The Toddy Shop

The Toddy Shop

We are in Sri Lanka traveling from Colombo, north, to the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. We had hired a car with a driver, an affable young Muslim man who entertained us with stories of some of his less than agreeable clients.

Being well versed with the route he detoured off the main road and took a shortcut through beautiful lush green landscapes, mile after mile of jungle interspersed with emerald green rice paddies.

Spying a hand painted sign beside a track leading into the jungle he pulled over and asked us if we would like to try Toddy. Toddy is an alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of the Coconut palm. I have seen many of these local Toddy “Bars” in India but never tried it and leaning more towards the adventurous side when on holiday I said, sure why not.

We set off on foot up the dirt track, into the jungle, the driver leading the way. After a few minutes we spotted a local man on the track ahead, walking in our direction.

In fact, walking would be an exaggeration. A more accurate description would be some form of tribal dance as he bobbed and stumbled from side to side. One step forward, two steps sideways, one step back, pause, wave arms in the air, shout into the undergrowth, two steps forward, one step to the other side, one step back. It took him almost 5 minutes to cover the short distance between us.

Our driver, Rahim, approached him and asked him if he knew where the Toddy Shop was. The local stopped his dance and stood swaying like a tree in the wind, considering the questions, spittle forming bubbles on his lower lip.

Rattling off a long explanation in Sinhalese, he gesticulated with both hands while, peculiarly, each eye rotated independently of each other.

Translating for us, Rahim explained that the toddy shop was a long way off and it had taken the local man most of the day to reach us from the shop. He was in fact exhausted by the long walk.

The local started babbling again, the spittle on his lips now morphing into long strings of drool, one eye looking left while the other looked up. The only word I could catch was “dhura, dhura” which I assumed meant the same as “dur” in Hindi, far. We thanked him and he continued haltingly on his way, one step forward, two steps back, 3 steps sideways, two long strings of saliva now reaching the ground.

“Are you sure you want to keep going?” Rahim asked, “It sounds like it is quite far away. He did say it has taken him a few hours to reach us”

To the right of us another local was standing by the side of the track leaning against a coconut palm, watching the proceedings, a big grin on his face.

Wondering whether to continue further into the jungle I thought it wise to get a second opinion.

“Excuse me, How far is the Toddy Shop’ I asked him.

“It’s just around the corner about 50 meters away”

Footnote:

In the end we didn’t partake of any Toddy. The kindly local warned us that it wasn’t pure and in fact had all sorts of nefarious items mixed in with it such as formaldehyde and battery acid, which goes a long way towards explaining the independently rotating eyeballs of the “tribal dancer”

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The Great Spice Garden Scam – How I was conned by the Sri Lankan Spice Baron but actually am not too upset about it.

Nutmeg

Nutmeg

We set off from Colombo in a hired car heading north to visit the Rock fortress at Sigiriya. It was a 6-7 hour journey and our driver asked us if we wanted to visit a Spice Garden on the way.
We have seen many of these in Kerala but having a bit of time up our sleeves we thought we would take a look at a Sri Lankan one and find out if we can learn anything new.

A couple of hours after leaving Colombo we pulled into a dirt parking area surrounded by trees.
A man appeared beside the car as if from nowhere and opened the door.
“Welcome, please follow me”, he said and immediately set off into the trees.

I looked around to see if we needed to pay an entrance fee but couldn’t see anywhere to do so and duly followed the man into the jungle. He stopped next to a tree and waited for us to catch up.
A gentle smiling man he explained that his family had been making Ayurvedic medicines for generations. His business was recognized by the government and they had 1000’s of acres under cultivation, growing ingredients for Ayurvedic medicines.

He showed us a Cinnamon tree and explained how the cinnamon is made from the bark and explained it’s health benefits.
We proceeded on to the next stop where he showed us vanilla, and then nutmeg, cocoa, sandalwood and so on, each time explaining the benefits and uses, and frequently reminding us that they were recognized by the Government.

Vanilla

Vanilla

Cocoa

Cocoa

He was a friendly guy and happy to answer any of our questions. I couldn’t help but wonder though how he earns his money. There had to be a catch.
I have become very suspicious over the years, knowing full well that there is no such thing as a free lunch or indeed a free spice garden tour. The constant reminders that they are recognized by the government also sounded alarm bells. What does that mean anyway? Recognized by the government. Does that mean when you walk down the street a politician will see you and say “Hi, how are you? How’s your family?”

After about ½ an hour we reached a hut at the bottom of the garden and were invited to take a seat. A nice hot glass of herbal tea was given to us along with a sheet of paper listing the various products that they manufacture and their uses. He gave us a pencil and then explained each product and said they are available to buy later, so to tick any that we thought we might be interested in.
Selling without selling, this guy is pretty slick.

After the explanation he told us that they provide a free Ayurvedic massage and invited us into the next room where we sat and two young boys proceeded to, very skilfully I must say, apply various ointments and oils and massaged our shoulders and arms. This was very pleasant and we both felt extremely relaxed afterwards.
By now we felt obligated to buy something. We had enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the garden, a nice cup of tea, a very relaxing 15 minute massage and so far no money had exchanged hands.
These guys are really clever. In fact I would say they are possibly the best salesmen in the world. First we are lulled into trusting them by accompanying them on a nice walk, providing us with lots of free information and answering all questions in a gentle helpful manner. They then give us free gifts; the herbal tea and the massage, and by this time we were feeling that it would be churlish not to buy at least something

Psychologists call this the law of reciprocity. If you have already accepted something you feel obligated to give something back.

Massage dispensed with we walked happily back up to the top of the slope towards the car-park and into another small hut where all the products were displayed.

“Is there anything on the list I gave you that you would like to take back with you?” He asked.

Well, why not? There were lots of things, we thought, and buy now trusting him completely and wanting to pay him back for all the time he had spent with us we started pulling bottles of product off the shelves.

Piling them up on his desk, he started adding them up on his calculator, finally giving us a figure. That sounds alright, we thought to ourselves. Quite reasonable.
Until he told us it was in US$ not Sri Lankan Rupees!

Ahh that’s how it works, I thought to myself!

Now The Boss and I have spent enough time together to know what each other is thinking and we have a good level of unspoken communication. We glanced at each other and started removing items from the pile, returning them to the shelves.

“Actually we don’t need this, and my Mum probably won’t use this so it would be a waste, etc. etc.” one excuse after another we told him, to explain why we were returning various items.

The salesman seemed quite relaxed, not fussed whether we took a lot or a little. I guess the profit margin must be so high that even one sale is a good day for him.

Reducing the pile by 2/3rds we asked him to add it up again and this time to tell us the price in Sri Lankan rupees. He came up with a much more reasonable figure but still one I am sure is more than the normal retail price.
We reduced the pile a little further but didn’t have the heart to discard everything and walk out of there empty-handed.

We asked him if he was disappointed that we weren’t taking so much. To which he replied, “ No, no, I am not a business man I just want you to be happy and take what you need”.

Boy this guy is smooth!

We paid him, he packed the items and escorted us back to the car with a smile, wishing us a safe journey.

We sat back in the car thinking, “I am sure we have overpaid,” but somehow we didn’t feel too bad. The price of experience we told ourselves. Plus we got some good mosquito repellent and Vanilla essence.

As we left another car pulled up, the next victim smiling inside. Blissfully unaware of what’s to come.

Paradise found at the Gallery Cafe, Colombo!

Gallery Cafe EntranceI have a very nosy man to thank for another great meal in Colombo
It all started in Bangalore airport in the worst queue I have ever seen. Two and a half hours to clear immigration as the officials stabbed at their keyboards with a single finger of each hand and asked the usual asinine questions of each passenger. “Why are you leaving? Who are you meeting” and the best of all to The Boss; “Why couldn’t you find an Indian man to marry?”
I am pretty anti-social and don’t often like to talk to strangers as I find myself infinitely more interesting. But when you are standing next to someone for 2 hours you are bound to eventually strike up a conversation. After the usual inanities about how long the queue was, the Indian Inquisition started: Where are you from? Where do you live? Where do you work? How long have you been married? and so on and so on. I was as vague as I could be, trying to cultivate an air of mystery. In the end he gave up the interrogation and proceeded to answer all the questions I had no interest in asking him. After listing all the flights he was taking, all the cities in the US he was visiting and how many companies he had started, he finally gave me some information that was actually useful.
“When you are in Colombo make sure you go to Geoffrey Bawa’s old office. It has been converted into a café and is really nice.”
Geoffrey Bawa is Sri Lanka’s most famous architect and is considered the founder of the style known as ‘Tropical modernism’. There are wonderful examples of his work throughout Sri Lanka and I knew enough about him for the mention of his name to pique my interest. That combined with the word café was enough to set a plan in motion.
Shortly after arrival in Colombo we started googling and discovered that the place is called The Gallery Café and run by Paradise Road. A quick check on Trip Advisor threw up some mixed reviews but enough positive ones for us to decide to visit for lunch. The owner of the hotel we were staying in also confirmed that it is worth the visit.
Lunchtime duly arrived and we pulled up outside in our tuk-tuk.
Let me tell you, Gallery Café is a delight. From the minute you walk in it is a visual feast, architecturally and artistically, hinting at the wonderful culinary experience to come. You enter past a couple of gnarled old Plumeria trees, and down a small passageway which leads into a courtyard lined with art. Beautiful columns frame a fish pond filled with black fish and, in an artistic touch, a solitary white fish.

Gallery Cafe Colombo, Fish Pond

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Artwork

Gallery Cafe Courtyard

This then leads to another open plan seating area and courtyard, again filled with art and sculptures, the tropical heat kept at bay by the clever building design and the numerous fans wafting cool air.

Gallery Cafe, Colombo
The ever smiling and attentive staff promptly seated us and helped make a few recommendations.
The Boss ordered the house specialty Black Pork Curry and I had the Lemongrass and Ginger Chicken with spinach and potato mash.

Black Pork Curry

Black Pork Curry

Lemongrass and Ginger Chicken

Lemongrass and Ginger Chicken

Both were fantastic.
One main course never enough to satisfy Tommy, I then ordered the Pan Fried Modha Fish with lemon and caper butter on crushed potatoes. This too was as good as the others.

Pan-fried Modha Fish

Pan-fried Modha Fish

What would a meal be without dessert so we finished up with the Via Paradise; layers of meringue with coffee liqueur soaked cake, tiramisu cream, chocolate ganache topped with black cherries.

Via Paradise

Via Paradise

Heavenly!
For me having a good meal is not just about the taste ( although taste and quantity is pretty high on my list) but also about the ambience. Gallery Café ticks all the boxes and is a place where you could spend the whole day whiling away the hours with great food and drinks.

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Courtyard

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Courtyard
On the way out we were admiring once again the shapes of the old Plumeria trees at the entrance and got talking to a man we later learned to be the owner of the Café, Shanth Fernando. He explained how the branches of the trees were weighted with stones so that they grew low and gave the trees their unique shapes.

Gallery Cafe, Colombo - Plumeria Trees
He also entertained us with some of the back stories to a couple of the not so positive Trip Advisor reviews.
My advice: Visit for yourself. Some of the best food I have eaten in a long time, great service, and in a wonderful atmosphere.
In fact we returned the next day just for dessert.
The Passionfruit Pavlova was superb.

Passionfruit Pavlova

Passionfruit Pavlova

Freshly Consecrated at The Ministry of Crab

Keep Calm and Crab on

One of my best culinary adventures in Sri Lanka was sparked by a good friend’s prior visit to Colombo.
A nautical man, often said to be the inspiration for The Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow, he was using Colombo as his base for plundering the high seas.
After a hard day pillaging the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean he would retire to his favorite restaurant to stuff himself to the gills with crustaceans.
Knowing he is a sailor I was initially reluctant to look at photos of his crabs. However once he explained that he was in a restaurant that specialized in them and plied me with bite by bite what’s-app messages and photos, I was inspired to pay the place a visit.

Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo

Ministry of Crab
Located in the renovated 400 year old Dutch Hospital precinct in Colombo, Ministry of Crab is owned by famous Sri Lankan cricketers Mahele Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Japanese born Sri Lankan Chef Dharshan Munidasa. Its aim is to celebrate the best of Sri Lankan seafood particularly it’s famous crabs and that it certainly does.

Ministy of Crab Ministers
All you regular readers know that Tommy doesn’t need any excuse for a feed, but mention Crabs to The Boss and her eyes light up and saliva starts dripping in copious quantities from the corners of her mouth. So it will come as no surprise that soon after we landed in Colombo we were making arrangements for a meal at The Ministry. Unfortunately they are not open for lunch during the week and my pirate friend had warned me that table reservations are necessary as he had been made to sit at the bar one night after turning up unannounced (not comfortable when you have a wooden leg).
Reservations duly made we were outside their door minutes before opening, me trying my best to hold the Boss back while avoiding slipping over in the pools of saliva forming at her feet.

Ministry of Crab Kitchen
The place is impressive and really celebrates the glory of the crab. The crab theme is carried through the menus, the cutlery and décor.

Chef Dharshan

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We sat down and, bowing to the Boss’ superior crab wisdom I let her take charge and she ordered a large Pepper Crab. I live in mortal fear of finishing a meal hungry so I also ordered the Chicken Curry Rice as well.

Chicken Curry Rice
Crabs are not usually my thing as I have always found the effort/reward ratio not in their favor. When you have a tape worm as long as mine you need to find ways of shoveling the maximum amount of food in your mouth in the minimum time and spending hours picking out little morsels of flesh from a spindly leg did not appeal. However I have to confess that after a visit to The Ministry I have been converted. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see! Hallelujah! I have been baptized by Ministers Mahele, Kumar and Dharshan! These crabs were humungous and full of tasty flesh.
Despite being in the hallowed hall of the Ministry, one of the 7 deadly sins, greed, took hold and we ordered another large crab, this time Chili Garlic. This too was as delicious as the first!

Chilli Garlic Crab
Glancing around to see if we were the only ones feasting voraciously we saw a Chinese man at the next table, obviously a crab connoisseur. He had ordered a “Crabzilla” at over 2 kgs, the largest size available and was happily devouring it by himself.
2 crabs and various chicken accompaniments later we sat back, The Boss with a satisfied grin on her face and Tommy curled up happily in his lair. The best crab meal both of us have ever eaten.

Curry Crab
24 hours later we were back again for another crab sermon, and funnily enough so was Chinese Crabzilla man!

U-Reeka!

Pic Credit : PBrundel

Pic Credit : PBrundel

Driving to the shops today to pick up my groceries I thought that the back door of my SUV hadn’t been closed properly. Pulling over to the side of the road, I got out of the car and almost fainted as an overwhelming smell assailed my nostrils. Emanating from the foot of a nearby wall, the smell of ammonia was so strong that it turned all the hair on my head white! Gasping for breath and feeling faint I clambered back into the car and it was then, as I slowly recovered consciousness, that I had a moment worthy of Archimedes.

Eureka! I just discovered one of the major differences between India and Sri Lanka (as pondered in my last post).

Public urination!

In contrast to the daily sight of men flagrantly hosing down walls and irrigating trees with their appendages, in the nine days I was in Sri Lanka I did not witness a single example of public micturition.

Sri Lanka – The Resplendent Isle

Sri Lanka - The Resplendent Isle

We decided to go to Sri Lanka for a week to celebrate my birthday. I had debated it for a while as a friend had said not to bother as it is just like South India. Somewhere I read the sage advice that “opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one and they all stink” and bearing this in mind I decided to disregard the aforementioned friend’s comments and investigate for myself.
Boy, am I glad that I did. Sri Lanka means resplendent island in Sanskrit and after 9 days there I have fallen in love with the place. To be fair to my friend it is a bit like Southern India……… but different too. There are parts that remind me of Kerala and Goa whilst other things remind me of Thailand and Singapore. The clothes are different, and the food whilst similar does at the same time have distinct differences. It is quieter, less crowded and less frenetic than its larger more populous neighbor and in fact many Westerners I met who have made Sri Lanka home, commented that it is “India-lite”. I can’t quite put my finger on what the differences are but comparing Sri Lanka with India is like comparing Australia with New Zealand. On the face of it similar countries/cultures but actually on deeper examination quite different.
The lush green scenery and the wonderful food make me want to return again and again, the 9 days that I was there were not nearly long enough and there is still so much for me to see. The good thing is that it is only an hour’s flight from Bangalore making it quicker to get to than Mumbai and double entry visas are easily attainable online.
But overall it is the people who make a place and the smiling and friendly people of this island nation were always welcoming and helpful. Hindu mythology has an epic story called the Ramayana in which the 10 headed demon King Ravana kidnaps Sita from India and takes her back to his kingdom in Lanka. However based on the interactions I had with the gentle people of Serendib, I have to wonder if like most of history, events may have been reinterpreted along the way. As a friend commented in Hindi “Joh jeeta wohi Sikander” which loosely translated, means he who wins is the conqueror and therefore in this context, the victor, Lord Ram who defeats Ravana and takes back Sita, dictated how the story is told. However at the risk of offending any Hindu readers out there (which is not my intention at all) I offer the conjecture that maybe Sita fell in love with this beautiful island and its smiling handsome king and decided to emigrate?