Sri Lanka’s Galle Literary Festival is now in its 12th year, and I have seen it grow from a post-tsunami venture to boost tourism to a convivial forum for ideas. Every year, it attracts authors from the English-speaking world, and has given young Sri Lankan authors considerable exposure.
But apart from its literary focus, the festival has also become a centre for culinary excellence. The programme includes a number of lunch and dinner events where authors are the guests of honour, and tickets are sold to visitors who welcome the opportunity to meet famous writers. However, tickets are not cheap, and for those seated at a distance from the authors, this can be a costly event.
Over the years, Galle Fort has become a major tourist attraction, and the number of restaurants and jewellery shops (140 at last count) has grown exponentially. Snack bars, ice cream parlours and juice shops abound. And for serious foodies, there are now several restaurants that serve food at an international level.
The literary festival in Sri Lanka is also a centre for culinary excellence
For those who have not visited it, the Fort is an enclosed area, originally built by the Portuguese, then expanded and improved by their Dutch and British colonial successors. The ramparts are around 12 feet thick and are the principal venue for walkers who can enjoy a fine view of the sea on one side and the Fort on the other. An old Dutch hospital has been restored and now houses a number of smart shops and restaurants. One of them is The Crab and Tuna, a younger sibling of Colombo’s iconic Ministry of Crab (voted one of Asia’s 50 best restaurants for the fifth year in a row). Seafood is obviously the big draw here with sashimi, sushi and crab curry the stars on the menu.
Another favourite eatery is located at the Fort Printer’s, a boutique hotel on Pedlar’s Street. This popular establishment is owned by an ex-banker from Lahore who lives in Spain, and has done very well. The food is a fusion between Lebanese and Sri Lankan cuisine. I had lamb kofta in a taco, and found it cooked just right, with a mild burst of chilli heat to serve as a reminder that I was in Sri Lanka.
The Galle Fort hotel is a beautifully restored colonial mansion with high ceilings, lovely prints and old furniture. The small restaurant is located under a veranda overlooking the swimming pool, and the focus is on seafood. On most evenings, a fixed menu is on offer, with three small starters, a main course and a dessert. The choice between the main courses is limited to three dishes, but the quality more than makes up for the restricted selection.
With the rising demand for large prawns as the number of tourists has increased, crustaceans are now being farmed in lagoons and lakes. ‘Lobsters’ are expensive, but can weigh up to a kilo. In reality, they are langoustes since true lobsters are only found in cold Atlantic waters. The other day we bought a few as a special treat. Boiled until their grey-green shells had turned bright red, they were served simply with a lime-butter sauce. For me, this is the best way to eat lobsters as their sweet taste comes through with minimum interference from things like cheese or strong sauces.
In truth, there are moments when I would love a change from our daily diet of fish, fish and more fish. Once my son Shakir came for a visit and, after a week, said he could ‘kill for a cheeseburger’. He’s a true Lahori carnivore, and I knew just what he meant.
The problem with Sri Lankan meat is that, generally speaking, the Sinhalese don’t eat beef, and there are no sheep on the island. Muslims eat local goats, but dice all the meat for curries. Of course, you could buy beef and lamb imported from Australia, but this is quite expensive.
If I sound like I’m complaining about too much fish, we are lucky to have Nandi cook for us: she’s a marvellous chef and gives us a wide variety of seafood dishes. Every once in a while, I get into the kitchen as well. The other day, I made a fish biryani with surmai that turned out well.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 27th, 2019