Sri Lanka: the crab capital, plus our first Lankan meal of eating delicious, CHEAP crab at Mayura Hotel in Colombo

I wasn’t quite aware of this when I was young, but looking back, I recognize now that I lived a very delicious and privileged foodie childhood. When we would have family dinners out several times a year with my cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandma, inevitably, we’d always eat at a family favorite Cantonese Chinese restaurant, and there would always, always be crab or lobster on the table. Most of the time when this was ordered, it would be fried or sautéed Cantonese style in ginger and scallion or with garlic, but regardless, the seafood was always extremely fresh, sweet, and sumptuous. It’s funny to think that I actually ate crab more regularly as a growing child than I do now as an adult. Then, I didn’t have to think about paying for it (the glories of being a child and not having to worry about paying for anything because an adult would always take care of the bill), and I had no concept then of things that were “cheap” or “expensive” to buy and eat. Plus for a short time as a younger child, my mom did the generous deed of shelling all the lobster and crab for me. When I got to a certain age, she (reasonably) insisted I had to do it myself, which I did most of the time unless I was too lazy to shell it and would just skip it altogether (the audacity to turn down crab!!).

Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to eat crab and lobster, whether it’s different varieties, different preparations, and in different countries (and, well, pay for it with my own money, for better or worse, ha). Sri Lanka is known for many things: pristine beaches, its lush, green landscape and incredible biodiversity, Ceylon tea, cinnamon, hoppers, curry, and CRAB. So I knew when we finally came, we needed to have crab in at least one meal, if not more ideally.

We arrived yesterday afternoon in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, on a short flight from Kochi. After we arrived at the hotel and settled in, we took a quick Uber ride to our first stop: Mayura Hotel. So, this isn’t what it sounds like, as it’s common in Lanka to call restaurants “hotels.” Mayura Hotel is a very local restaurant in the Pettah neighborhood of Colombo. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall with just a handful of tables (yeah, we definitely weren’t going to bother even trying to ask for a high chair here!). They serve one thing and one thing only: rice and curry, with your choice of omelet, chicken, fish, prawn, mutton, or crab to come with it. The prices range from 450 LKR to 1700 LKR. Surprisingly, the crab wasn’t even the most expensive option at 1700 LKR – that was the mutton meal! So for 1450 LKR, or about $4.65 USD, you could get a full crab and curry meal here! WHAT A STEAL!

When you are seated at Mayura, a friendly old man comes and lays a large banana leaf in front of each diner while asking which meal option you’d like. We opted for the fish meal and (duh) the crab meal. Once he’s collected the order, he comes back with several small pots, one at a time, and a big ladle. Then, he ladles different components onto your banana leaf: first, the rice, then two types of vegetable curry (that day, I think they were a mix of green beans, potato, pumpkin, and okra), and finally a thick, creamy, Lankan style dal called parippu. And as the main part of your lunch meal, he brings over a fried fish and a metal plate with a medium sized, deep red color crab on top, with a small metal bowl of curry. The curry that is served with the crab is called jaffna curry: Jaffna is the capital city of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, and is also famous for its curry of the same name. The curry mix consists of red chili, coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric, fenugreek, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, curry leaves, and (what really makes it different than Indian curries) pandan! The curry was really addictive: Chris said that he actually enjoyed this curry more than the crab itself! He didn’t want to bother with cracking the crab himself, especially since a) he doesn’t like cracking crab and b) he was holding Kaia for most of our meal here, so he insisted I eat the majority of the crab because I love it so much. He doesn’t love crab as much as I do. What a good, thoughtful husband.

We’d already eaten a number of delicious meals while in Kerala, but this meal was truly delicious in every sense of the word and an amazing first meal in Sri Lanka. Every component of this meal was scrumptious, from the two vegetable curries, each with a different and tasty, complex sauce, to the parippu (so creamy and rich, and different than the average Indian style dal!) to the crab and fish. The little fried fish we got was really meaty, with a nice crisp skin that Kaia loved and ate a lot of. As for the crab – wow. While the legs were quite a lot of work and didn’t yield too much meat, the really meaty part was the base of the body. Crab can be very frustrating: you have to crack (with your teeth here – no crackers at this place!), then pick at them for what feels like forever in order to get, at times what seems like, a tiny smidgen of food to eat. But when I finally started peeling and attacking the body of the crab, that’s when I realized where all the good stuff was. While all the manual labor involved will likely not yield the mountain of crab meat I may think I deserve, this crab was worth the effort: soft, silky, very sweet, and a little spicy. With shellfish, I like to do all the work up front so that I can enjoy all my rewards at the end. So when I finally got a big mouthfuls’ worth of crab meat, I dunked it into the Jaffna curry and put it in my mouth: it was like an explosion of flavors that made all that tough work seem okay in the end. I know I’ll be thinking about this meal for a very, very long time after this trip has ended.

And oddly, I even incurred some injuries during the cracking and de-shelling of this crab: one cut finger tip, plus a tiny crab splinter in my thumb! Neither has ever happened to me before when eating any type of crustacean, but I suppose you can’t always have pleasure without a little pain…

We got there just in time to eat our meal before they started wrapping up, as they close at 3:30 every day. The place was packed, mostly with what seemed like local office workers in the area, as well as some small families. The service was extremely friendly, and they have a sink at the back for you to wash your hands (thankful for this, as it was much, much needed after all that shelling!). The pictures we took of this place and the food we had here just do not do it justice. And I’m still in slight shock that we were able to have this incredible crab meal for less than $5 USD.

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