What is your good name, madam?" asks the handsome man in a white sarong at the front desk. With this lovely turn of phrase I'm welcomed back to Sri Lanka, the land of my heritage.
I've been sent here by my mother "for inspiration". I'm about to open a hopper restaurant in Sydney, Lankan Filling Station, in its first permanent home after a year of pop-ups and market appearances. The lease has been signed on a narrow shopfront in East Sydney and my mum, born in Colombo of Burgher heritage, has declared that it's about time I made a return visit. Who am I to argue with my mother? So here I am, hunting hoppers, pounding spices and grating coconut.
I start at the centre of the island, at the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. The World Heritage site is famous for its gallery of 1,500-year-old frescos, but I've come for the mango curry. My friends Dinasheka and Wageesha Kumara run a low-key eco-lodge called Kumbura a few kilometres south of the fortress. Beyond the cities, much of the best food is found in homes and in small guesthouses and lodges like Kumbura. Dinasheka, an excellent cook, whisks me into her kitchen for an afternoon session.
Her mango curry is unlike any I've tasted. We quarter and score the fruit, leaving the skin on, and lacing the cheeks heavily with a black curry powder of roasted sweet spices, black pepper and a splendidly excessive amount of powdered chilli. It's cooked with jaggery until it's thick and sticky – the perfect balance of hot, rich and sour.
The next day we pull up at a roadside stall on Sigiriya Road, by the two-mile post near the village of Kimbissa, which is reputed to serve the best hoppers in the area. At Wood Fired Hoppers, Wene Ratna makes her dough daily at noon, mixing rice flour, a pinch of sugar and salt, and some of the previous day's hopper batter. Ratna leaves her batter to ferment for three hours, then thins it with water and coconut milk and ladles the mix into a thachchi, a small, wok-like pan, and cooks it gently over fire on top of a traditional mud and dung oven. Her hoppers, plain or with an egg cracked in the middle, are teamed with a fiery katta sambol of pounded onion, chilli, Maldivian dried fish and lime juice. I stand next to her in her tiny kitchen as she pours her hoppers, and I eat them "hot-hot" from the pan. They're textbook examples: thin, crisp crêpes, a little sour, with a hint of chewiness, and finely latticed sides.
The hopper is a Sri Lankan staple. Ratna makes it look easy, but hoppers are fiddly to make, despite requiring only a handful of ingredients, and hard to perfect. I've continued my quest for the perfect hopper during each trip I've made to the island over the years, and I've discovered a fascinating diversity of methods, recipes and techniques. Traditionally, the rice is pounded by hand, though most recipes and many versions now use pre-ground flour or rice that's soaked in water overnight, strained and then ground using a kitchen blender. The magic ingredient is toddy, the sweet sap of the coconut palm, which ferments quickly and gives hoppers their distinctive sour flavour. Toddy tappers across the island climb palms every morning to gather this leavener for hoppers (and the liquor for a potent moonshine and the more refined arrack, the island's popular distilled spirit). A similar leavening effect for hoppers can be achieved with baker's yeast or yesterday's batter.
The trickiest step in the process is judging the fermentation time – between three hours and two days (the latter being our method at Lankan Filling Station). Like all ferments, a number of factors affect hopper batter: the type of rice flour, the grind and, most noticeably, heat and humidity. Usually hopper batter is left to ferment overnight and cooked for breakfast, or mixed at lunchtime for the evening meal, and hoppers are widely available from roadside stalls. They don't keep their shape for long, prompting occasional wild rumours that some dastardly makers sprinkle plaster of Paris in the batter to create stiffer sides.
At another roadside stall on the way to Colombo we buy clay pots of buffalo curd, another distinctive taste of Sri Lanka. This pot-set yoghurt is thicker than the Greek style, sour and rich from the high fat content of buffalo milk. It's traditionally served as a dessert or breakfast dish with a drizzle of kithul pani, a honey-like syrup made from the sap of the kithul palm.
By the time we arrive in Colombo I'm ready for a Negroni, best enjoyed with a bowl of manioca chips at the seafront Galle Face Hotel, a fabulous pile built in 1864. The city is hot, noisy and vibrant, and changing quickly as international investment floods in nine years after the civil war ended. The port precinct in particular is dominated by cranes and construction as land is reclaimed to build a new financial centre. But sundowners on the terrace at the Galle Face are still served in an atmosphere of Old World gentility. So, too, is a meal at the Dutch Burgher Union, a club catering to Sri Lanka's Burgher community and serving fine examples of its cuisine. This small Eurasian ethnic group descends from mainly Dutch and Portuguese colonists who worked with the Dutch East India Company. Sri Lankan society is a tapestry woven from three cultures, and this has contributed to a tortured history as well as a diverse and fascinating mix at the table: Sinhalese food predominantly vegetable-based and what's commonly regarded as "traditional" Sri Lankan cuisine), Tamil (closely related to southern Indian food) and Burgher (richer fare, with Dutch and Portuguese influences).
We pop into the club's small VOC Café to order "short eats", or Lankan snacks. "Fish cutlets" arrive as balls of mackerel and potato seasoned with curry powder and curry leaves, crumbed and deep-fried with a subtle hit of chilli. Pan rolls are the Lankan response to the spring roll – more successful, I think, than the Australian version, the Chiko roll – and served here with minced beef heavily seasoned with curry powder and chilli, wrapped in a thin crêpe, crumbed and deep-fried.
But the star is the labour-intensive lamprais, a Burgher specialty of curry in a parcel. Each small packet comprises a base of rice cooked in ghee and meat broth and topped by a dollop each of meat curry, eggplant sambol, seeni sambol (sweet, spiced onion relish), blanchan, lime pickle and a couple of the Dutch meatballs called frikkadels, the entire ensemble wrapped in a banana leaf and baked. The composition rarely varies, though my nan's version featured fish cutlets instead of frikkadels.
My grandmother was an excellent cook of Burgher dishes although her heritage was Tamil, which might explain why my mother's favourite childhood drink was faluda. Believed to be Persian in origin, the faluda trickled into India and South East Asia. A lurid-pink mix of rose syrup, milk, ice-cream, basil seeds and vermicelli (usually made of semolina or sago), it's surprisingly delicious in the way that sweet Asian drinks can be. A particularly good version is served at Panaash, a Bombay-style sweet house in Colombo recommended by some local Muslim friends.
One night, after a few drinks at the rooftop Sky Lounge at The Kingsbury hotel, we head to the nearby suburb of Kollupitiya for the city's best late-night snacking. Among the most popular midnight meals is kottu, a mix of shredded godhamba roti (a delicate dough stretched thin like a Malaysian roti), vegetables, egg, sometimes meat and a curry sauce. All of these bits are flung onto a flat grill and tossed vigorously using an implement that resembles a pastry cutter. The technique makes a distinctive clacketty thukka-thukka sound that's music to my ears. Like all good street food, the kottu is subject to endless variations, some made with string hoppers (steamed rice-flour vermicelli crêpes, not to be confused with bowl-shaped hoppers), and one alarmingly named "dolphin kottu", which is, mercifully, made with chicken.
I never leave Colombo without a meal of crab curry, and I get my fix at Beach Wadiya, an unpromising low-slung building accessible by walking across railway tracks on the coastal road to Galle. The waterfront tables sit in the sand and Daya, a waiter here for 37 years, brings a plate of artfully arranged seafood garnished with a leaf of frilly lettuce and walks me through the choices. I already know what I want: a bowl of small lagoon crabs caught at Negombo in a traditional red curry sauce fragrant with cinnamon. The crabs are fried in onion, garlic, chilli and curry leaves, seasoned with a red spice powder and simmered in coconut milk. They're sweet, the sauce super-hot, and the sound of the ocean and occasional trains rolling past is unforgettable.
I usually spend the last couple of days of a Sri Lankan trip in the port where those little crabs originate. Negombo is about 40 kilometres north of Colombo's centre and close to the airport. It's one of the island's main fishing ports, with a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. I always stay at the beachfront house of an old family friend, Mary Ridgeon, and catch up with my friend Nimanthi Fernando, who has worked with the family since I was a teenager. Both the house and adjacent cottage can be rented by travellers. It's like staying in a family home. Dogs and children are running around and Nimanthi's mum, Padma, is in the kitchen. Her eggplant sambol, made with the island's tiny red onions, alongside pol roti, her light version of the traditional thick coconut pancake, is one of my favourite dishes.
If I'm lucky, she'll make one of her fine prawn curries, red and dry, or string hoppers with kiri hodi, a mild curry sauce flavoured with potato or egg, before I leave. When I finish a meal at her kitchen table, I'm already homesick before I say goodbye.
Lankan Filling Station (58 Riley St, East Sydney), serves a range of Sri Lankan "short eats" including pan roll and crab cutlets, along with hoppers and curries. lankanfillingstation.com.au