Sri Lanka is a very backwards country. For the last few months a nationalist, in fact somewhat fascist Buddhist association (in old Ceylon Buddhist fascism isn’t a contradiction) has been fermenting ethnic unrest by protesting against the prevalence of Halal food in local supermarkets. Holding, at times, violent demonstrations to defend the stomachs of the country’s dominant 70% Buddhists from food endorsed by a Muslim council seems like a poor use of time. Especially for people who should be more concerned with spreading nonviolence and renunciation, but more important than their basic spiritual fallacy the Bodu Bala Sena have missed a far greater threat to our nations identity than Halal food. A deep and grievous threat to our sacrosanct national heritage - the Singaporeans are stealing kottu.
That’s right, our national street-food is now available on the streets of Singapore - the self proclaimed food capital of South East Asian (contemptuous smirk). Rebranded as Kottu Pratha, one of their cunning natives must have observed our marvelous delicacy on a little trading excursion to Colombo and scuttled back to their snot sized island with our idea. Now halal food is one thing but this is an outrage. Kottu is sacred to Sri Lankans of all religions – and whatever South Indians might say everyone knows it was invented in Batticaloa back in the 70’s.
This really isn’t a joke. It’s a matter of national branding - Thailand has padthai, Malaysia’s got nasi lemak, Singapore has its laksa and chicken rice (stolen from Malaysia of course). Even their iconic Singapore Chilli crab is made with proud Lankan crabs. Miserable little thieves, they’ve been getting away with it for too long and now they are trying to take Kottu. They must be stopped.
When I first spotted signs advertising kottu pratha in Singapore I was so appalled I refused to dignify this bit of intellectual property theft by ordering it. Still on my most recent visit I noticed that even more , usually Indian hawker/ hole in the wall kades are offering Kottu. Clearly this is a growing menace so I decided it was time for YAMU to do a little investigative journalism and find out if these jumped up Singaporeans really do have any chance of impersonating the taste of a superior island.
I was informed that Sakuntala’s a street level eatery in little India was Singapore’s kottu king-pin their Pilawoos, scoff. So gathering a pool of Sri Lankan tasters and one real Singaporean we headed off to deliver a scathing review of what would surely be the most appalling, overpriced and misguided attempt at a kottu ever.
Shakuntala's is a fairly unassuming hole in the wall but this is Singapore so even the holes in the wall are spotless, frigidly air conditioned and feature waiters in stain-free! Uniforms. Pilawoos Vs Shakuntalas? Hah. This wasn’t even going to be a contest I mean if the place is this clean they obviously don’t spend enough time on the food. Still, as we had already taken our seats we thought we’d sample their pathetic offerings… just for a laugh.
So moondu kottu pratha, one fish, one chicken, one mutton. Singaporean kottu places are generally Hindu owned –so no beef. Cold, brightly lit with extraneous LCD TV screens Shakuntalas is a world away from old Hotel De Plaza
and the Hotel De New Pilawoos
. But amid the unfamiliar cleanliness, and strangely attentive service we heard a familiar sound – the Colombo kettle drum - that steel on steel kottu music. So they got something right, it did sound like kottu.
Nah, scoffed one sceptical Lankan – it’s probably a recorded sound track.
Seconds later our dishes appeared. Daintily presented, about half the size of the real thing, with coleslaw and curry sauce in a little cup this gentrified kottu offering looked rather ridiculous. What happened to that plastic bag of curry sauce you have to tear open with your teeth? And coleslaw- absurd.
The review was going exactly as planned - until we took a bite. Shock, horror. It was good. Very good. The mutton (goat meat) was well spiced, served in generous sinew-free hunks and pretty excellent. They use prata aka roti canai which is similar but softer than our local godamba roti as a base which makes for a lighter meal and there were clear, fresh flavours- a touch of fenugreek in the curry powder, – vegetables with the requisite bit of texture and crunch. All chopped to a perfect, fine but not pulpy consistency.
This was a pretty horrific result - the Singaporeans have not only stolen our idea they seem to know how to execute it. I mean it wasn’t an amazing kottu – there was a lack of chili and lemon sharpness also a delicacy that doesn’t capture the greasy-glory of a prime Colombo-kottu. They dont seem to haven learned to incorporate cheese- so they aren’t quite there but they are close. And this really is a dangerous thing.
Singapore, which not long ago (historically speaking) saw Colombo as a model left us in the development dust in the 70’s. They took our place as the beacon of South/South East Asian progress and now we can’t possibly let them take our street food icon. To remain kings of kottu we need to raise our game- raise kottu standards and creativity. It’s time to introduce chocolate kottu, kottu biryani, pizza kottu – and slather more cheese on everything.
But let’s be honest, upgrading or improving in the face of competition isn’t the Lankan way. So lets get back to basics and rather than getting better ourselves lets stop them in their tracks. It’s time for the bodu bala sena to demonstrate in front of the Singporean embassy or, failing that, Bread Talk. Our currently Geneva bound teams of government funded lawyers should be sent to the relevant (probably French) certification authorities and register kottu as an inalienable trade mark of mother Lanka- an appelation orgine controlee like champagne, or iberico ham.
What ever the solution this is a cause worth fighting for and its time that all Sri Lankans Singalese Muslim, Tamil, Hindu Buddhist, Catholic etc band together and rally against this hateful foreign foe. (even though their kottu is good) For those traitors who wish to try it, it its costs $10 about Rs. 1000 and can be found at 151 Dunlop Street)