Underrated, unappreciated, unexpectedly delicious and affordable – even in these inflationary times. Colonial era institutions lost their grandeur to the shabbiness of crony socialism long before I came around. Yet I can’t recall ever encountering bad food.
Rest-houses were a fixtures my childhood’s many “outstation” trips. An attempt by my parent’s generation to re-live the road trips of their university glory days and photograph some invisible animal in the jungle. Base camp would invariably be a rest-house. A place to crawl back to from the afternoon heat for a late lunch.
A place I looked forward reaching after a morning of being stuffed and jostled around in a family friend’s jeep. Its not that I was a delicate type – just bored. All I saw were trees, trees, trees, the occasional dishevelled peacock, and more trees. There were the elephants of course. Always elephants and they looked the same. I felt we were rudely violating their peace and quiet with cameras and loud whispers. Only as an adult (after exile in cold grey places) have I realised the exoticness of these experiences.
Lunch is the unspoken “big meal” at most Sri Lankan rest houses. At Hambantota rest house lunch was served later than expected. For the very reasonably sounding reason that the fishing boats hadn’t come in yet. I have a fuzzy memory of watching (through a borrowed binoculars) the cook scamper down to the beach and returning with a few hefty fish. Carried by the kitchen boys of course. Lunch would be announced a few billion minutes later. During that interminable wait, us kids were warned against “ruining” our appetite by bingeing on snacks.
Rest-house lunches boils down to two words : rice and curry. Delivered with munition grade spiciness. Fried Chillies are served for those who wanted their ulcers sooner than later.
The presentation is never about winning Michelin stars but you end up eating more expected. In the old days, us offspring were expected to drink warm fizzy drinks in in-lieu of the un-boiled water that was available.
Hambantota rest house is the only one I remember that had a signature dish. Breaded fish “Steaks” – unburdened by anything else. Perhaps a bottle tomato sauce fresh from the fridge. I may be a plant eater now but that fish stole the show. What set it apart was not the taste as much as a sensation of freshness.
At the old Katharagama rest house I feasted one of the most delicious vegetarian meals in my life. Hit the road feeling stuffed yet happy. That was 4 years ago and I can still taste it. My father was so thrilled by it that he personally thanked the cook.
Kurunagla rest-house is perhaps the gloomiest I have seen and will clearly loose points on the decor. Yet their service for two vegetarians who didn’t even want fish was touchingly sweet. A lot of homely fussing about. The rice and curry was naturally very good. Chutney, extra Papadum and other off the menu items were produced so us veggies were not “deprived”.
I’ve always found such a insistence of service rather impressive about rest houses. There seems to be an earnest desire to ensure that the customer is well looked after. Even with the very limited resources at hand. Saw the same thing at the old Negambo rest-house – a place long past its glory days.
More recent times, there’s the lunch at the Tangalle rest house I have blogged about. Another pleasant find is the Dambulla rest house. Thrifty spousal unit insisted on sneaking in to one of Dambulla’s posh hotels to use the toilet before we sneaked back to the rest house for a great rice and curry feed. All for the price of a rum and coke at Kandalama.
Dinner at rest houses used to be a dull affair. Boiled vegetable interpretations of British/English cooking. One of colonialism’s unhealed wounds. Thankfully with a quiet word to the cook something simple and sensible could be substituted. Typically string hoppers and Sambol. Accompanied by Kirihodi with boiled eggs lurking in yummy pale yellow curry like sleepy hippos.
Rest house deserts are generally fruit-salad or curd and syrup (served in a gravy boat like gadget). Lately ice-cream has entered the picture. After all that rice and curry you’ll be lucky to have room for any of it.
I have also been through Anuradapura and Polonaruwa rest-houses. But I’m close to the time budget on this post so its time to wrap things up.
I have heard that the people who run the Galleface Hotel have got into the business of running rest houses. Supposedly this would mean upgraded facilities though I dread it would also mean boutique hotel bills. I’m not sure if that is a good trade off. Sadly escapades out of town haven’t happened of late to find out. What have your rest house experiences been of late?