Karapincha is the essence of Sri Lanka.

A small leaf, a centimetre wide,

its ordinariness hides

a piquancy and a pungency

released in cooking.

Karapincha is the essence of Sri Lankan cooking,

and food is the essence of Sri Lanka.


Take parippu, gift of the gods:

lentils in English, the Indians call it dhal.

A bland word for a bland dish,

but Indians don’t know how to cook it.

Parippu is a boiling turmoil,

hard red lentils, coconut milk,

karapincha, a cinnamon quill,

a pinch of saffron, coriander crushed,

a fistful of chilli, and lemon grass,

toiling together in a bubbling broth.

The first time I made it,

after a lifetime eating it,

not questioning how it arrived on my plate

or appreciating labours my mother had made,

the first time I made it,

saw lentils shed their hard shells touched

by an unseen force transformed

into a fragrant mush I thought,

“this is alchemy.”

Base metal into gold just can’t compete.


Lamb curry, heavy with coconut cream.

Sit in a room with a simmering pot

you’ll find yourself wrapped up in spice,

transported away from cloudfilled skies

on a cinnamon breeze

to raucous blue seas

and an island home to sunshine smiles.


Pol sambol, coconut scraped combined

with chilli, red onion, juice of a lime.

You can make it as hot as you like,

light a furnace on your tongue,

make the sweat pour, make the tears run

or chilli sweet, a child’s delight.


String hoppers, vermicelli rice cakes

which twist and tangle and twirl and make

shapes that would make Escher’s headache,

as they fall in impossible heaps on your plate.



I have a childhood memory of a man,

standing barefoot, sarong round his waist,

agelines scored deep in his face.

On his peddlecart, balls of dough

which he flipflopped

and slipslapped

and stretched so thin,

you could see atoms caving in.

Then cooked to perfection on a metal grill

sticking out from the back of his restaurant on wheels,

heated by a gas canister strapped underneath

like a bomb on the wing of an F16.

Nowhere near as secure

and every bit as dangerous.


Tamils give us thosai and poriyal,

buriani from Muslims,

godamba from Malays,

lamprais from the Dutch,

temperadu from the Portuguese,

and as for the English? They gave us tea.


Leaf through the Ceylon Daily News Cookery Book,

price six hundred rupees, first published in 1929,

negotiate the joys of Sri Lankan English

and the injunctions laid upon housewives

to ‘achieve domestic felicity by feeding the brute’,

you’ll find recipes for curried Jak fruit,

snakegourd and wattalapam,

vadai, idly and rasam,

easter eggs and frikkadels,

gotukola, Chinese rolls,

Yorkshire pudding,


mango chutney and, my favourite,

invalid blancmange.


Because the story of the food of Sri Lanka

is the story of the people of Sri Lanka,

the story of the peoples of Sri Lanka.

And that’s what I love about this book.

The way the cookbook’s recipes jump

from lunu miris to Victoria sponge,

from poffertjes to malu pan,

from the cobblestones of old Amsterdam

to white villas snoozing in the Algarve sun,

from Chinese sailors, Malay soldiers,

Arab merchants, and tall Afghans,

from south east Asia to the northern hemisphere

it’s a reflection of how we all got here,

wherever here might be.



Aluth Avuruddha (New Year)


Bubbles of water boil to the surface, 

grains of rice flash in and out of sight;

across the country, at this very moment,

kiri bath, milk rice, is made.

Samba, sudhuru, kekulu hal,

red and white, husked and unhusked,

cups of rice are covered by water

measured out, not by the fluid ounce,

but up to the first joint of the index finger

or halfway up a thumb.

In paddy field huts, in city

penthouses, mothers and fathers

peer into pans or blackened clay chetties,

add a clove or two, perhaps a cardamom pod.

I add cinnamon – half an inch,

no more – the way my father

used to make it.

The clouds of vapour, starch-heavy

and rich, draw up memories of

mud-covered bullocks

dragging heavy ploughs

under a burning sun.

It’s time to add pol kiri, coconut milk,

stirring slowly to stop rice sticking to the pan.

Its sweetness will linger on

finger and tongue.

Kiri bath, the first meal of the year, is ready.

The new year begins.





Portello is the taste of sunshine


Portello is the taste of

long afternoons

in an open air pool

during summer holidays which didn’t seem to end


Portello is the taste of

freshly fried patties,

pastry crisp and crumbly,

devoured with the smell of chlorine still in your hair


Portello is my aunt,

round arms and round face,

who has a bottle of Portello in her fridge

within an hour of me landing at Katunayake Airport

remembering my craving from the last time,

and the time before that,

going back thirty years


Portello is the smell of varnished teak

which steals through her sunlit home,

a house in a Colombo suburb

which has more bathrooms

than our London house has bedrooms


Portello is avocados the size of melons

smiling down at me from the tree in her garden,

and passion-fruit flowers hanging off creepers,

fragile tendrils floating in a gentle breeze


Portello is the grin on my aunt’s old maid,

as she brings Portello on a silver tray.

She has seen me come and go since I was a child,

And even though she comes up to my chest

she still calls me Baba,


Portello is a parade of uncles and aunts,

who didn’t know me,

but enveloped me in unquestioning warmth,

indulged my childish whims,

fed me kavun, and kalu dodol and, kokis and, ice-cream,

because, when they were my age,

brats in short trousers,

they queued for school buses with my father,

or ran pigtailed with my mother,

and had their childhood whims indulged

by my grandparents

Aunts and uncles who know that, in time,

their grandchildren, my cousins’ children,

will look up at me,

wide-eyed and wondering,

why a middle-aged man they don’t know

is enveloping them,

and offering them more sweets

than they can eat


Portello is the taste of escape,

from the cold and the wet and the grey,

to skies of an unbelievable blue,

and a gentle heat that makes you want to stay


Portello is the taste of welcome


Portello is the taste of home


Galle Face Green


Galle Face Green is green again,

as green as the day it was first made,

raised on a terrace at the ocean's edge.

stone benches so close to breaking waves,

you inhale ocean spray with every breath.

Pampered like a favoured child, 

the lawn gleamed in the sun. A quarter mile 

of displaced longing, a European 

promenade built under Asian skies. 


Galle Face Green is green again.

For twenty years closed off, there but out of reach,

a reminder of times before the city was besieged

by bombers in lorries and suicide vests,

and checkpoints stretched 

down Galle Road like yellow dominoes, 

waiting to fall. 

Soldiers in flak-jackets replaced promenaders,

barricades against the threat from the sea.

Untendened, Galle Face became barren and brown,

green only in name and memory.

The terrorists never came this way.

The fences have gone.

Galle Face Green is green again.


The food stalls are back, but they've been coralled

caged like animals in a purpose-built shack.

Twenty years ago, they roamed free on the grass.

We stood in the open, warm rotis grasped 

in hungry hands. Children ran 

as families gathered at dusk,

to let sea air blow away 

the day's city dust.

The in-crowd dropped in, on their way out

Blue Elephant dances, then on to Pulawoos,

the food stalls at Galle Face drew everyone out.


The kites have returned,

flapping, flutterring, flashes of colour,

competing with seabirds in seabreeze dances;

it's a game they always lose.

Pelicans, perched on top of lamp-posts,

survey with equal disdain 

passing tuk-tuks and fathers of the nation,

preserved in bronze near Parliament steps,

ties and collars unfamiliar restraints

on over ambitious Asian necks.


Galle Face Green is green again.

Courting couples hide from prying eyes

and the fierce sun under giant umbrellas,

or climb down the steps the tsunami assailed. 

The risque couples paddle fully-clothed,

ankles and shins cautiously exposed,

laughing waves chase them back up the beach.

Children splash in warm ocean waters, 

kites flutter overhead

tourists snap pelicans on lamp-posts perches

and Galle Face Green is green again.



Seawall breeze


Seawall breeze carries seaweed and saltspray

from the rockpools below.  

Some nights, it’ll blast you clean off the wall, 

send wooden shutters clattering, pull at the roots 

of the araliya tree.  But not tonight.

A line of lights on the horizon, 

so far out, you can hardly see them. 

From this distance, they’re perfectly still.

A city out at sea. 

The lights illuminate fragments of ocean

surrounding fishermen in solitary boats.

They go out at dusk, and come back at dawn, 

those that come back. Wooden hulls ride 

the dark ocean swell, while families,

empty bellied, sleep in wooden huts.

Kerosene lamps, each one a tiny sun,

keep vigil on earth floors, beside dust-laden children.

The menfolk gamble the security of land 

for the promise of food.

Sometimes they lose.

Iridescent fish scales dance on the decks

of red-blue-yellow boats. 

They’ve already lost. 



A Beautiful Land


Tall palmyrahs punctuate the landscape

like exclamation marks,

and blue lagoons shimmer into the distance.

This is a beautiful land.


The cobram at Nallur Kandasamy 

steeples to the heavens,

multicoloured devas on every level.

This is a beautiful land.


Kirimalai glistens, while bathers mingle 

 with camouflage uniforms 

by the saltwater pool.

This is a beautiful land


A stone-pillared hall behind a barbed wire fence

shelters Shiva and Vishnu and Krishna and Murugan,

and the sun glints off silver statues

on university gates.

This is a beautiful land.


Schoolboys run with flags taller than they are,

while their schools give battle on the cricket field.

An Austin Cambridge gleams in the sunshine

unblemished, outside a house

pockmarked by war.

And there are cyclists everywhere,

from sari’d mothers to stick thin grandfathers,

because there are few cars.

This is a beautiful land.


Palali Air Base sits in isolation, alone.

There’s jungle where they used to be homes.

Army trucks scatter cyclists, and shatter the peace.

A thirty foot tree stands where someone’s living room used to be.

Gun emplacements sit on her back wall,

and on her sofas, soldiers;

kindly, but soldiers


this is a beautiful land.