It’s Christmas Eve, 2002 and we are deep inside Sri Lanka – at a beautiful resort – the Sigiriya Village. I have already fallen in love with Sri Lanka – a land of gentleness – whether it is the landscape or the people or the very musically gentleness of the language itself! Where else in the world could man have built an orphanage for baby elephants??!
Having just climbed 1200 steep rock cut steps to the top to see the famous and stunningly beautiful rock paintings – and then back again, we were ravenously hungry and since the resort was dressed up to the gills – full of tourists from Germany and Austria ready to make merry at Christmas, we went into the restaurant – a huge football field-sized affair with a buffet dinner laid out all around. Tables groaning with food and stomachs growling in anticipation, we pick up our plates and start walking around… and round and round… looking for vegetarian food – any vegetarian food! I do one round and find some plain steamed basmati rice – yay! Where there is rice, there must be some food for us herbivores, right? After all, if the people of this country could build an entire orphanage for the largest herbivore on land, they must surely have provided for the two-legged variety too??! Right?? Wrong!
Feeling sure that I must have missed something, I go hopefully back to the salad bar – over a hundred salads and I examine each one carefully as the rice grows stone cold (or as we say in not-so-polite Telugu – pilli ucchha madiri – meaning as cold as cat’s piss! Another interesting line of thought – who then was the first man ( i don’t think any woman would have been so foolish!) to think of what temperature this could be and then stick his finger – let’s give him some credit and say it was a pinkie finger! underneath the cat as it tried to find a private place to mind its business!). Back to the salad bar – not a hope – everything has some form of seafood – whether powder or flakes or a fish sauce – to dress it with. Finally, i disconsolately pick up a few carrot sticks and head back to our table to compare notes with family and our friends with whom we are traveling. No one’s had any luck 🙁
Husband has a brainwave and flags the waiter over. Man bends over us very solicitously.
“Merry Christmas” says my husband.
“Thank you, sir and the same to you too!” he beams back. They smile at each other for a few seconds as the waiter begins to grow nervous. “Anything I can do for you, sir?”
“Oh, no, just wanted to see a happy face. You see, it’s Christmas and this is all we could find to eat” says husband, looking completely woebegone (he’s very good at it!), holding up his plate to display some rice and three sticks of carrot he had arranged artistically on the rice in the hope of making it look more appetising!
It works! The waiter looks shocked, rushes off, returns with the manager – all apologies – and an offer of several vegetarian dishes – we have to keep telling them that it must not contain anything that moves! Twenty minutes later, arrangements are made for these people from India who couldn’t find anything to eat from the hundreds of dishes they had!
Despite the fact that vegetarian food is a problem to find in the interior of Sri Lanka ( i carried pickles and podis!), i learnt from a wayside restaurant how to make one of the simplest and most delicious of chutneys – sambols – called pol sambol.
- 1 coconut – grated
- 4-5 red chilies or 1 tbsp red chili pwd
- Shallots – spring onions – sambar onions – 1/2 cup
- Juice of one lemon
Pulse everything together in the mixer without any water. You should get a moist but grainy, powdery consistency. Eat it with anything – rice, appams, idiyappams. It makes a fantastic replacement for a dry curry – if you don’t have time to cut and cook veggies. Just serve it with plain boiled dal and rice and an appadam – microwaved if you are on a diet.
And go bravely to Sri Lanka – even if you are a veggie!