Amaravathi is a non-vegetarian South Indian restaurant located on a narrow street off the Galle road, serving great thosas, thalis and one of the country’s best biriyanis.
While Sri Lanka has more than its pick of Chinese and North Indian dining options, our mid to upper range South Indian is somewhat underrepresented. Amaravathi is one of those rare South Indian eateries focusing on Madras and Andhra style cuisine – even rarer in its small field for serving non-veg. The menu contains almost everything you’d expect from a Chennai kitchen without the baffling array of a Saravanaa Bhavan outlet (South India’s McDonalds): idli, dosa, oothapam, rasam. And while they do touch on the naans and masalaed paneers – venturing further North than Hydrabad isn’t advised. Stick to the country’s Southern belly of spices and curries – it’s what they do best.
Colombo’s Best Biriyani?
Biriyani has become something of a sham and a shame on the island. While almost every rice wielding establishment promises a version of the Mughal masterpiece, rarely is the much-loved dish presented with anything close to authenticity. You get alarmingly over-fried orange chicken plonked on bright yellow beds of rice – essentially some turmeric heavy grains and mangled meat parading as the ghee laced, stocky dish (note – the brighter the biriyani, the blander the flavour).
And while we haven’t tasted every biriyani in the city, nor have we dipped into that vast underbelly of aunties churning out sawans, Amaravathi’s mutton biriyani (Rs. 590 – good for sharing between two) stands out as one of Colombo’s finest. Their rice is a paleish brown, deeply simmered in a heavy chicken stock and infused with mint, caramelised onions, cinnamom, cardamom, the works. You get the feeling it’s actually taken its hue from the surrounding stock and spices, not indiscriminate tablespoons of turmeric or colouring – the flavours really soak into the grains and give it that distinct savoury ‘biriyani’ taste. Large hunks of tender, ghee-seared mutton are stirred through and a shining boiled egg is placed before serving in a steel bowl. Honestly, this is better than my grandmother’s – but I’ll deny it if you ever tell her. The rice is moist and delicate, the mutton is rich and it’s accompanied by a thick gravy (better without) and a cool, minty raita (better with).
One of the hallmarks of an enduring food are the quibbles that ensue over its etymology. Bombay duck. Dolphin kottu. Chicken 65. Rumour has it that a young hotelier once christened the dish to denote the 65 chillis that went in to every kilo, while others say that it was the final opus of a chef who’d travelled the world, mastering 65 cuisines. Wherever the name comes from – most likely the back of a menu – the chicken 65 at Amaravathi (Rs. 490) is more than worth the long paragraphs it took to get here. Accompanied quite simply with circles of fresh red onion, the crispy batter coats a soft, tender meat, heavily infused with a heady whirl of curried spices. And do I dare blaspheme…this is better than most Sri Lankan devilled chicken. There, I said it.
Amaravathi has perfected one of Tamilnadu’s most seminal dishes. In a way, these curiously named chunks of deep fried chicken are Chennai’s only gift to the world – well, apart from Kolaveri Di. A thick paste of ginger is mixed in with a scarlet chilli powder, cumin and pepper to form the marinade that the hunks of meat are seeped in before being coated with cornflour and tossed into a sizzling pot of oil. The secrets of the marinade vary from restaurant to kallu shack (toddy ‘bars’) to restaurant – so you’ll never quite eat the same chicken twice.
Try A Thali
The thalis – referred to in India as ‘meals’ – are also beautiful and well worth a try; they’re tasty, good value for money and are a true taste of the South. Amaravathi’s costs Rs. 490 and are generally good – but not advised if you’re of more carnivorous inclinations. Served on an enormous steel tray – usually lined with a fragrant banana leaf – a necklace of colourful curries curves around the silver platter: thayir sadam (curd rice), rasam, dahl, kurma and so on, served with a light, crispy pappadam and chapathi or rice (or both if you wish). Sides are usually replenished at request.
Amaravathi is great – but not at everything. Their gulab jamun is quite horrifying and the kadai paneer is mediocre at best – a typical curry house concoction of the oily and the unremarkable. For a satisfying meal, stick to the South. Order a chicken 65 to begin, a mutton biriyani to follow and perhaps a masala tea or filter coffee to wash it all down.