Lata’s Curd

The first meal I had in Sri Lanka was curd and pani. Sri Lankan ‘curd’ is like Greek yogurt or clotted cream: rich creamy buffalo milk, boiled and set in a clay pot, the cream settled atop it like a blanket. This was drizzled with pani, or palm syrup, boiled down and smokey, the flavor part maple, part molasses. Z and I were sitting around his parents table, our eyes bleary with travel. “One day I’ll have to take you to the south,” Z said, “where the best curd is made.” I nodded and had another serving.

As we drove north from Tangalle we began to see paddy fields, buffaloes and their birds, and then curd shops along the road.  We stopped at several. Our favorite was Lata’s Curds.

Lata rinsed three bowls and three spoons in a basin, set the curd and pani on the table in front of us, and began to serve generous portions.

More pani? More curd? When we had eaten all we could Lata wrapped up a pot of curd to go.

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No Sugar

We stayed two nights at Kurumba House, in Tangalle, being cooked and cared for by Rupa and Tekla, who arrived from the beach in the morning to make breakfast and left in the evening the same way. A handful of others walked and rode their motorbike on the wide smooth sand.

Amma asked Rupa and Tekla about the Tsunami. “Madam,” they said, and then continued in Singhalese.

Z turned to me when they are done. “They said that some people got out, but because of the lagoon, the water came from two directions, and most didn’t make it. Now, they say, there are drills every few months.”

This whole coast was struck by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the architecture of the place shows it. Solid cool concrete, floor and walls, bed frame and closets, night stand and wash basin. Beautiful, but more than that, functional.  If there was a flood, nothing would float away save the mattress.

Rupa and Tekla cleared the lunch plates and began to plan dinner. “Rice and curry?” Rupa asked. Tekla said a few words I couldn’t follow. Amma nodded. Then I caught the word miris. Chili.

“I can handle the spice,” I said, quickly, guessing. They all smiled.

The few Sinhalese words I know fall into two categories: food and creepy crawlies. Kimbulabunnis: sweet croissant like rolls. Miris: chili. The: tea. Seeni: sugar. Garandia: snake. Huna: gecko. Meru: flying termites that flock to the light.

When Thaththa wouldn’t eat, at the end of his illness, I learned epah, the word for no.

Tea, Madam?” Rupa asked.

Amma nodded. “Beth?”

“Yes,” I said, then added, “Seeni epah.”

Rupa smiled, “Yes Madam, no sugar.”

As it fell dark the geckos began to chirp. This is sometimes the loudest sound in all of Sri Lanka.

Amma scratched a bite on her arm. “There are so many huna. They are always falling on people.”

I looked behind me. I could easily spot five of the pale bodies on the wall. When I was a kid geckos were the stuff of nightmares. In Sri Lanka, where there is little difference between indoors and outdoors, they are just part of life.

One of the bodies wriggled a bit.

“Did you know there is an almanac for huna? “You look up where the huna falls on you and it tells you your fortune.”

I put down my book as Rupa set pumpkin, loofa, eggplant, fish, and prawn curries on the table.

“Did they fall on you?” I asked Amma.

“What, the huna?”

She got up and went to the table, almost laughing. “Many times.”

Kurumba House. Wonderful. I hope to stay there again. Comfortable, relaxed, delicious.

Fishermen in Tangalle

When we arrived at Tangalle it was Poya, the monthly Buddhist holiday on the full moon.  In Kandy, Poya means meat is not sold at the supermarkets and that young children wear their white Sunday outfits to temple, where I see them walking, holding hands, up the hill to our house. In Tangalle, Poya means all the fishing boats are pulled up on the beach.

The next morning Amma and I went out to meet the fishermen.  We arrived just as they pulled in the nets.

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Heading South

From Colombo we headed south along the coast.  Z drove. I sat next to him. Amma was in the back seat. As we approached Moratuwa, where Amma grew up, the regular traffic of three-wheelers, women under umbrellas, school children, motorcycles carrying families of four, sedans, lorries, and timber trucks with men balanced on top, bicycles, cows, dogs, tricycle lottery ticket vendors and old men in sarongs driving bullock carts, grew to include gangs of fishermen holding their net on their shoulders, in one long quarter-mile train, the net dipping between them like the icing on the edge of a cake.

To our right was a row of huts and shacks, a crucifix three times as tall as them, more nets, a railroad track, and the long flat blue Indian Ocean.

We passed a row of small fish laid out to dry on the side of the road. The sun shone off of them like mirrors. “Did you hear what Lalitha said about the miris maalu and the onions?” Zilla asked.

I shook my head.

“She said if you don’t put onions then the chills are enough to preserve the fish several days without refrigeration.”

“Long years ago my grandmother used to make a dry kind of miris maalu with sprats and send it to us in the mail,” Amma said.

“How long did it take to get to you?”

“Oh, a day or two. Early on, before the postal service was good, maybe three. We used to take them when we went on pilgrimages this way to Kataragama. We’d build a little fire at night and boil rice and eat them together. It was quite exciting.”

“And it didn’t spoil?” I asked.

“No,” Amma replied.  “They do all sorts of things to keep the fish here. They also make a terrible sauce in this area with the heads and guts. It’s fermented like.”

“Did your mother make that when you were a girl?”

“No, no, the fish vendor would come round with his basket of fish and then if Amma decided to buy she came out with the pot and he would clean the fish and put it right in.  When that man cleaned the fish he just scraped the guts right onto the ground.”

“It must have smelled terrible.”

“Oh, no,” Amma said. “Invariably a cat appeared out of nowhere and the mess was just gone.”

As she says this it is easier to imagine her as a girl of 6 or 7 rather than 67.

Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

The twins were born yesterday morning. Identical girls, in matching bassinets, under matching pink mosquito nets.

After we went to see them we took Amma to the Galle Face Hotel, in Colombo, for her birthday lunch. As we walked in the door we were greeted by this fellow.

“I have been here since British times.” “Really?” Amma said. “Yes, Madam,” he said. “I began in 1942.” Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948.

“How old could he be?” I asked Zilla.

“He probably started as a bellboy, when boy is what was really meant.”

Kiribath for Breakfast

Lalitha Aunty serves kiribath for breakfast. Kiribath is a soft rice pudding that is then formed into a cake. It is made with coconut milk, rice, and salt. Kiribath is the first solid meal served to babies and the first food eaten in the Sinhala New Year.  At Lalitha’s house, it is eaten every day.

Kiribath is rich and creamy, salty and slightly sweet.  We ate ours with Seeni Sambol,  Miris Maalu,  and Maalu Kiri Hodi, Sear  fish in sour and a yellow curries.  In Sri Lanka, curry is a breakfast, lunch and dinner affair.

After breakfast, we had mangoes. Amma just said it is the season. We should find more as we head south.


Kiri means milk, often coconut milk. Bath means rice.  Maalu means fish. Hodi means gravy.  Goraka is a soft brown seed used as a souring agent in Sri Lankan curries. Maldive Fish is a dried tuna flake from the Maldive Islands that adds a savory element to many Sri Lankan curries.

Kiri Bath

Rice, water, coconut milk, salt.

Place one cup of rice in a pan.  Place your finger on top of the rice and add water up to the second joint. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat as much as possible, cover, and cook over very low heat until the water is absorbed. Once the water is absorbed, add the coconut milk and salt and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture no longer sticks on the sides of the pan.  Pile the kiribath on to a plate and use the back of your spoon to smooth it. Slice in diamonds and serve with Pol Sambol.

Miris Maalu

Sear Fish, (or King Makerel) cut in thin steaks, lime juice, coconut oil, minced ginger and garlic, curry leaf, chilli powder, goraka paste, salt, & water.

Wash the fish with key lime juice, rub with goraka paste and salt, then heat a little oil with ginger, garlic and curry leaf. When they begin to brown add some chilli powder. To this mixture add the fish and enough water to barely cover.

Then, as Lalitha says, “Cook a bit and then it is done.”