Stacked high on sheets of newspaper, the large lagoon crabs challenged me. Having grown up vegetarian, and been one for well over 20 years, the fiddly process of cracking a crab’s shell to get to its sweet meat still made me a bit queasy. Not held back by any such apprehensions, my travel companions on this trip to Jaffna were making easy work of the crustaceans. Ultimately, the thought of being a bystander began to feel more tortuous than the thought of getting my fingers dirty, and I staked my claim to the Jaffna crab curry that had been delivered to our hotel room a few minutes earlier. Within a few moments, I was sniffling and smiling stupidly, all at the same time.

True to its formidable reputation, the signature curry of this town in the once embattled northern reaches of Sri Lanka was fiercely, numbingly spicy—it was as if the gauntlet had been thrown down to even the most dedicated heat-seekers amongst us. Smothered in a coating of roasted curry powder, with the brooding depth of cinnamon, fennel and black pepper, and the heat of red chilli powder, it was a dish that was astonishing in its brashness. But hidden within its scorching heat was the subtle, lingering sweetness of the spices that had gone into its making. Teary-eyed and still focused on teasing out the crabmeat with my fingers, I found myself thinking I had come a long way in one afternoon.

Before we embarked on our maiden visit to Jaffna, which had been largely cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka (and the world) for the greater part of a 26-year-long civil war that ended in 2009, I only had a foggy idea of what to expect. A few years earlier, on a trip to Australia, I had heard members of my husband’s extended family speak fondly—and not without a little sadness—about the Jaffna they had left behind decades ago. On the same trip, I had eaten home-cooked, Jaffna-style kanavai (cuttlefish) and lamb curry for the first time. However, the island nation and its troubled history still seemed too remote for me to pay real attention.

My curiosity about the place—and the cuisine—only began to build after I moved to Colombo in July 2014. The more I learnt about the country, the stronger my desire grew to visit the Tamil-dominated north that had become freely accessible to tourists only in the early part of 2014.

On my first trip, I was initially disappointed that our meals didn’t seem to be too different from what I would eat back home in Colombo. Our breakfasts included familiar dishes such as idiyappam, pittu (a dish of ground rice and coconut, steamed in bamboo cylinders, known as puttu in Kerala), and parippu curry (a thick, yellow dal that is a standard-issue part of Sri Lankan meals). But I did notice subtle differences: Everything we tried was a few notches hotter, and laced with the sweetness of saunf (aniseed), a spice that is notably absent from Sri Lankan cooking.

With a little persistence, that window into Jaffna’s flavours began to open wider.

At TILKO hotel, one of the more reputable establishments in a city that still has very few reliable options, we tried a dish that I had heard many family friends speak about nostalgically. A curious cross between kottu, the beloved Sri Lankan snack made of refined flour roti and meat or vegetables, chopped into bite-sized pieces on a griddle, and pittu, pittu kottu is a Jaffna creation. With the crumbly texture of rava upma, generously sprinkled with slivers of vegetables, meat or seafood, the dry, coconut-flecked dish is the perfect foil for richly flavoured curries.

Over time, I began to appreciate the innate balance of flavours in the cuisine, which offsets robust tastes with more understated ones. In pursuit of more crab curry on my second visit, I visited Lux Etoiles, a guest house that serves a curious mix of Jaffna specialities and pizza, both created by a Jaffna resident who trained to be a chef in France.

Mor milagai, or dried chillies marinated in spiced buttermilk, at the Jaffna market. Photo: Vidya Balachander
Mor milagai, or dried chillies marinated in spiced buttermilk, at the Jaffna market. Photo: Vidya Balachander

Situated on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, surrounded by the waters of the Bay of Bengal, Jaffna has access to a rich variety of seafood, which forms one of the cornerstones of the cuisine. Yet its arid climate and relative isolation—historically and geographically—from the bounties of the tropical island have meant that its unique food culture has been shaped as much by absences as abundance. Thulasi Muttulingam, a friend and fellow journalist in Jaffna, gave me a fascinating bit of information: Faced with a shortage of wheat flour during the war years, bakeries in Jaffna substituted it with rice flour, inadvertently creating a range of gluten-free products (they seem to have gone back to refined flour now, though). Sugar was also a prized commodity, so the city’s iconic ice-cream parlours began to use saccharine, a trend that has contributed to a subculture of luridly coloured, tooth-achingly sweet ice creams synonymous with Jaffna.

On the other hand, the palmyra tree that grows abundantly in the region also features prominently in the food. Every part of the tree is put to use: to make palmyra pulp (eaten as a snack), juice and flour.

The two principal products of Jaffna—seafood and palmyra—come together in a dish that is at once simple yet sophisticated: the seafood kool. A hearty dish that is almost rustic in its simplicity, kool derives its flavour from a mixture of seafood, including prawns, crab, cuttlefish and crayfish, that goes into a broth thickened with starchy palmyra flour, further flavoured with tamarind and murunga, or drumstick leaves.

Given the sheer number of ingredients involved, kool is generally made in large portions and served as a leisurely Sunday meal. Upon request, the TILKO staff had made a smaller quantity especially for our group.

I vividly remember the anticipation that swelled in me as I waited to have my first taste of the stew perfumed with black pepper. After a few mouthfuls, I began to savour its complex character: umami from the seafood (and shells, also tossed into the soup), slight bitterness from the murunga leaves, and a deeply comforting warmth from the palmyra flour. Like the best soups that fill you with a sense of well-being, kool created a hankering in me that persisted long after we had returned home.

When I began to feverishly seek it out in Colombo, I understood why this unpretentious dish had won me over. It was arguably the finest ambassador of a cuisine—and culture—that may have been shaped by circumstance, but remains utterly original at heart.

CURRY TRAIL

Where to get your ‘kool’

TILKO Jaffna City Hotel

Better known for its clean accommodation than its food offerings, TILKO is still a fairly reliable place in town to try specialities such as ‘pittu kottu’ and Jaffna-style rice-and-curry meals. Call in advance to order special dishes such as ‘kool’; a minimum order quantity may apply. (www.cityhoteljaffna.com; tel.+94-21-7200707).

Lux Etoiles

Although the prices charged at this guest house are high by Jaffna standards, the food too is of a high standard. Try the seafood, which is prepared in a variety of ways. Lux’s version of Jaffna crab curry enjoys a reputation for being among the spiciest in the city; the ‘maruthuva’ is milder. Call ahead to order (tel. +94-21-2223966).

Malayan Cafe

A small, historic cafe in the heart of the city, Malayan Cafe is a great place for vegetarian snacks such as crisp, golden-brown ‘medu vadais’ served hot, ‘dosas’ and string hoppers (tel. +94- 21-2222373)

A walk down the old-worldly main market in Jaffna is an excellent way to stock up on some regional specialities, such as palmyra flour, ‘mor milagai’ (or dried chillies marinated in spiced buttermilk), ‘nelli’ crush, a fruit cordial made of ‘amla’ (or Indian gooseberries), and dried fish flakes.

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