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Tap that Toddy

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Coconut Water

We had seen toddy tappers at work a few times, high up in the palm trees around Jaffna and Trincomalee, collecting the liquid of coconut flowers into plastic jugs. The toddy can later can be distilled into arrack, but is one of the country’s favorite drinks even in its unprocessed state. And for nearly three months, we had traveled throughout Sri Lanka without ever trying it. We were being derelict!


The toddy is non-alcoholic when first tapped, but ferments quickly and must be drunk on the same day (and is at its best in the morning). Plus, you can only find it in local “toddy taverns”. All of this makes landing a bottle a tricky prospect for tourists. We ended up having to talk a local into hunting some down for us.

Our toddy had been poured into an old water bottle, looked like cloudy urine and tasted like cider, but somehow yeasty. Or cheesy. Yes, it tasted like liquidy, yeasty cheese cider. It’s a common sensation to feel the still-active toddy fermenting inside your belly. I’m not sure whether that’s what was happening to me, but I definitely felt something going on down there, hours after we had stopped drinking.

Apparently, the best toddy comes from the north, where it’s culled from the spiky Palmyra palm trees. Maybe that would have been better, but I can’t imagine that any toddy is going to find its way into my list of favorite drinks. It was still fun to try, but anyone with a sensitive stomach will want to stay far away.

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Toddy Harvest
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April 30, 2012 at 9:41 am Comments (2)

Chop Chop Chop Chop Chop Me Some Kottu

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Sri Lanka Cook Books

One of Sri Lanka’s most typical dishes, and perhaps my favorite, is kottu. Combining rotti bread, veggies, a variety of spices and (optionally) egg, cheese or chicken, it’s one of the country’s few specialties in which rice plays no role. And the best part is, you don’t ever have to look for a restaurant which serves kottu … just listen.


The first time I heard the sounds of Kottu being prepared, I instantly thought “flamenco”. Perhaps it’s the result of too much time in Spain, but I had the faint hope that upon turning the corner, I’d see a flamboyantly-dressed gypsy dancer stomping his staccato rhythm out onto the pavement. But it was nothing like that. Just a dude chopping up bread and veggies. Still, it’s a great beat, and I found myself unconsciously tocando las palmas and occasionally muttering “¡Vale!

The preparation of kottu is quite a spectacle, and the resulting creation is invariably delicious. Well, I suppose not invariably: please, don’t ever order chicken kottu. For reasons that elude the most basic understanding of human logic, many restaurants don’t bother to debone the chicken before sending it to the cleaver-weilding chopper. Resulting in a meal full of thousands of chicken-bone shards. Yum!

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April 23, 2012 at 4:15 am Comments (3)

Hotels, Rice and Curry

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Sir Lanka Cookbook

After ten weeks spent searching the eateries of Sri Lanka, finally we discovered an establishment that serves up the elusive dish of Rice and Curry. “What might it taste like?”, we wondered, nervously anticipating our first bites of this mysterious meal. “Like a pygmy unicorn?” Yes, it must taste like a pygmy unicorn! A creature almost as rare as rice and curry itself!

Hotel food Sri Lanka

Okay, okay. Rice and curry is somewhat more common than pygmy unicorns. In fact, it’s more common than Sri Lanka’s flea-bitten street dogs. Our daily schedule for the past ten weeks has looked something like this: wake up, rice and curry, work a little, rice and curry, sight-seeing, rice and curry, beer, go to bed. Dream of rice and curry.

Rice and curry is unavoidable. It’s on every menu and, more often than not, it’s the only thing on the menu. Luckily, it’s delicious. A big bowl of rice, served with a variety of curries — dhal, a yellow lentil-based curry, usually makes an appearance, as does a coconut curry. The bowls set down in front of you always include something unexpected, bringing a welcome bit of variety to this daily dietary staple.

You can order rice and curry with chicken, fish or egg, but we normally go for straight-veggie. The curries are usually spicy, and you’re often provided with a small dish of sambol, a potent chili sauce, in case you really want to punish yourself. In most places, even the cheapest neighborhood joints, the staff will continue to refill your bowls, until you’re stuffed.

The best places to order rice and curry are hotels. Now, I don’t mean a “hotel” like the Holiday Inn or Hilton! No, I’m using the Sri Lankan definition of the word. For whatever reason, they’ve decided to call tiny, cheap restaurants “hotels”. It’s an island-wide linguistic phenomenon. Perhaps it makes them feel fancier if they’re jotting off to the hotel for their lunch, rather than admitting that they’ll be at the local hole-in-the-wall stuffing sopping handfuls of rice and curry into their mouths.

Eating With Hands in Sri Lanka

Yep: handfuls. Foreigners will be provided with silverware (usually dripping wet from a dunk in the “cleaning bucket”), but locals eat with their hands. They say it makes the food taste better. I’ve tried it before, carefully watching the technique of an old woman at the table next to me. Push some curry into a pile of rice, then smoosh it all together, over and over again, like you’re kneading a tiny ball of dough with your finger tips, then scoop it into your hand and smash it into your mouth. It’s hard! This isn’t sticky rice, and it’s being further loosened by the curry, so the transfer from fingers to mouth is a sloppy affair. I felt embarrassed on my first attempts but, looking around, realized that even the locals make a mess of it. (I don’t know about tasting better, but it is kind of fun).

We’ve got about eighteen days left in Sri Lanka, which means I’ll be enjoying about thirty-six more plates of rice and curry. I won’t pretend to be overjoyed by the prospect, but it could be worse. At any rate — and I don’t know if this is an unintended benefit of eschewing meat, or a consequence of switching to a rice-based diet — both Juergen and I are dropping pounds like bulimic crack addicts. “The Rice and Curry Diet”… sounds like a best-seller!

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April 13, 2012 at 6:58 am Comment (1)

Bow to King Coconut

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Coconut Products

In every city, town or village of Sri Lanka, and alongside country roads, you’ll find stands hawking golden coconuts. These are thambili, or King Coconuts, and we’ve made it a habit to grab one every day.

CocoNut Girl

The seller takes a machete and starts hacking away at the coconut, until a small opening can be carved from the top. You drink the sweet water found inside, usually with a straw, though I prefer chugging it straight from the shell. It’s delicious, especially on a hot day, and has incredible health properties better than any energy drink.

Jürgen loves researching the health benefits of whatever food he’s consuming, and hasn’t shut up about coconuts for weeks. I’ll ask him (as though I forgot) what the beneficial properties of coconuts are.

[His eyes just lit up! I’ll have to type quick] “It totally re-hydrates you, so it’s good against diarrhea, and has loads of protein and carbohydrates. Supplies tons of energy, good against hangovers, and it has tons of antioxidants! Ummm… Vitamin E! I think that’s it.” Nothing else? “The diarrhea thing is pretty good. Ah, also against aging, and purifying blood. Wait, why are you typing? Is this a quiz?!”

Coconut water really is one of the healthiest things you can drink, and since you can watch the coconut be split open, it’s guaranteed safe and clean — even better than possibly contaminated bottled water. Some are sweeter than others, which I think depends on the age of the coconut, and they’re more refreshing when they’ve been cooled, or resting in the shade. Once you’re done, the seller will usually split the coconut in half, and carve a spoon-shaped piece from the shell which you can use to scrape the sweet, white flesh from the inside.

I look forward to our coconut break every day. Maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks, but I do feel instantly refreshed and energized after chugging one down. In fact, I think I’m going to stop typing and go find a coconut right now.

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March 29, 2012 at 10:43 am Comment (1)

Sri Lankan Cuisine: Hoppers

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Sri Lankan Hoppers Recipe Here

Hoppers, or appa in Sinhala, are one of Sri Lanka’s most popular snacks, available at nearly every shop across the country for breakfast or dinner. They’re good for a quick bite, and their preparation makes for fun spectating.

Sri Lankan Hoppers

A thin layer of batter, containing coconut milk and a bit of toddy, is fried up in a bowl-shaped pan. This is the basic hopper, and it’s best eaten fresh. Because of the wok-shape, the batter at the bottom of the hopper is thicker and softer, and the edges turn crispy brown. Plain hoppers are served with spices or curry, as they’re a bit bland by themselves. Better, in my opinion, are egg hoppers — an egg is opened into the hopper and cooked along with it. Hoppers can also be made with sweet ingredients like jaggery, which is a sugar from the date palm tree.

String hoppers (or indiapa) are another popular Sri Lankan snack, which actually have very little to do with regular hoppers. Rice flour is mixed with water and salt, and then forced through a press to make long noodles. These are formed into balls and steamed until ready. String hoppers are a popular breakfast, and again served with curry. They’re not my favorite, because of the pale, wormy appearance, but Jürgen can’t get enough of them.

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Egg Hoppers
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March 10, 2012 at 10:54 am Comments (0)

The Mackwoods-Labookelie Tea Estate

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On the road back from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy, we made a short detour to the Mackwoods-Labookelie Tea Estate. This storied business was started by the British Captain William Mackwood in 1841, and today owns an incredible amount of land to the city’s north. On the bus into Nuwara Eliya, it seemed that every field for at least ten miles had a big “Mackwoods-Labookelie” sign stuck in the middle of it.

Macwoods Tea

At the estate, we joined a free tour of the tea-making process, from picking the correct leaves to rolling, drying and sifting them. It was fairly interesting and the factory itself smelled amazing. I had no idea that tea bushes could be cultivated every five days, nor that the entire manufacturing process takes no longer than 24 hours. Our tour was done in about ten minutes, and afterwards we sat down at a table in Mackwoods’ café and enjoyed some of the finished product.

I’ve never been much of a tea-drinker, but have been warming to the practice since arriving in Sri Lanka. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that my suddenly-aristocratic mannerisms and the faux-British accent I use while sipping tea are obnoxious. Sometimes, I’m a right bloody wanker!

Mackwoods Fine Tea – Website
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March 5, 2012 at 1:15 pm Comments (5)

After One Month in Sri Lanka

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Our first month in Sri Lanka is already done?! It seems just yesterday that we were taking our first tuk tuk ride through Colombo’s busy streets. But when I think about all the things we’ve seen and done, it’s amazing that we’ve only been here a month. Sri Lanka is the kind of place where amazing experiences come fast and furious. Here are our impressions of life in Sri Lanka, after one month.

Most Memorable

Mike: The baby elephant approached and then held its trunk towards me. He squeezed my hand, then pulled me close to his body, apparently wanting a hug. I was happy to comply, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.

Jürgen: Waking up the first morning in Kandy and our house being surrounded by over 30 monkeys. I was in heaven.
Favorite Food

Mike: Sri Lanka so far hasn’t offered a lot of culinary variety, but I don’t ever see myself getting sick of kottu: a piece of roti bread, chopped up and mixed together with spices, vegetables, egg and meat. Best eaten with the hand, of course!

Jürgen: I also would say kottu but you can’t beat the fresh juice of a king coconut. Delicious, and better than any energy drink. And you can eat the coconut flesh, afterwards.
Most Surprising

Mike: I had read that only 10% of the population here speaks English, so imagine my surprise (and relief) to discover that the number is much, much higher. It may not always be fluent, but the great majority of people we’ve met speak enough to carry on a conversation.

Jürgen: How friendly people are here, and how much attention I draw. At times I feel like a superstar. People are genuinely curious and they always want to know where you’re from, and where you’re going.
Most Disappointing

Mike: The unending touts. You can’t go two minutes without some other schemer trying to trick you out of your money. It’s all very easy to see through, so it’s not like we’re in constant danger of being fooled, but their tenacity and frequency are unbearable. And it makes you sometimes react with frustration towards normal Sri Lankans who perhaps really do just want to chat.

Jürgen: Sri Lanka’s touristic offerings are really not geared toward the solo traveler. The whole infrastructure is set up to wring money out of giant tour groups on buses. We’d love for our site to help change that!
Funniest / Weirdest

Mike: Everyone we walk past has a comment. Usually, it’s just “Bye!” (which they often use in place of “Hello”), or “Buddy!”, but sometimes the comments are stranger. “Money!” is a favorite among kids (who’ve learned from their government what foreigners are good for). “Can have you phone number?” I was asked the other day, completely randomly, by two girls. And of course, the constant “What is your country?” I’ve been getting progressively more surreal. “Denmark”, “Brazil” and “Japan” are just some of the places I’ve claimed to hail from. (The worrying thing is that these answers are always accepted without question).

Jürgen: This tout in Kandy, he calls himself The Professor. He’s got about three teeth. We walked past him every day, but he always forgot our faces and tried the same scheme over and over. “Today, there’s a special Kandyan Dance! Come with me, I get you seats!” Still, I kind of miss him and wonder how he’s doing.
How Expensive? From 1 (cheap) to 10 (expensive)

Mike: Impossible to judge with one number. 3 for normal life — eating like locals do, taking the bus, all very cheap. But 8 for anything tourism-related — shockingly expensive parks and inflated fees for foreigners; expensive restaurants marketed towards westerners, etc. Advice: live like a local! I guess it averages to a “5”.

Jürgen: I’m shocked how expensive the attractions are for foreigners. These are making a huge dent in our budget for Sri Lanka. Accommodation is over the top as well. But everything else is very cheap. So I give it a 6.
People from Sri Lanka are…

Mike: … always up for a chat. Very open, and willing to have their photos taken. And everyone always seems to have a smile on their face.

Jürgen: … friendly, happy, helpful and curious.
Sri Lanka in Three Words

Mike: Monkeys, Elephants, Cobras

Jürgen: Adventurous, Surprising, Buddhist

Our opinions of Sri Lanka would evolve over the next couple months. We became more comfortable with the heat and local way of life, but also more frustrated with the pushy behavior of touts, and wearied by the food. But one thing remained certain throughout: these three months were among the most exciting of our lives!

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March 3, 2012 at 10:59 am Comments (5)

A Great View at Kandy’s Hotel Casamara

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Guesthouses in Kandy

Kandy is surrounded by mountains and steep hills, so it’s no surprise that there are a number of places from which to gain commanding views over the city. The Bahirawakanda Buddha is one of the most obvious. The viewpoint on Rajapihilla Mawatha (location) offers an unbeatable perspective over the lake and the Temple of the Tooth behind it. The Slightly Chilled Lounge on Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha (location) serves up great Asian food and sports another excellent view from the east. But for us, the best lookout over the city is right downtown at the Hotel Casamara.

The Casamara doesn’t look like much from the outside but is the tallest building in its immediate vicinity and makes good use of its height with a top-floor bar. The view of Kandy is different from here, less romantic and more lively, because you’re in the middle of the city. Though the tuk-tuk-clogged chaos of the streets can be stressful when you’re down in it, it provides endless entertainment from above.

This was our favorite spot in town for a drink, and it’s largely ignored by both locals and tourists. We were almost always the only people inside. So if you’re in the mood to relax, and look down on the street life of Kandy like a haughty god, check out the Hotel Casamara.

Location on our Map
Views from Hotel Casamara

Hotel Casamara
Kandy Panorama
Kandy Blog
Kandy Secrets
Lonely Church in Kandy
Moped Kandy
Moped Mess

Another fun viewpoint, discovered while we were lost during our final days in Kandy, is at the Panorama Resort high up on a hill, on the eastern side of the city. You don’t actually have a view of the city here, but of the verdant valley to Kandy’s northeast. It’s a great place for a drink — I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more generous gin & tonic — and the view is amazing.

Location on our Map
Views from the Panorama Resport

Hill Country Sri Lanka
Panorama Resort Kandy
Night in Kandy
Night Dagoba
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February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm Comment (1)

Arrack – The Discerning Sri Lankan’s Beverage of Choice

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Sri Lanka Spices

In Sri Lanka, liquor and even beer aren’t normally sold in supermarkets. You have to find a “Wine Store”, as they’re generally called, and join a long queue of thirsty locals. During my first experience in this line of shame, at a dingy shed behind the grocery store in Kandy, I watched in amazement as the twenty-odd guys in front of me all ordered the exact same thing. Arrack.


Arrack is far and away the most popular liquor in Sri Lanka. A sign at the window clearly stated that only ten bottles could be sold to an individual. Well, then! The clerk even kept boxes of it next to him, so he didn’t have to stand up to fetch orders, which were always the same. When it was my turn at the counter, I followed suit and all the way home was in a giddy state of anticipatory bliss. A new sort of liquor! What would it taste like?!

Turns out, arrack tastes great. Mostly like rum, a little like whiskey, but then also not like either of those. The liquor is produced from coconuts; specifically, from the sap of unopened coconut flowers. Every morning at dawn, toddy tappers climb onto palm trees around Sri Lanka’s coastlines to harvest the flower — every tree can provide up to two liters per day.

The collected sap immediately ferments into toddy, which is mildly alcoholic. Within hours after harvesting, the toddy is brought to collection centers for distillation, a process which takes about 24 hours. During maturation, which can last up to twelve years, the liquor is flavored with herbs. Arrack is billed as the world’s “only naturally fermented alcoholic beverage“, which obviously means that it’s totally healthy, and I’m allowed to drink as much as I want. Shut up, Jürgen, that’s what it means. I said shut up.

Arrack goes down easy, both straight and mixed. While in Kandy, it become something of a ritual of ours to sit out on the balcony with a drink during sunset. I’m a master mixologist, and after finding a half-empty bottle of ginger beer in our fridge, I invented the following drink, which I’ve named in honor of my hero.

Arrack Obama
Ginger Beer

Sit back and enjoy!

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February 22, 2012 at 6:26 am Comments (8)
Tap that Toddy We had seen toddy tappers at work a few times, high up in the palm trees around Jaffna and Trincomalee, collecting the liquid of coconut flowers into plastic jugs. The toddy can later can be distilled into arrack, but is one of the country's favorite drinks even in its unprocessed state. And for nearly three months, we had traveled throughout Sri Lanka without ever trying it. We were being derelict!
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