Keeping It Local: Firi Rahman | Verve Magazine
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April 22, 2020

Keeping It Local: Firi Rahman

Text by Firi Rahman. Illustrations by Karan Mhatre

Sri Lankan artist Firi Rahman’s insider guide to Colombo’s eclectic food scene…

What makes up your staple diet?
The staple food in nearly every home in Sri Lanka is rice and curry, which is prepared and seasoned with an array of different spices, herbs and coconut milk, for flavour. But in my home, we also eat pasta and tuna a lot, as these are easy to prepare.

Are there certain ingredients or dishes that are your go-tos?
I love cooked vegetables and shrimp, with home-made watalappan (a pudding or custard made from jaggery, coconut milk, cardamom, eggs and nutmeg) for dessert. I also love to have fresh greens, keera (cucumber) or some chutney as a side. I really like Gihan’s Artisan Mango Chutney. It was gifted to me by a friend and has now become a must-have add-on to all my meals.

Do you have a favourite memory of eating out while you were growing up?
I always enjoyed going to Galle Face Green — an ocean-side urban park in central Colombo — for isso wade (prawn cake), steamed chickpeas with grated coconut and mutton rolls at Hotel Nippon. I can still find all of these foods around my area.

What is a popular restaurant for good halal food?
Most restaurants in Colombo serve halal food, but I prefer eating at a small mess called Ibrahim Eating House located in Maradana, Colombo 10, where they serve Beruwala food. The rice and curries are laid out on a table and you can eat as much as you like and only pay a fixed amount for one serving. You only have to buy the chicken, fish or beef separately. They have my personal favourite, kidu (rice cooked in ghee and spices) packed in a pouch made of woven palm leaves. This is similar to lamprais (a packet of lumped rice) but is served in a bigger portion with different curries.

Where do you go to break your fast during Ramzan?
Ramzan is traditionally the time for fasting, but it is also the month for feasting because we tend to eat more after breaking the fast. After prayers, we generally ride around Colombo and head to the Hulftsdorp area to try everything we can. For Eid, we normally have pot biryani or dum biryani that comes in a large pot so that six people can have it in a sawan (a large, often silver, plate) together.

Do you have a preference for work-related get togethers?
My regular meetings happen at The Kafé, Hotel Nippon, Barefoot Garden Café, Black Cat Café , Kiku or Café Kumbuk. Nippon is our hotspot for project-related meetings, and we enjoy their Kerala filter coffee with polos (green jackfruit) or mutton rolls. And the ambience at all the others is also perfect for indulging in deep conversations while appreciating the beauty of their urban gardens and environmentally-conscious establishments.

Where would one find the best hoppers (appas)?
Green Cabin on Galle Road is a long-time favourite place for some nice egg hoppers, and their old school patio is the best space to chill. I also like milk hoppers, which are available as a snack. You can easily find a spot to try them out at Hulftsdorp, where they also have pani appa, which is basically jaggery syrup on hoppers — you can say they are made to be served in heaven!

And the best kottu (chopped roti traditionally mixed with vegetables, egg and/or meat and flavoured with spices)?
Hotel de Pilawoos and Hotel de Plaza are popular for their kottu. I have different preferences in different shops. For example, I love the cheese kottu from Pilawoos but I like the masala dolphin at Hotel de Plaza (dolphin is similar to a regular kottu, but the size of the roti is bigger, as it is not chopped). I like going to Ricorn Hotel & Bakers located in Maradana for a normal spicy inexpensive kottu and New Iqbal Hotel for some palandi kottu, which is made with buffalo milk curd and chicken.

If you had to give visitors a well-rounded sense of the local cuisine, where would you take them?
I would choose to skip the fancier restaurants and take them somewhere local, perhaps to a kiosk near my home to try some food that is new to them — most often it would be for traditional Malay foods like cheenaku also known as kithul kali (lava-cake shaped sweets that have a smooth jelly-like texture and a creamy coconut-milk undertone, and are served with freshly grated coconut). I would take them for a walk around the city and grab some local snacks like manyong (cassava chips), pasthol (a deep fried savoury with the essence of coconut and a spicy beef-babath sambol [tripe] filling) and have them with ginger chai. I would also take them for pittu (also known as puttu, a steamed cylinder of ground rice) with the Sri Lankan Malay babath curry as dinner, for a change.

Have you found a place where the decor speaks to your artistic sensibilities?
I would nominate The Gallery Café on Paradise Road for its iconic Geoffrey Bawa architecture and its beautiful art gallery with Udayshanth Fernando’s personal antique collection. I love their tropical modernist vibe and the locally-sourced souvenirs that are available within the space. And Kiku is great for Japanese minimalism and bright indoor space.

Which venue would you recommend for the music?
Very popular amongst the locals for its good music is Barefoot Garden Café. It is one of the few places where you can listen to quality jazz sung by local artistes in a relaxed setting.

Can you recall a particularly unconventional or a unique dining experience?
I once joined a zero-waste community dinner organised at Kiku. It was a limited slot where you sat with very random people in a long table set-up. We shared dishes prepared by the chef and ended up with zero wastage. The concept of the dinner was also to share your food with the community if you were unable to finish the food. It’s a great way to just be more responsible with your food waste.

What do you suggest if someone is in the mood to eat out alone?
They should go to The Gallery Café for mocha cheesecake — it is too good to share!

Where would you stop for a very quick breakfast?
Choon Pan is my favourite old school food cart that roams around different parts of Colombo with colourful breads and pastries. It’s very convenient to grab something when you have no time to make your own breakfast. Lavariya (a grated coconut and jaggery syrup filling in a string hopper) is too sweet to eat early in the morning, but it is something home-made, and you can only find it along the residential areas in Slave Island or Hulftsdorp.

3×3 Granola is a great option for those stuck for time in the mornings; they deliver a batch of delicious and healthy home-made granola right to your doorstep, and that’s enough to keep you going for a couple of weeks.

Which is a popular spot for a post-party meal?
Galle Road is always the option for late-night eating. Hotel de Pilawoos and Hotel de Plaza are open late for last-minute kottu with iced milo. Fazly’s Halal Refreshment, located just close to my home, is another choice for burger lovers. They’ve got varieties of burgers to enjoy from their rooftop facing heritage de Soysa building.

What about for seafood?
Ministry of Crab at the Old Dutch Hospital is popular for seafood, but I have not been there yet. The Colombo Swimming Club is the place for hot butter cuttlefish and mocktails (I couldn’t suggest anything alcoholic because I don’t consume) to enjoy the sunset. Sugar Beach in Mt Lavinia beach is such a nice beachfront restaurant with a delicious crab curry with coconut sambol and kade roast paan (bread).

Is there a specific area to get good street food?
Hulfdorp and Galle Face Green are the hot spots for street food. Hulftsdorp is full of places that offer chicken grills, kottu, burgers, and dishes ranging from porridge to biryanis. Mr. Biryani on Abdul Hameed Street has got some nice biryani, nasi goreng and Mongolian rice to treat yourself with masala goodness. And Nana’s stalls along the Galle Face Beach are crowded and loud, but they are situated in an open space. So, the smoke and smell of grilled chicken is bound to grab your attention and invite you to try it, either chukka or minced, with naan.

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