Colombo is not a city which is often described in a favourable light. Before we arrived, I had read that it was far from being a traveller’s haven, was told that it was a tad boring, and generally not the kind of place you find yourself lingering in. Ever the optimist, I bowled on into town with an eagerness to see the best of this city and perhaps prove its critics wrong, but after arriving in the middle of a storm verging on cyclone territory, stepping into far too many puddles in the broken pavements, and seeing nothing but grey skies, I was defeated. At the end of day one, all I wanted was to curl up in the hotel and order room service, but by the end of day two I was starting to see the city in a whole new light thanks to Urban Adventures!
An afternoon spent talking about food and eating it often puts me in a good mood, but our Eat, Eat, Repeat food tour also gave me an insight into life in this frenzied urban sprawl. The city is vast, needs a lot of TLC in some parts, but does have its charms. We do agree with those who have come before us – this is not the most tourist-friendly city, but if you’re visiting Sri Lanka, it is highly likely this will be your first stop so I would suggest you do as we did and explore it through food. It’s definitely more interesting and provides a great introduction to Sri Lankan food which will stand you in good stead for the rest of your trip. Here’s a taste of what you can expect if you too decide to Eat, Eat, Repeat with Urban Adventures in Colombo…
First Stop, A Short Hop for Hoppers
Right across the road from our meeting point at the central train station were a row of canteens which I had noticed the day before but was too shy to walk into… I had no idea what they sold, how to order, and was a bit disorientated from jet lag to figure it out. So imagine my delight when our guide marched us straight into one within minutes of our tour starting! The canteens actually sell a huge range of food but we were here for the hoppers or appam, a thin pancake made from a rice flour and coconut milk batter which has been fermented before cooking. The best way to eat your hopper is to start by breaking off the thin crispy parts of the pancake before you finally reach the spongier bit in the middle, and all the while topping with spicy sambol or dipping into the curry as you see fit. The plain ones were tasty, but my personal favourites were the egg hoppers, especially when the yolk was still a touch runny in the middle!
Calming Ginger Tea Before the Market Storm
We already knew that Sri Lanka was a tea mecca, which suited us just fine, but we had not known about their love of ginger tea. It is simply a black Ceylon tea which has been infused with fresh ginger and usually sweetened with jaggery or sugar, resulting in a really soothing, aromatic brew. After the introduction that day we were hooked and ordered it quite frequently throughout out travels – it made for a perfect afternoon cuppa!
Barrelling through Pettah Market & Sipping Sau Kenda
After that tea break, we braced ourselves for a walk through the very boisterous Pettah Market where there was no shortage of yelling and bartering between the vendors and the shoppers. You can get almost everything from homewares to clothing within the market’s maze-like lanes, but my favourite part was the fresh food hall. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, but I was so fascinated by the produce, both familiar and unfamiliar, that I was trailing far behind a certain someone and our guide most of the time. It is a small miracle I didn’t get completely lost in the excitement of it all. Once we popped out the other side, we found our way to an unassuming cart selling delicious sau kenda, a drink made from tapioca and coconut milk. It’s the consistency of a runny porridge, ridiculously sweet, and fills you up after just a few sips – reminded me of some of the sweet soups from Malaysia!
Snacking & Strolling Through the Colonial Quarter
Our guide told us the next little stretch would be more walking and talking, and less eating so we quite wisely picked up some ‘gram store’ snacks to nibble along the way. From what we could see, the gram stores sold all sorts of food items such a biscuits and crackers, however our attention was solely on the cabinets at the front filled with fried and spiced snacks. Locals will know the flavours and have their favourites, but we chose on the basis of what looked good… told the vendor how many grams we wanted… and paid according to the weight. Hence the name, gram store! I’m not how good they are for your waistline but they would be fantastic cheap and easy snacks to have for long train or car rides. We munched on ours during the walk through the old colonial neighbourhood; I could see how those buildings were once considered stunning architectural gems in their heyday but was sad to see they’re now mostly empty and derelict.
Galle Face Green & a Hotel Dinner
On any other evening, Galle Face Green would be the perfect place to witness the sunset before tucking into a seafood dinner and enjoying the sea views, but it’s not definitely not the place to be when faced with unrelenting rain and wind! On a good night, the sea front is filled with street food vendors and seafood restaurants but all we encountered were shut-up stalls so our guide made a speedy change of plans and a short tuk-tuk ride later we arrived at a hotel for dinner… but not the kind with rooms. Confusingly, some restaurants are called ‘hotels’ in Sri Lanka, we never got to the bottom of why, but we did find out that they serve really hearty, affordable meals. We ended our tour with two Sri Lankan classics which we would come to enjoy many, many times in the next couple of weeks: kottu and devilled chicken. The chicken is usually fried and covered in a tangy, sometimes spicy, tomato sauce, and the kottu is basically a messy concoction of chopped up roti bread stir fried with vegetables or meat – both tasty, moreish and very filling!
You all should know by now that I love taking food tours in new cities or countries – have you ever done a food tour and did you love it as much as me?
Thank you to Urban Adventures for hosting us on your Eat, Eat, Repeat Colombo Food Tour, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone!
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