An old travel guide once said that Sri Lankan food, while not ranking amongst the great cuisines of the world, was tasty, if a little hot; sentiments that I broadly agree with.
Now, pampered soul that I am (ie typical Sri Lankan male), cannot cook; but I do fancy myself as an armchair critic. My critical mind was thus deeply concerned when I thought I detected a deterioration in my mother's cooking.
I was trying to figure out why and I noticed that the deterioration coincided with the arrival of some new Pyrex cooking pots; ones that could be taken off the fire and put straight on the table. Once finished with, they could be put into the fridge with no further ado. An enormous saving in labour compared to the traditional clay "chatty" pot. Unfortunately the convenience comes at a cost; somehow the clay pot enhances the flavour of the cooking, something the Pyrex cannot do.
The second revelation came when I visited a friend's estate and the servants cooked us a simple meal in the traditional way. The first mouthful made me realise that there was a distinct smoky taste to the food; something that enhanced the experience immensely. The smoky taste is imparted by the wood fire, used for cooking. I believe this is also a factor, apart from appealing to our primaeval subconscious; open fire under starlit skies; of a good barbeque.
Therefore, the secret to really good local food is to have it cooked in a clay pot, on a wood fire. I ventured to make these helpful suggestions for improvement to my mother but was sent packing, in short order.
After a further visit to my friend's estate and examining the stove in the blackened walls of the kitchen, I realised the difficulty with wood fires. Lighting them is problematic and, once lit, controlling the flame to ensure steady cooking is also quite tricky, thus not possible unless one has good staff to help. The soot in the kitchen and the messiness of washing the clay pot (it does not scrub easily and needs to be soaked) means that it is no longer viable for small households in the city.
Nevertheless, I think this is the type of food that should be attempted when on holiday. Estate bungalows are generally equipped for this type of cooking although many have switched to gas for convenience but it is worthwhile, when making arrangements to see if the 'appu' can be persuaded to cook a few things the old-fashioned way. Perhaps this is something that smaller hotels could also consider offering clients, to distinguish themselves from the mass. Simple traditional food, cooked in the traditional way, with fresh local ingredients should be a good selling point.
The many domestic goddesses who used to inhabit the blogosphere will no doubt relish the opportunity to break out grandma's cooking implements, so let me know the results, or better still, invite me over to taste the food? I'm sure my advice warrants it.