It was in a tiny roadside café in Sri Lanka that I first saw people eating with their hands. Growing up I have watched quite a few Bollywood movies with Mithun Chakraborty breaking into a dance in the middle of nowhere and fighting a dozen bad guys at a time. But none of the above seemed as strange as watching him eat lunch from his mother’s hands. I learned that eating with hands is common not only in India, but in Sri Lanka too, and I felt prepared. Turned out, seeing it in real life is very different from seeing it on the screen. The range of emotions expressed on my face was so vast that to this day my friends bug me about that moment.
The moral of the story is the importance of understanding not only what food people eat in different countries, but how they do it. And I don’t only mean preferred utensils be it a fork, chopsticks or hands. I mean every little thing that defines a nation’s relationship with food. Check out my previous post if you want to know how to eat (and drink) like a Russian. Wanna know how to eat like a true Sri Lankan? Let’s get started!
Drink Tea. At Least Twice a Day.
If you are Sri Lankan your day starts with a cup of tea. This first cup doesn’t come along with breakfast. You have it right after waking up, before your mind even starts browsing for ideas of today’s breakfast. It wakes your mind and body and gives a kick start to your day.
Your second cup of tea will come in the afternoon around 4 o’clock. Served with milk and what feels like 7 spoons of sugar, this cup is like a punch in the face, so if you were slowly falling asleep at your desk, now, thanks to sugar rush, you are about to finish up everything you were delaying for months, meet all the deadlines and help every coworker (even if they don’t need your help).
If you are Sri Lankan, it doesn’t surprise you in the slightest that there’s a person in the company whose function is to make tea and serve it twice a day and he knows how you like your tea perfectly well.
Eat Rice. Heaps of it.
If you are Sri Lankan, not having rice at least once per day means you are 1) dieting, 2) conducting some kind of sick experiment on your body, 3) unable to turn on a rice cooker because your mom is on vacations. In any case, you are starving yourself to death, because not having rice is like not eating at all, even if you had half a loaf of bread for breakfast, pasta for lunch and a burger with French fries for dinner.
When you eat rice it’s always with a choice of at least 3-4 curries. You make sure that the heap of rice is towering on your plate so high that carrying it to the table becomes a challenge.
Make Lunch at Home. Pack it in Newspapers.
If you are Sri Lankan, what to have for lunch and where to get it is never a problem. Well, to be fair, it’s not your problem, it’s your mom’s. Remember that first cup of tea? If you are a Sri Lankan mom, you have that cup of tea at 5 am right before making lunch for each family member. While your husband and kids are sound asleep, you are grating a coconut, cutting vegetables, and frying papadam in the wee hours of the morning. What’s that, Western moms? A sandwich, an apple and a cookie packed in a zip lock bag will do just fine? Sri Lankan moms disagree.
And by the way, zip lock bag? Too fancy. If you are Sri Lankan, you wrap rice and curry in a plastic sheet first, then in a double layer of old newspaper to keep it warm. If there’s any sauce on side, you pour it into a plastic bag, tie a knot and pack inside newspaper along with rice.
Add Chili to Food. Any Food.
If you are Sri Lankan, there’s no such thing as too spicy, “spicy” is pretty much the definition of “tasty”. It goes without saying that that rice and curries your mom packed for lunch are going to make you cry. But curry is not the only dish that benefits from added chili. Slices of mango and pineapple mixed with chili powder make for a good snack. Spicy omelette is everything you need for an awesome dinner. Even pizza Margherita tastes better with chili flakes!
Start Family Dinners With a Cup of Tea. Finish with Drinks.
If you are Sri Lankan, you are not used to spending hours around dinner table eating, drinking and chatting, even if you have guests over in the house. Instead, there’s a chain of events that take place in particular order. First things first, you gather your family and friends in the living room for a cup of tea paired with snacks like biscuits and traditional Lankan sweets (Update: some of my Sri Lankan friends commented that it’s more common to serve cold drinks like juice or lemonade before dinner. When writing articles, I rely on my own experience, and I’ve been served tea before dinner on more then one occasion. But cold drinks are definitely common too) . This is the place to take your time, enjoy the moment with loved ones and have a chat.
Next you move to the dining room for dinner which lasts only as long as it takes to finish a plate of rice and curry. Precisely, not more than 20-25 minutes. Then come drinks and lengthy chats about politics and current affairs. With one but…
Drink Arrack and Whiskey. But Only if You Are a Man.
If you are a Sri Lankan man, your drink of choice is most likely arrack or whiskey. Not any type of whiskey, by the way, but Red Label or Black Label for some reason. The choice of arrack is obvious, since it’s produced locally from the sap of coconut flowers. Black label is harder to explain, but it’s a drink you will find at every celebration or party.
Now, if you are a Sri Lankan woman there’s an unspoken rule that prohibits you to be drinking with men. So you get together with your ladies in the living room for a cup of coffee. To be fair, city girls in their 20’s and 30’ drink alcohol, just not in front of their parents or at family gatherings.
Encourage People to Eat More. And Then Some More.
If you are Sri Lankan, you cannot possibly let people leave your house hungry. Check for signs: heavy breathing, sweating, unbuttoning the top button on one’s jeans – all say that you are doing everything right. But don’t be misled by your guests saying they are so full they can hardly move. Reply with “Just eat some more, will you?”
Forget About Forks and Spoons. Eat with Your Hands.
If you are Sri Lankan, you know that mixing rice and curry with your hands makes it better, because it’s the only way to blend flavors together. You can’t get the same taste and texture using a spoon or a fork. Just make sure that food comes only as high up as the first phalange of your fingers. I can proudly say that after three years in Sri Lanka not only did I come to understand why people eat with hands, but I actually do it myself.
If you are looking for a more in-depth experience of Sri Lankan cuisine and street eats, let me take you on a food walk around Colombo! I’ll show you the biggest market in the city, we’ll try Lankan short eats and achcharu, sample Ceylon tea, try Jaffna-style crab curry, and watch how kottu is made at the street stalls. You can read all about my Colombo food tour here.
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