Colombo’s six best kottu roti

Saturday, 21 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Let’s talk kottu. (Koththu? Kotthu? I’ll call it Kottu. No one seems too picky about English spelling here anyway.) Right off the top I’m going to come clean and admit that I’m a white guy from Texas. (That was difficult to do during the Bush years, by the way.) You may ask yourself what kind of authority some foreign dude is on a national treasure like Kottu Roti? And you’d be right, of course. (I sure as hell would be asking the same question, if some Sri Lankan were rating BBQ brisket and enchiladas back home.) But I am a “foodie” for lack of a better term. My expertise might be limited, but my taste is not. And I’m pretty passionate about seeking out regional street food across the globe. There seems to be a whole culture surrounding Kottu consumption, and as there are very little resources available on the matter, it’s a tough nut to crack. But I’m into it. So maybe my status as an outsider can provide some clarity as I try to break it down. When I got here two years ago I quickly recognised Kottu as a Sri Lankan soul food. A food that seems to have been conceived for consumption after an evening of drinking beer is an idea I can embrace. Relish even. What are nachos, after all? And because of where I come from it really appeals to my idea of what we call “comfort food”.   Where do you get the best Kottu? So where do you get the best Kottu? Send me there. Well, because opinions vary so much, its availability is in such abundance, and there are unspoken rules to its culture – this can be a difficult question from which to glean an answer. Some like cheesy. Some require fire. Some insist mutton or beef need to be at the party. It took me a good year before I started cracking the surface of this quandary and could begin to lay a framework I could follow for myself. (My stomach took a beating.) I should also give some considerable credit to on outlining the Zeitgeist for me a little and serving as my Rosetta Stone to point me in the right directions. It’s not all that complicated really. But, for instance, if someone gives you the name of their favourite Kottu place, you can’t show up there at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday and expect to get the good stuff. (Not at the places that matter, at least.) Timing is key. No one mentioned that. Traditionally, the “hotels” selling Kottu are making it in the evening out of the leftover roti they’ve been making and selling all day. Go too early and you may get it made with yesterday’s roti. (Not to mention, you’re also likely to get it made by some 12 year-old who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I had to learn this lesson the hard way.) On the other hand, if you go too late, you may miss the best portions of meat and get what is known as the “odd bits”. These, as my friend points out, can be salty, crunchy, and delicious, but, nevertheless, you’re not getting their “A” game. No. I believe, the best Kottu can only be gotten between 7-11 p.m. (Some argue this window is smaller.) Now this also assumes your only obtaining it from a certain kind of venue – which leads me to the next sub-category on Kottu – the “where”. The aforementioned Zeitgeist, here, seems to believe that the best Kottu can only be obtained from what I’ll describe as somewhat dodgy, divey Muslim establishments. And I couldn’t agree more. (I don’t, by the way, use the words “dodgy” and “divey” pejoratively – they can be badges of honour from a culinary perspective.) This is where I’ve had the best stuff. So, for our purposes here, I’m not going to talk about any of the newer, fancier kottu – homogenised dishes you can get at all hours at a comfortable table with a variety disassociated ingredients and a latte. These just haven’t made as big as an impression on me. (Though, chances are, they’d treat me better the morning after.) Now there’s other aspects of the experience to talk about: the musical chop-chopping of the knives when you’re five lions in and three sheets to the wind; the iced Milo that traditionally accompanies the Kottu (for which I’ve never developed a taste and prefer, rather, to move on to that sixth Lion); or the curb-side service in your car (which has never seemed quite right in the back of a three-wheeler, for me). But I’m going to move on to the venues and the Kottu itself. Now there’s a sea of Kottu out there, but here are my favourite (in no particular order) judged on chicken cheese.     Hotel de New Pilawoos, Galle Road and Daisy Villa Avenue, Colombo 4 Ask a roomful of people what’s their favourite Kottu (and I have), and you’re likely to get this answer a lot. Pilawoos is good. Real good. There’s many of them out there, and consensus says they’re not all the same, but this one seems the best. Some describe the cheese as “carbonara”-like. My wife calls it Thanksgiving-in-a-box, if you can jive with an American reference. It’s cheesy, creamy throughout with big chunks of onion and pepper that really complement the crispy fried chicken. The heat comes from the capsicum with a dominant flavour of black pepper. The creamiest by far, this is lushy goodness. This certainly sets the bar for Sri Lankan comfort food in my book.       Seven-Eleven, 169A Galle Road, Colombo 3 At least the name offers some clarity and instruction (though, I’m sure, it’s “borrowed” from the popular chain of American convenience stores). From a flavour perspective, this Kottu is probably the most unique. Perhaps because Seven-Eleven also dabbles in Chinese food it tastes in its spices very Chinese.  Veg heavy, with big, fat, fluffy pieces of roti, the cheese takes the background in this one, making it a little drier than the others and less about the sauce. The spring onions, I imagine, make it a greener experience with the heat coming from the red chilli flakes.       Hotel de Plaza, St. Anthony’s Road and Galle Road, Colombo 3 This one might be my favourite. It’s certainly the boldest and most hearty. Plaza’s Kottu has a fine consistent chop that seems to integrate all the different, disparate flavours into the whole better that the others. Though not bleeding with it (something I’m not opposed to), the cheese is ample and holds the whole affair together. There’s a warm biting fire that comes equally from the red and green chilies with small tender chucks of meat. But the warmness comes as much from the spices as it does the chillies. It has a prevailing curry flavour with hints of cinnamon I don’t think I noticed in the others. Their beef and cheese is also wonderful. Deliciousness.     Raheema, 44 Thurstan Road, Colombo 3 I include Raheema and Rahumania, because they seem so historically significant, and also because their offerings demand inclusion on any list dealing with Muslim Sri Lankan soul food. Their Kottu Rotis are also almost comically different from any of the other dozens I’ve tried. Raheema’s is so deconstructed, if feels like it could be the first incarnation of Kottu ever. The huge pieces of pepper and onion are accompanied chunks of roti bigger than anywhere I’ve seen. If modern cheese Kottu is compared to carbonara, this is like a Sicilian red sauce – so heavy with tomatoes and chunks of veggies my friend thought looked like a Chinese sweet and sour. The most endearing thing about Raheema’s Kottu is how they incorporate the cheese. Or, rather, don’t. The wedges of Happy Cow cheese are thrown in whole, almost as an afterthought, as if they were daring you to mix them in yourself. “Go ahead, eat this with cheese if that’s the way you want it. You’re doing it wrong.” Spicy and aggressive with deliciously juicy chicken, this is a manly Kottu.     Rahumania, CWW Kannangara Mawatha, Colombo 7 Rahumania does away with the cheese mockery altogether. They won’t use it at all. Here it’s either chicken or egg. And much like the cheese at Raheema, the chicken is thrown in as a huge whole piece at the end. That being said, it must be noted that this was the best chicken I had in my search – something that both Raheema and Rahumania get exceptionally right. Crispy, well spiced and seasoned while remaining very juicy. And what this Kottu lacks in cheese it well makes up for in garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I got a whole clove in one of my first bites. Perhaps Rahumania feels like the next stage of Kottu evolution after Raheema. Not quite as brusk, but as fiery as it is garlicky. I’ll touch one final time on the historic atmosphere of these two places. They really feel like old culinary institutions – I guess because they are. This is where you can picture your parents and grandparents eating Kottu.     Rauff Nana, Galle Face Green, Colombo 3 I originally thought my impulse to revisit Rauff’s was simply nostalgic. It was the first place I ate in Sri Lanka fresh off the plane at the Galle Face Hotel, still disoriented and blinded by jetlag. But trying it again and comparing to these others really reinforced its greatness in my mind. It sits high atop my list of favourites. No other Kottu I’ve tried is as alive with fresh flavour. It has an almost Thai-like freshness to it with an appealing smokiness that seems wholly unique. It’s not the cheesiest, but it may be the spiciest with its heat coming heavy from the red chillies. It’s got a soft texture with a good even chop. Perhaps it’s just my nostalgia, but as I watched them make it, peeling the meat from the bone, it occurred to me that this is a Kottu made with special care. It tastes like it too. (Trekurious together with DailyFT explores Sri Lanka for the curious traveller. Trekurious works with talented individuals and great brands to create amazing experiential tours, activities, and events in Sri Lanka. You can find out more at