There are street food sellers on Nuwara Eliya’s main street. If one is to walk outside the market, where the porticoed sidewalk shrinks to the width of a catflap, he’d see how a food cart has been parked in the resulting awning of the street, sheltered by the building from the endless maelstrom of traffic that chokes the town.
Street food was, at that point, my biggest chagrin about Sri Lanka. Truth be told, I must admit that thing mustn’t have been that bad if that was my only misgiving about the country, but I was starting to develop a bit of a despondency towards the spongy samosas and soggy pakoras that seemed to be the only snacks on sale on the country’s roadside stalls, both so spicy to render my mouth anaesthetically insensible to all other tastes for a period up to a hour.
I’d noticed this stall at least twice by the time I’d stopped to give it the chance to redeem the nation’s hawkers. The samosas were fresh, cooked in a metal cauldron emanating a spicy ziff that managed to permeate the air, momentarily drowning the smell of over-ripe meat coming from a couple of market stalls away. A queue of locals was another positive sign for quality, I reasoned as I lined up to make my deal. Fifty rupees, 25 pence, changed hands and a toasty package ended up in my palm.
I moved away a few paces and tried the purchase. The samosa was hot and fresh but, yet again, a bit of a letdown. A roaring dragon of chillies erupted out of the tame-looking vegetable filling, covering all possible tastes – potatoes, peas, even the cooking oil – in a thunder of read heat. It doesn’t happen often to be thinking at somewhere in London as someplace where food is better than it is abroad, but for the umpteenth time in this trip I found myself reminiscing fondly of the hole-in-the-wall shop in Hounslow, a few blocks from Heathrow airport, and of its Southern Indian samosas.
Days later, as I rummage through my backpack, a ruffled square of paper ends up in my hand. It’s the samosa wrapper. Unlike previously it’s not a leaflet ripped from a newspaper, smudging me – and the food – with ink. It’s, instead, a page from a child’s notebook, carefully ripped and scrupulously glued into a creaking sachet, still stained by the oil of its former content. In a corner are a label,“Richard”, and the space for a teacher’s mark.
I remember having dumped the wrapper, for there were no bins around and now, as I try to smoothen it out with the palm of my hands, I’m glad I didn’t. Both sides are decorated with sentences, scrupulously numerated, penned in the flourishing – and for me unintelligible – Sinhalese alphabet. At the bottom, like marginalia in a medieval codex, the unknown kid beautifully added two drawings. A turtle and a bicycle, with ribbons hanging down the handlebar.
I clean my newfound treasure the best I can and then fold it neatly in my trousers’ pocket. Days later, as I sit on the plane heading home, I’ll be reaching for something in the same pocket and, yet again, my fingers would find the half-forgotten wrapper. Yet again I’d be spending a long minute holding it in my hands, thinking fondly of the country whose street food might be a tad disappointing, but which came with such humble, yet fascinating, wrappers.