Jaffna, Sri Lanka: Experiencing the sights, smells and Tamil food in Sri Lanka

It's the smells I remember most from Dave's place: the powerful aromas of curry leaves and mustard seeds, of turmeric and chilli powder, scents that seemed to have soaked into the walls of that house. Dave's mum always had something bubbling away on the stove when we came over, a lamb curry stewing, a rich masala coming together.

We'd never experienced anything like it. This was central Queensland, circa 1994. My mum's specialty was macaroni cheese. My friend Perky's mum still packed him chocolate Yogos in his lunchbox. We'd push our chilli tolerance by ordering Zinger burgers at KFC.

So we were fascinated by Mrs Manopavan's Tamil food – jealous, in fact. But we were also scared. Like, what even is this? It smelled so spicy and exotic. Far too spicy and exotic for us. It would take years before I was actually brave enough to give it a try.

Dave and his family came to Gladstone in the mid-1990s, when we were high school age. The Manopavans looked different to almost everyone in that town. They sounded different. Gladstone wasn't exactly a hotbed of cultural diversity.

They arrived from Brisbane, but before that Dave and his family had fled from Sri Lanka, refugees from the bitter civil war that was tearing the north of the country apart. They were lucky to escape. At school Dave told us stories of hiding under tables when he was a kid, watching petrified as men with guns ran through his house.

That's a difficult thing to picture when you're a young Australian. I'd seen snippets about the war on the news, something about tigers, but my version of reality was so far removed from those scenes. Everyone's in Gladstone was.

So Dave fit in by pretty much just becoming a Queenslander. He played football. He got an undercut. He listened to Silverchair. He adapted. Still, there were always those delicious aromas at his house to remind us of where he came from: a place at war, a fascinating place, a place none of us were every likely to visit.

That is, until now. I'm in a car, racing along a quiet highway. It's baking hot outside; the air-conditioning is cranked up high. The dense population of southern Sri Lanka around us has been slowly thinning out, the houses giving way to jungle, the jungle giving way to flat, barren earth. Now there's nothing around at all. It's a no-man's-land that has lasted an hour. Soon, we'll arrive in the north.

This is Tamil Sri Lanka, the top of this teardrop-shaped island that has been blighted by war, and off-limits to travellers for so long. The conflict ended in 2009, and it's only now the area is opening up. The old train line has been replaced, the highways have been upgraded, the hotels are reopening.


My driver-guide for this journey is Sujit, an ethnic Sinhalese from the country's south, a man who is clearly uncomfortable entering this territory. All day, since we left Colombo, he's been grumbling about the roads, about the infrastructure, about the lack of wisdom I'm showing in insisting we come all the way up here when the south is so much better. After all, Sujit keeps telling me, the Tamils aren't even from this country. "They came from India, sir," he says.

He's right, the Tamils did come from India – about 2600 years ago. Some put it at 3000 years. Or longer. Regardless, they're here, and they're now at peace. Though, I'm to find, civil wars don't just go away.

"You see that sir?" Sujit says, pointing across the highway. "The Tamil Tigers did that. Blew up the water tower so that nobody could have water." He shakes his head, sighs quietly.

Lying by the side of the road, the hulking carcass of a concrete water tower looks like an uprooted tree, with its foundations waving in the air. It was bombed, I later find out, by the retreating Tamil Tigers towards the end of the war. It's been left there as a memorial.

Memories, I discover, are still fresh here. Wounds are still open. You have to remember that the people you're talking to have been through war, recently.

That water tower, however, is also a sign that we're now in the north. I pull out my phone and send Dave a quick message: "I'm in almost in Jaffna!"

His reply pings back: "Nice machan," he says, using the Tamil slang for "mate". "Hope you have an awesome time. Don't forget the kothu roti!"

I reassure him: kothu roti is high on my list. See, since those early days in Gladstone I've come to learn a lot more about Sri Lankan Tamil food. I've been to Toongabbie in Sydney to sample the good stuff. I know enough about the cuisine to realise it's going to be a highlight.

In fact, it's my first port of call. Sujit drops me at my hotel – the surprisingly upmarket Jetwing Jaffna – mumbles something about meeting me in the morning, and takes his leave. I immediately hit the streets and find myself in a sultry coastal town, a laid-back place of 90,000 inhabitants, a city with a torn history of Dutch colonial rule and deep internal conflict. The traffic is light today, punctuated by the zip of rickshaws and motorbikes. Women wear saris. Groups of men smile and call out welcomes.

It's a funny thing. When Dave arrived in Australia there must have been this huge disconnect between the experiences he'd lived and the people he was hanging out with. Now though, there would be a similar divide between the Dave I know and his old home. I can't picture him living here. I can't imagine him as one of the people nodding their head at me on the street.

First stop in Jaffna: Hotel Rolex. It's not a hotel at all, but a restaurant. It's pretty basic too, with lime-green walls and formica-topped communal tables. The stare factor from other diners is high. They still don't get many tourists in this place.

I order, at Dave's suggestion, a kothu roti, the classic Sri Lankan stomach-filler. It's a stir-fry of lamb, egg, vegetables and chopped roti, mixed with a rich curry sauce. Several sets of eyes settle themselves on me as I prepare to eat. The dish is delicious, spicy and complex, so I smile, and a whole lot of people smile back.

Jaffna's good like that. Tourists are a sign that the city is getting back on its feet. People are happy to see visitors, they want to make sure they have a good time. And they want you to eat well.

Kothu roti, however, is not the food Mrs Manopavan was cooking all those years ago. It's delicious, but it's not strictly Tamil cuisine. My journey into the food of this region has only just begun.

And the truth is that food is the main reason to come to Jaffna, other than nostalgia or curiosity. Scarred as it is by war, the area has little in the way of traditional attractions. Sujit and I spend a morning touring those sites – the Nagadeepa Purana Buddhist temple, which legend has it was visited by the Buddha himself; Jaffna Fort, which is fairly dilapidated and, Sujit assures me, "nothing compared to Galle in the south sir"; and Jaffna Public Library, a magnificent structure that has been rebuilt since the war – but we've exhausted most of them by lunchtime.

Once again, Sujit sets me free. Jaffna's streets are busy this afternoon. Groups of soldiers drive by in green jeeps. Rickshaws painted with slogans – "Don't think too much," one says; "I can and I will, watch me," reads another – putter by. People stare and smile.

I call past Rio Ice Cream, famous here, for something cold and sweet. I stop in at the hotel, Jetwing, for a lunch of Jaffna-style dosas laced with turmeric, served with coconut sambal. I grab a few "short eats", the Sri Lankan deep-fried snacks. And soon it's time for dinner.

Tonight I'm eating Jaffna's most famous dish: crab curry. It's the exact thing Dave's mum would have been cooking all those years ago, a classic of the region, and the aromas in Cosy Restaurant take me straight back to that old Gladstone house, so far away on my journey, and so far away on Dave's.

In Jaffna, sand crabs are cooked in a deep red curry sauce, a heady blend of black pepper, mustard seeds, turmeric, cumin and more. They're eaten with your hands too, so I sit there alone at Cosy, tearing at succulent, sweet crabs, scooping up handfuls of gravy and rice, loving every second of it, unable to believe that crab and sauce could taste this good. The waiters smile. I smile back.

Dave has returned to Jaffna once since the war ended. He's seen his family here, seen his former home. He says he loved it, but he doesn't want to move back, which is fair enough. People change, they move on. Places change. And maybe Dave's mum's crab curry is just as good as this. I'd like to find out.

The writer travelled as a guest of GetAbout Asia.






Singapore Airlines flies from major Australian ports to Colombo, via Singapore. See www.singaporeair.com 


GetAbout Asia's customisable 12-night "Sri Lanka Explorer" tour includes two nights in Jaffna, as well as many other highlights of the north. Tours start from $2215 per person, and include accommodation in four-star hotels, all meals, transport, a private guide, and entry into all itinerary attractions. See www.getaboutasia.com for more.