheerful about what must be a rather zombie-like existence.
Needless to say, my first Jaffna meal, at the TCT Hall, was rather humbling: it was rice, fried chilli, some kind of vegetable, another kind of vegetable, and something that looked like more vegetable. The food was edible, and after the waiter took pity on me and slopped nameless brown gravy into my plate, it was actually quite tasty. Luckily, there was a rather efficient supermarket in the same complex: it had a staggering variety of chocolate and the original Thai Red Bull – Kratingdaeng – for a dirt-cheap 160 rupees. It’s usually around Rs 210.
This yellow can is uncarbonated (read: healthier) and packs approximately double the punch of the usual pale white-and-blue Red Bull that people drink when they have money to burn. Four of these yellow cans and I was right as rain, except for a heartbeat of around 120 bpm and sporadic muscle twitches due to excess taurine. Turns out vegetarian food can be endured.
The next day featured a visit to the Rolex, which turned out to be not a watch emporium, but something significantly better: a street food joint. Given the talk I heard, I think it’s safe to say that Rolex is to Jaffna what Pilawoos is to Colombo. As far as kadey go, it was a bit cleaner than the Omex (or Omax?) next door: however, it wasn’t that hot in the food department. We ordered biriyanis, and I for one expected some of the legendary spice I’d heard about. Not so. The rice was yellow and nothing else, the chicken had about as much flavor as cardboard (which I’ve also eaten, so the comparison is valid) and the gravy was remarkably akin to that horrible fish curry you get served at the Katpahan Hotel in Bambalapitiya: a largely watery liquid which functions mostly as a way of salting your food. It’s still better than some of the shops of Galle Road, but strike that one off the list and go somewhere else.
Hotel Tilko was next. That was good, and after a two days of flavored cardboard, rather welcome. I’m not sure who had the bright idea of serving pittu kottu, but it was definitely something I need in my life. Eat pittu, people. Pittu makes the world a better place. Especially when combined with generous amounts of chicken and gravy. Tilko made up for the food finale of the journey: a midnight stop in a kadey in middle of nowhere, no different from what you’d expecton any long-distance journey. This place, though, had a twist all of its own: a waiter who kept forgetting our order, stinking, stale parata, and a gravy so thick it could have been used as anti-tank armor. I gave up. Life clearly does not want me to enjoy my food.