Life Is to Live: Stories Shared Over Food in Colombo
“I left to Saudi Arabia in the ‘80s, so I could work and earn more money to travel,” Bandu tells us, a smile playing on his lips. “From there, I left to the States, and eventually ended up living in India, New Zealand, and Malaysia.”
We are at a luxe residential complex in the suburbs of Colombo. Bordered by lush marshlands, for a moment, it feels like we’re in the countryside and not in the country’s capital. Bandu recalls his memories of riding a shikara in Kashmir in the ‘80s. “Haven on Earth,” he tells us about the cooler air, flower sellers and life in the valley.
Today, Bandu is our host. We are at his home as part of a program with Traveling Spoon, a community-based travel organization who focuses on authentic, local food experiences. He buys ingredients from the local grocery store, and together, we prepare a Sri Lanka rice & curry spread.
We first prepare the chicken curry, where he shows us his secret ingredient. Homemade roasted curry powder adds delightful flavors to the traditional chicken curry. While the curry is cooked, its nosetingling aroma fills the air, and we munch on cashews and almonds and sips a fresh store-bought thambili (king coconut). His living room opens up to the lush marshlands, carpeted with rich, green foliage.
The water streams and tree-covered surface keep the space mild and pleasant, however, during the midday, Colombo’s humidity becomes a bit unbearable.
“As a child, I was staying with my sister. When she was pregnant, she wasn’t able to cook. I had to cook. She would tell me instructions from her room and I’d follow them. That’s how I learn to cook,” Bandu tells us his earliest days in the kitchen.
After the chicken curry is cooked, we prepare the lentils curry, an eggplant stir-fry, a mushroom stir-fry, a ladies finger salad, and a gotukola sambal. The mushroom and tomato stir-fry becomes our favorite. Packed with flavors, both caramelized and sour notes mix perfectly together, and according to Bandu, it pairs perfectly with some fresh-off-the-oven kade paan (store brought bread).
“When I came home during the holidays, my mother always makes this for breakfast. It works wonders with crispy aappa (plain hoppers),” he tells us as Nathan and I happily taste a few tablespoons of half-cut, caramelized button mushrooms.
Although he lived most of his life outside the country, growing up in the southern parts of Sri Lanka, he learned about the origins and heritage of Sri Lankan cuisine. His memories take him to his childhood where he and his family would walk through the tree-clad paths after the monsoon showers, where wild, edible mushrooms popped up on old, dilapidated tree trunks.
“I worked in IT, but cooking was always my hobby. It’s where I meet friends,” he smiles and serves us a spoon full of eggplant stir-fry. The night before, he has prepared watalappan for us. The creamy, eggy custard is sweetened with palm jaggery and topped with crunchy cashews. He serves us a scoop of mango ice cream which goes perfectly with watalappan.
The lively midday sunbeams reflect on the sleek, modern furniture with earthy tones. An occasional breeze visits us to ease the tropical heat. All of us, Nathan, myself and Bandu feast on one heartful meal. “People ask why I don’t buy a car. I tell them I like to walk. You don’t need to follow trends in life. Life is to do what you like,” Bandu tells us as we gorge on.
Indeed, life is to live, to do what makes your soul full and your heart joyous.
We leave his house an hour later, our stomachs full, our hearts happy.
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