COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — If you don’t have a doting parent, devoted spouse or a dutiful domestic at home, chances are you will spend most weekday afternoons in a bit of a bind. Often, the weather here is too sweltering to wander around the dispersed neighborhoods in search of affordable restaurants, and with 20% tax or more at most outlets, this quickly becomes a costly affair. So one winds up with fast-food take-away. And if, like me, you come from Singapore, where a hawker center filled with cheap and tasty options is a basic right, lunch hour in Colombo can seem difficult — until you discover the “bath” packet.
The Sri Lankan “bath” packet, which translates to rice packet, is the island’s answer to the Japanese bento box. These paper-wrapped rice and curry meals are available from kades on the corners, road-side sellers with a styrofoam box, and lately online as well. These savvy cooks know that what every working stiff wants is a good lunch.
We rounded up six of these packets, from the cheapest in town to the healthy alternatives and everything in between. Here are the messy and squashed-up packets of lunch as we got them:
1. 60 rupees packet – Costing a very wallet-friendly 46 U.S. cents (1 Sri Lankan rupee equals 0.0076 USD at the moment), this particular packet can be found at a kade off Inner Flower Road among some of the most expensive real estate in the city. In it, a very generous serving of rice is served with fresh dal and three vegetables – including a green and leafy South Asian keerai called kathurumurunga. Spend a little more and you can also get a piece of chicken or fish.
2. 100 rupees packet – The most commonly available incarnation, this packet is the staple diet of legions of office workers and students. Often sold out by noon, it is best to pick one up on one’s way into work. Pictured here is a lunch packet from a roadside vendor on the pavement opposite Colombo University. It delivers real value for money with a distinct, sweet and spicy mango curry, a nutty chicken curry, lightly sautéed spicy carrots and again a dollop of creamy dal.
3. Biryani packet – This packet comes from Raheema’s, a much revered biryani institution. Think of these 340 rupees as the dressed-up version of the humble lunch packet. Here, a delicate saffron and cashew rice is served with a cinnamon and clove infused gravy (not pictured) a succulent chunk of chicken thigh, a boiled egg and an acharu (sweet vegetable pickle).
4. Lamprais packet – This is Burgher (Sri Lankan Eurasian) heritage in a tightly folded banana leaf packet. The lamprais is a classic Sri Lankan meal although truly authentic versions are becoming hard to find as the Burgher community dwindles as a result of emigration and assimilation. This 450 rupees packet comes from the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) and is a delicious, subtly spiced mix of mixed meat curry (pork, beef, chicken and mutton), beef meat balls, belachan (shrimp paste), aubergine relish, seeni-sambol (sweet onion relish) and small grain rice.
5. The Healthy Alternative– The healthier alternative for the waist-line-conscious middle class. At 250 rupees, this packet from Healthy Living is delivered conveniently to the office and offers a healthier portion of Sri Lankan wholegrain red rice, a healthy cut of chicken, the “super-food” gotukola (also known as centella, beloved locally for its range of purported health benefits from treating eczema to soothing the mind), carrots and okra. While the packet featured less oil and fat than usual, generous doses of health enhancing spices – turmeric, asafoetida, cloves and cumin – make it tasty.
6. The Crab Packet– Epitomizing lunch packet gentrification is this Facebook kade, Achcharu Kade. For 500 rupees they deliver a beautiful rich and savory crab curry made with fresh blue swimmer crabs marinated overnight in an 18-spice blend and perfectly paired with the creamy, comforting flavors of the Sinhalese classic kiri-bath (rice cooked in coconut milk) served with a side of lunu-miris – a fiery chili, lime and onion relish.
Surekha Ahgir Yadav is a Singaporean writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.